Boat is link to Peoria's rich history

Tim Alexander

"The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure."

- Richard Bach, author

 For Captain Alex Grieves, skipper of the Spirit of Peoria paddle-wheeler, the voyage and the adventure are truly his work.

Though it’s impossible author Richard Bach had Grieves’ experiences as a riverboat pilot in mind when penning those words for his 1977 novel, “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah,” they couldn’t fit the 39 year-old son of Peoria’s former mayor, Bud Grieves, any better.

“I truly love just letting people experience a little piece of history,” said Grieves, referred to offshore as Captain Alex. “I personally enjoy just being 40 feet up in the wheelhouse, looking out at the bald eagles, the white pelicans and the different animals gathering along the shore. Sometimes we can travel 30 or 40 miles on the river and see nothing in the way of civilization.”

Peaceful relaxation and contemplation of nature are big draws for passengers on the Spirit of Peoria, which the Grieves family purchased in 1996 after leasing it from the City of Peoria for three years.

They now operate the boat under the ownership of G&G Packet Co. The 160 foot-long Spirit was built in Kentucky in 1988 before being brought to Peoria to replace the Julia Belle Swain, now docked in LaCrosse, Wis.

Grieves earned his captain’s stripes the same year his family took ownership of the boat. Like other modern riverboat captains — of which there are few — Grieves had to earn his stripes through long months and years of observing and practicing, traversing the Illinois and Mississippi rivers by day and night while committing to memory the rivers’ individual characteristics.

“It takes about three years to acquire your license,” Grieves said. “You have to have 360 eight-hour days (of experience) before you can apply.”

Grieves began his riverboat career as a crew member and deckhand, before working up to “steering time” as a first mate. “The key is you have to have two pilots who have a master of 100 gross tons to sign off on your license and your work; they vouch for you.”

After acquiring the necessary paperwork to apply for certification as a riverboat captain, Grieves traveled to Memphis for further instruction behind the wheel before applying for captain-ship with the U.S. Coast Guard.

After 13 years of piloting the Spirit and becoming accustomed to the steady and reassuring hum of its twin Caterpillar 3412 diesel engines, Grieves said the thrill of guiding her over the river still remains fresh.

“I’ve always loved boating, and being able to run a business designed around the (Spirit) is a dream come true,” said Grieves. “Running your business on paper in addition to (literally) driving your business is kind of unique. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Nearly forgotten

Captain Alex and the Spirit of Peoria represent a chapter of Peoria’s — and the river’s — nearly forgotten history, when steam-driven paddle-wheelers were known as the workhorses of the river.

According to the Illinois State Museum, steamboat traffic on the Illinois River began in 1828 with cargo, mail and passengers being delivered from St. Louis to Pekin, and by the next year, Peoria. By 1850, 59 steamboats transported farm produce and passengers to the small towns along the Illinois River. “Packet” steamers on the Illinois River included the Betsy Ann, City of Peoria and the Golden Eagle.

By 1900, some riverboats were used exclusively as excursion vessels, traveling the Illinois River to entertain passengers and citizens of towns along the way. Early excursion boats serving the Illinois River included the East Saint Louis, the Cape Girardeau and the Majestic, which burnt to the waterline at Havana.   

A great tragedy involving an excursion steamer, the Columbia, occurred July 5, 1918, when 80 passengers — most of them Pekin residents — were killed when the vessel came apart after hitting a sandbar between Pekin and Peoria. The accident essentially killed the excursion business on the Illinois River, according to the ISM.

Similar to excursion steamers were showboats, which were popular until the introduction of silent movies in the 1920s. Musicians and vaudeville actors entertained passengers and townspeople, providing the only live entertainment of its kind for many river town residents.

Today the Spirit of Peoria serves as a cross between an excursion vessel and a showboat, offering a full array of themed cruises featuring music and theater nearly year-round, as well as overnight trips to Starved Rock State Park and the St. Louis-Alton area.

Themed cruises scheduled for 2009 include the return of the Spirit’s popular murder mystery series, featuring volunteer thespians from the Champaign-Urbana Dinner Theatre Company (July 11, Nov. 7), Prairie Folklore Theatre, with storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis and singer-songwriter Barry Cloyd (Sept. 18, Nov. 20 and 21), and gospel music lunch, dinner and concert cruises on July 12, July 31 and August 9.

“Our themed cruises, resident river-lorian, ragtime piano player and banjo player help bring back the history of river-boating at its best,” Grieves said. 

Though the paddle-wheeler “industry” has taken its lumps since the economic downturn began (the Julia Belle Swain has been docked for the summer at LaCrosse, with all 2009 cruises cancelled “due to the current economy,” according to her website), Grieves said demand for tickets for the Spirit remains strong. 

“We were a little nervous this year, but everything seems to be pretty solid,” Grieves said. “I think we offer such a fantastic package. It’s a way to escape for a while at a low cost while staying close to home, and see something you haven’t seen before.”

If only we dare to let go.