The Crusader Newspaper Group

A sightseeing undercover experiment at Navy Pier

The first tour guide’s name was Andy, but many people know him as Andrew the Kid on the popular boat, Speed Dog, at Navy Pier. He was funny and outgoing. The second tour guide was Kevin, a human Chicago encyclopedia who wowed tourists on Shoreline Sightseeing at Michigan Avenue. The third tour guide, Ingrid, on the First Lady of Chicago Tour, seemed to be a hybrid of Andy and Kevin. All of the tour guides were white.

All three tour guides were put to the test last weekend, May 1-2, as crowds flocked to Navy Pier during the first weekend, after it reopened Friday, April 30, since last year. With 80-degree weather, it was the perfect weekend to conduct an experiment to see how much tour guides and ticket agents know about places and sites named after the city’s first settler and the “Founder of Chicago,” Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable.

The biggest goal was to see whether tour guides on boat tours along the Chicago River would mention the legacy and contributions of a Black man, among the city’s largely white pioneers who also made contributions to the city with their institutions and impressive skyscrapers.

The result was an interesting weekend full of surprises that included a ticket agent for Shoreline Sightseeing at Michigan Avenue who didn’t know where a bust of DuSable was located, despite it being yards away. Another ticket attendant at Speed Dog thought the DuSable Park was on the South Side until she looked it up and discovered it was next door.

Three years ago, Alderman David Moore (17th Ward) took a boat tour along the Chicago River where the tour guide failed to mention DuSable’s legacy and contributions to Chicago. The experience led Moore to propose an ordinance to rename the outer or expressway portion of Lake Shore Drive after DuSable.

The proposal, which has stirred heated debate at City Hall and with Lake Shore Drive loyalists, passed a key step last week when the city’s Transportation Committee endorsed it before it heads to the City Council for the final vote.

While the debate to rename Lake Shore Drive rages on, the Crusader decided to test some of the city’s most popular boat tours on Saturday and Sunday to see if anything has changed since Moore’s visit.

All three architecture tours were at least 75 minutes long. The Speed Dog and Shoreline cruises started from Navy Pier, and the First Lady of Chicago Tour began along the Riverwalk, east of Michigan Avenue.

All were similar as they toured the Chicago River past 21 bridges to the historic River City condominiums, the latest headquarters of radio station WVON. The 90-minute First Lady of Chicago Tour took an extra trip on the river’s northern leg to the tony East Bank Club before turning back south.

The first tour I took on Saturday, May 1, was the Speed Dog with Andy as my tour guide.

During Andy’s tour, there were 15 Black passengers and five whites. Four of the Blacks were from St. Louis. The Speed Dog first passed the Lake Shore Drive bridge, then the Columbus Bridge. Then came the DuSable Bridge on Michigan Avenue.

As the boat headed east toward it, Andy the tour guide, didn’t mention anything about its pioneering namesake or his contributions to the founding of the city. When the boat traveled past the Merchandise Mart, he mentioned the city’s familiar wealthy merchants like Marshall Field and Montgomery Ward.

But on the return trip to Navy Pier, Andy mentioned DuSable as the boat traveled toward DuSable Bridge. With a fake French accent, he pronounced DuSable’s name and briefly gave a minute-long description of him.

“He was a French Canadian. He was actually born in Haiti and grew up in Quebec and grew up mostly there, and he was the first non-indigenous settler in Chicago. He set up a fur trading post right back there (pointing to the Apple store). If trying to trade furs, you want waterways. You want to be able to use your boat because there were no roads yet. So, where a lake flows into a river, what better location.”

On the second tour Kevin, the tour guide on the Chicago River, on the wide 100-seat Shoreline boat, gave just a brief 16-second description of DuSable’s time in Chicago.

After noting that Chicago pioneering architect Daniel Burnham wanted Chicago to be a “Paris on the Prairie,” Kevin talked about the significance of the DuSable Bridge over Michigan Avenue.

“We honor our first permanent resident,” he said. “The French-speaking fur trader from Haiti, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable started a fur trading empire right there my friends,” pointing west of the Apple store, “in 1779.”

On my third tour along the Chicago River, aboard the First Lady of Chicago, Ingrid mentioned how Native Americans gave the city its name after the wild, smelly onions that grew at the mouth of the river. She then skipped to the 1780s and talked about DuSable.

“When the very first settler, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable set up his trade post, right here, where you see the Apple Michigan Avenue store, it always seems to be a very good place for retail,” Ingrid joked.

“DuSable is considered the founder of Chicago. He was a very interesting individual. He was of African and French descent. His mother was Haitian. His father was French Canadian, and his wife was Potawatomi Indian—so he had a very multicultural family. He had his trading post right here. It was a good place because everything you see east up to Michigan Avenue was man-made [after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871].

So, Michigan Avenue was once the mouth of the Chicago River. So, it was a good place to catch fur traders going back and forth. He had more than just a trading post. He had property where you see several buildings. He had barns and several other buildings. If you have a chance to walk on Michigan Avenue, at the corner of the bridge, there’s a bust honoring the founder of Chicago.”

Ingrid’s two-minute narrative of DuSable was the longest of the three tour guides’. She was also the only guide to mention the bust of DuSable that’s located in Pioneer Court near the Tribune Tower.

Andy, the tour guide from Speed Dog, said he always includes DuSable’s story in his tours, but acknowledged that other tour guides may not.

After completing all three boat tours, I stood on the DuSable Bridge to see if I could hear tour guides mentioning the city’s first settler. A tour guide from Wendella Tours and Cruises failed to mention DuSable but talked about the Wrigley Building that was built by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley. But I heard a different tour guide from Shoreline Sightseeing at Michigan give a brief history of DuSable’s time in Chicago.

While the story of DuSable was included on the tours during the Crusader visit, none mentioned other places or sites named after him, including the honorary street sign next to his bust, and the fact about his home site being a National Historic Landmark. Not one of the tour guides mentioned his namesake, DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park, the first and oldest Black museum in America, founded by the late Dr. Margaret Burroughs in 1961.

None of the tour guides mentioned as part of their tour, the still undeveloped DuSable Park, a 3.3 acre parcel of land that’s located at the mouth of the Chicago River. All three tours passed right by the park, which Mayor Harold Washington dedicated in 1987.

Development of the park has dragged on under Mayor Lightfoot and mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley.

Contaminated wastes in the soil were removed years ago, but DuSable Park remains empty and undeveloped, despite spectacular views of Navy Pier and Lake Michigan to attract visitors to the park. Under Mayor Emanuel, a pedestrian flyover was built next to it to connect visitors to Navy Pier, but nothing more has been done to develop DuSable Park.

Recently Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged to invest $25 million to develop the park as an alternative to renaming Lake Shore Drive after DuSable.

For an individual whose impact on Chicago spans generations, fewer than two minutes or less were given to recognizing pioneering fur trader DuSable during the tours.

However, Kevin, from Shoreline boat tours, agrees that Lake Shore Drive should be renamed after DuSable.

“I don’t see why not,” he said. “DuSable was the founder of Chicago.”

Ingrid also agrees. “We need to honor DuSable for what he did for this city. I think it’s important that we honor DuSable for his contributions.”

DUSABLE PARK, NEAR Navy Pier, remains empty as tour boats pass by with tourists sightseeing on the Chicago River. (Photo by Erick Johnson)

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