Visitors can now float past the notorious spot where allegedly a lantern, kicked over by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, set the town ablaze, a spot they will view from aboard an actual Chicago Fireboat.
Erich Totsch and Ray Novak skipper tourists aboard their authentic, restored fireboat on the Chicago River. But the native Chicagoans previously spent time traveling on ships a long way from Lake Michigan while serving at sea. Then they raised the capital to buy and restore their colorful, historic boat and create Chicago Fireboat Tours after finding their future in the U.S. Navy.
“My father and grandfather were in the Navy,” said Totsch, who grew up in the Windy City’s northwest suburbs. “I wanted adventure and to see the world. I hit 16 counties in the five-and-a-half-years I was in.”
Novak, raised on Chicago’s south side, like Totsch, began his Navy career in what has been dubbed “America’s Finest City.” “I was stationed in San Diego and went all over the world from Singapore to Hong Kong, to Malaysia and the Persian Gulf,” he said. “I worked on two different ships as a boiler tech down in the engine room where it was hot.”
Novak remembers a situation at sea during which things got heated.
“We were in the Persian Gulf and discovered a missile silo that was radar-locked onto our ship. The captain asked me to give him everything I had out of the boiler…and we watched on TV as we took out those silos.”
Novak could have stayed in San Diego but said he moved home to Chicago because he likes the change of seasons. He also likes being on the water – now without the threat of attack.
Totsch said he spent a lot of time in Japan during two western Pacific deployments as a sonar technician. “I was on a guided missile cruiser out of San Diego. I did two western Pacific deployments as a sonar technician. We were right off the coast of Pakistan when the 9-11 attacks happened,” he recalled. “It was an interesting switch from a peacetime deployment. The captain came on the ship’s announcing system and told us a terror attack happened. All of our port visits for the next few months were cancelled so we left Thailand in mid-September and our next stop on land wasn’t until India in December.”
Totsch insisted the situation was more tense for the families than it was for the sailors. “We were protected at sea. No one was going to mess with us because we could see anyone coming for hundreds of miles.”
There is some irony to the fact that both Totsch and Novak now work on a fireboat.
“We were firemen in the Navy, too,” said Novak. “When you’re at sea you have to have fire training because we had to be self-sustaining, so operating a fireboat was full-circle.”
Chicago Fireboat Tours
The bright red, antique, 90-foot, steel-hulled Fred A. Busse the veterans now operate and co-captain was in service from 1937 until 1981. The fireboat would have been very useful during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that killed 300 people and left a third of the city homeless when the flames even jumped the river to destroy over 3.3 square miles.
“She could get 10,000 gallons of water a minute up to 27 stories high from four different monitors. That covers a lot of the skyline. We take fire seriously here in the city,” said Totsch.
Passengers can now float past the notorious spot where allegedly a lantern, kicked over by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, set the town ablaze, a spot they will view from aboard an actual Chicago Fireboat.
Novak was at the helm on the day I rode and I stood beside him for a bit with an Old Style beer Totsch had poured me at the bar below the pilot house. “The ship was the first and largest diesel-powered fireboat in America and was built to get under all the bridges in a hurry without having to rise them. One of the fires she fought on the river she was on station for over 28 hours, which was a world record,” said Novak as he steered her through the locks, past Navy Pier, and out into Lake Michigan for a scenic view. “A big, heavy boat like her handles…majestically.”
“Edu-tainment” for All Ages
The Chicago Fireboat, were it not for the table seating in the stern and benches on the bow, feels like it could, if it were needed, still soak a searing skyscraper. I listened to the tour guide point out significant sites and gleaming buildings on the speaker as I perused the vintage photographs, memorabilia, equipment and fireman’s patches donated from across America.
While the Chicago Fireboat Tour is intriguing, it’s also family-friendly fun. “Being a firefighter is a dream job for people and when you combine that with being on a boat we get 80-year-old men on here who act like kids,” said Totsch “And we like showing kids around. We have fire helmets and mini fire-extinguishers and a backup steering wheel in the pilot house so kids can feel like they’re driving the boat.”
First-responders and veterans get discounts off the $40 price. The fireboat, which departs from DuSable Harbor next to the Columbia Yacht Club boat just south of Navy Pier every couple of hours can carry up to 127 people so groups, field trips, weddings and corporate events are available at FireboatTours.com
Paid parking is available reasonably nearby but a little tricky to find. Arriving by cab or Uber, or walking over from Navy Pier may be a useful option.
Read more on Michael Patrick Shiels’ travel blog, The Travel Tattler. Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]