The River Whisperer

The Chicago Architecture Foundation's River Cruise gives patrons a 90-minute, up-close look at the design gems surrounding the Chicago River.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation's River Cruise gives patrons a 90-minute, up-close look at the design gems surrounding the Chicago River.


The co-director of the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise dishes on the waterway’s history, its recent transformation and the ‘craziest thing’ he’s ever seen while hosting a tour.


By Emily Clemons
Medill Reports

Chicago offers plenty of activities for visiting tourists and adventurous locals alike – ghost tours, gangster history jaunts and more dazzle spectators while perpetuating the urban legends of the Windy City.

River Logo
One man working to separate myth from reality is Tom Carmichael, co-director of the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise Aboard Chicago’s First Lady. Since joining the foundation in 2007 and becoming a tour director in 2009, Carmichael has been witness to the Chicago River’s transformation and ever-developing history, and has introduced thousands of tourists to the buildings along the river’s banks.

Carmichael spoke with Medill Reports about his 10 years volunteering with the Foundation, and how not even a body in the river will get in the way of a quality cruise.

Medill Reports: How did you get involved with the architecture cruises?

Tom Carmichael: What attracted me to the architecture foundation as a volunteer is that I love buildings and I love architecture, even though I’m not an architect. And the idea of learning about them really appealed to me because the training programs that the architecture foundation offers to its volunteers are really top notch. So, I love that learning experience. And then I’ve been a person who’s always been interested in education and training other people. And so this kind of gets into my groove in terms of learning and passing on that learning to others.

MR: The Foundation’s tour isn’t the only architecture or sightseeing cruise on the river. What do you believe sets yours apart?

TC: I think one of the key, key differences is that everything our docents say is true, based on facts. Now there are a lot of great stories out there about the city of Chicago, and they’re funny and they’re interesting, but many of them aren’t true. It might be a funny piece of information, people may laugh, but it’s just not true. And we pride ourselves on providing engaging, entertaining cruises based on the facts.

“Al Capone did this, or Al Capone was here or there.” You know a lot of stuff is just not true. It’s urban myths, and we worked hard to keep those out of our narratives.

MR: What’s the appeal of using the Chicago River to see the city?

TC: This is one of the very few places where you can see hundreds of skyscrapers from the very bottom to the very top. In most cities that have tall buildings like Chicago’s, you are too close to the buildings to actually see them, and you can’t see them from top to bottom because you’re right up against them.

When you’re on the river, you can see these buildings from the base to the top. And it’s really a “wow” visual experience. So giving that to people, and then hearing people react to it, I think that’s the best part. That’s what I love about the cruise.

MR: What’s your favorite story to tell passengers?

TC: It changes from time to time. Right now I like talking about the Willis Tower, the former Sears Tower, and the story of it how it became the world’s tallest building, and then stopped being the world’s tallest building, and then how it compares to towers in New York City and things like that.

MR: How has the Chicago River changed over the years?

TC: Chicago used to be quite different. And the river used to be quite different. The river was basically a stinky, industrial highway. And nobody particularly wanted to spend any time along its banks. The architecture foundation’s river cruise has done a huge amount of work bringing attention to the river.

When we first started giving the river cruise back in 1983, there would be some pretty unsightly things along the banks of the river. And one of the docents said to me what he kept doing to the crowd was to say, “Look up! Look up!” You didn’t actually want people to focus on the nasty stuff that was along the shore, and there was plenty of nasty stuff.

And so by getting people to go on boats and taking cruises on the river and see the river, I think we’ve had a great impact on people just realizing this is an important waterway. It can be a lot better than it was in terms of the water quality, in terms of the buildings along the banks of the river. The opening of the Riverwalk, which has happened over the last few years – that would never have happened, I think, if it hadn’t been for people like us drawing attention to the river.

MR: Tourism is booming in Chicago. What’s the passenger makeup of a typical cruise?

TC: The people who take the river cruise typically reflect the people who come to Chicago in terms of visitors. Obviously, we get customers who are local, but most of the people that I meet when I’m giving the cruise are bringing their friends who are visiting Chicago.

During the spring months, typically the people who take the cruise are in Chicago going to a meeting. They’re international visitors who have come to the United States and are touring the country. And that’s also true again at the end of the season after the weather has turned cool and school has started.

During the middle of summer – you know, during typical U.S. tourist summer season – the crowds on the boat are mostly people from the surrounding states. People who can drive to Chicago to spend a weekend or people who [can take] a short trip, short flight into the city. We still have international people during the middle of the season, but it’s a much more domestic crowd during the middle of the season. It tends to be more international in the shoulder parts on either end.

MR: What’s your favorite thing about being a docent?

TC: One of the one of the very best things about being a volunteer for the Architectural Foundation River Cruise is at the end of the cruise, you’ll get off the boat and you stand there as other people come off the gangway. You’re there to answer their questions, really, as they come off the boat and people do have questions.

But time and time again, people will stop and shake your hand and say, “This was the best. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve been on all kinds of tours. This was the best tour I’ve ever taken. You were fabulous. It was wonderful.” And you hear that over and over again. So it’s really a tremendous ego booster. It makes you really feel good about yourself, makes you feel good about the city of Chicago, because it really opens their eyes. Even local people, it opens their eyes.

MR: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen on a cruise?

TC: It’s kind of funny in a macabre sort of way.

I was giving a cruise for the American Institute of Architects members and their families. We were actually on the south branch and, you know, I’m giving my narrative, and I hear somebody yell out in the back of the boat, “There’s a body in the river!”

I’m thinking, “No, no. Maybe there’s a dead bird in the river.” So I put down the mic, look over the side and yes, indeed, there is a dead body floating back up, in the river right along the boat.

And, you know, you’re kind of initially horrified. Of course, all the passengers stand up and take a look. And you’re thinking, “But what should you do?”

So I go to the captain, I go into the pilot house and say to the captain, “There’s a dead body in the river.”

And the captain just very nonchalantly turns to me and says, “Oh yeah, the police have been looking for him all day.”

PHOTO AT TOP: The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise gives patrons a 90-minute, up-close look at the design gems flanking the Chicago River. (Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons)