Tour boats to hit city’s waterways
By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette
A new ride will rumble down local streets this summer.
When it's not on land, the amphibious vehicle commonly referred to as a “duck boat” might be found floating on one of Fort Wayne's three rivers, offering sightseers downtown views as part of a 90-minute guided land-and-water tour.
The vintage DUKW was built for military use during World War II, when troops and supplies needed to be moved quickly from ship to shore and back again.
Friends of the Rivers, a local nonprofit, bought the boat and will launch it this summer, bulking up the local fleet that includes a new replica 1840s canal boat, which will also debut this year.
Economic development experts have for years pointed to Fort Wayne's waterways as an underdeveloped resource that could become a focal point for tourism, recreation and the arts. Various efforts to draw attention to the St. Joseph, Maumee and St. Marys rivers in recent years have included dragon boat races, pontoon tours and small boat rentals.
Now, after dipping their toes in the shallow water, officials are ready to dive into the deep end.
Construction kicks off this summer on a $70 million riverfront development project. Phase I is a waterfront promenade that will include an outdoor amphitheater, a tree canopy trail, a pavilion, an event lawn, an entry plaza and children's play area.
A pivotal piece of the puzzle is getting people onto the water, local officials say. Several donors have stepped up to support the effort, which has become a passion for Irene Walters, Friends of the Rivers' board president.
“Everybody is excited,” Walters said. “Everybody wants this to succeed.”
The duck boat, which travels on water and land, is one of two boats riverfront promoters are excited about launching this summer from Headwaters Park West. The other is a three-quarter-scale replica of the luxury canal boats used at a time when stage coaches were this country's other primary mode of transportation.
Fort Wayne joins Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Washington and other communities nationwide that have floated duck boats as tourism vehicles.
The name DUKW comes from GMC model nomenclature: D, designed in 1942; U, utility; K, all-wheel drive; W, dual rear axles. It can go from the water to city streets, where it sits 51/2 feet above street level.
On D-Day, 2,000 DUKWs were brought to Normandy, operated by soldiers from the U.S., Russia, Great Britain, Canada and Australia, according to historians.
“There's a real niche of people who want to ride a real military duck boat,” said Dan Wire, who is widely considered the expert on local rivers.
Local support for the duck boat has come from sources including the Fort Wayne Community Foundation, which made a grant for the duck and canal boats' purchases, and AWS, which paid to make both boats handicapped accessible.
Including repairs, the duck boat cost about $52,000, Walters said. Organizers plan to do a little more cosmetic work on its 30-foot-long, 8-foot-wide exterior during the next offseason, but it's rough and ready to go this summer.
“Rough” might be the key word. The vintage vehicle, which is being outfitted with extra side mirrors, wasn't built with city traffic in mind.
“It's pretty bizarre going down the street in that vehicle,” Wire said of the boat, which has a seating capacity of 20.
Walters has been for a spin in the duck boat, which wasn't designed for passenger comfort.
She acknowledged: “It's a funky ride.”
Wire gushes when describing the 54-foot-long, 11-foot-wide canal boat, which was first announced in late March.
The replica 1840s luxury canal boat includes high-end teak furniture, comfortable cushions, a kitchen, a bathroom, and electrical and Bluetooth connections. It cost about $652,000 and took six months to build.
It accommodates 40 passengers for a standard tour and 30 for a dinner party, which can be catered and served onboard.
“It's going to be a really first-class experience,” Wire said. “I think seeing is believing.”
Officials first flirted with bringing a riverboat to the city but soon realized it wouldn't fit under Fort Wayne's 19 downtown bridges.
The canal boat, which will be sponsored by Parkview Health during its inaugural season, has a 55-horsepower diesel engine and a draft of 2 feet 9 inches.
Both boats will be staffed with a trained captain and separate tour guide on board. Wire, who is overseeing training, wants the captains – whether at sea or on land – to focus solely on the vehicle.
Fort Wayne Outfitters & Bike Depot's website allows customers to book cruises.
The business, owned by Cara Hall, rents canoes, single kayaks, double kayaks, paddleboards and bicycles. By making small boats readily available, Fort Wayne Outfitters has already lured numerous local adventurers onto the rivers.
For those who want someone else do the steering, the canal boat will offer themed cruises that include local history, ecology, architecture, city lights and dinner tours.
Initially, outings will be offered on Saturdays and Sundays, with more times available on demand, Hall said.
Each tour requires a minimum of 20 paying passengers. Each outing costs about $750, when staff time, fuel and other expenses are calculated, Walters said.
The organizers expect to lease the boat for private parties as well, including bridal showers, family gatherings, class reunions and small wedding receptions.
Special interest groups can also rent the boat and request a themed presentation.
“There is such an interest in the history of the rivers,” Hall said. “That's the No. 1 request we get for the pontoon tours.”
Local economic development officials expect enthusiasm for the river tours to build as more residents take the trips.
That enthusiasm, in turn, is expected to fuel more tourism.
When officials study the success of similar-sized cities, they've often found a thriving riverfront. That includes Providence, Rhode Island; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Des Moines, Iowa; and Greenville, South Carolina.
“They've all really incorporated the river in their economic development efforts,” Mike Packnett said.
Before accepting the position as Parkview Health's CEO, Packnett lived and worked in Oklahoma City, where the local river's flow varied from a trickle to a torrent, depending on recent rainfall.
The city even had to mow the riverbed during dry spells.
Then the mayor hatched a bold plan: A series of dams upriver could store water and release it when needed. The project was a rousing success for the city.
“And now it's hosting Olympic training teams there,” Packnett said, referring to rowing, canoeing and kayaking squads.
Packnett, who led Greater Fort Wayne Inc.'s formation, has an intense interest in economic development.
“The rivers are such an asset for us,” he said. “There's just something magical about water to bring people together.”
Dan O'Connell, Visit Fort Wayne's president and CEO, is looking forward to adding the duck and canal boats to the portfolio of attractions his office promotes.
“We expect it initially to be a lot of local residents trying it out,” he said of the duck boat, adding that officials expect the boats will become a full-fledged tourist attraction.
Once you've been on the local rivers, Walters said, “you develop such a sense of pride in the city.”
Available: June 1 to Oct. 1
Tour length: 90 minutes
Seating capacity: 40 for a standard tour, 30 for a dinner party
Adult ticket: $30
Child ticket: $10 ages 5 to 12; $5 younger than 5
Reserve the full boat: $1,950
Available: June 1 to Oct. 1
Tour length: 90 minutes
Seating capacity: 20
Adult ticket: $22
Child ticket: $10 ages 12 and younger
For more information: go to FWOutfitters.com