Wendella Boats owner Bob Borgstrom, captain of sightseeing cruises on the Chicago River, dead at 89

He rose from barking at passers-by on Michigan Avenue to take a boat ride, first to deckhand and ultimately a long career piloting sightseeing and architecture cruises.

SHARE Wendella Boats owner Bob Borgstrom, captain of sightseeing cruises on the Chicago River, dead at 89
Bob Borgstrom, owner of Wendella Boats.

Bob Borgstrom, owner of Wendella Boats.

Provided

As a young teenager, Bob Borgstrom was a barker — a boat ride barker, shouting to the throngs along North Michigan Avenue outside the Wrigley Building: “Boat rides! Boat rides!”

Wendella Boats, his family business, offered sightseeing cruises on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. But competition was stiff. Fights occasionally broke out between rival barkers. One resulted in the loser being tied to a flagpole, or so the story goes.

Mr. Borgstrom later became a deckhand and, in 1956, at 23, earned his captain’s license and embarked on a decades-long career of piloting sightseeing and architecture cruises.

“I don’t think any other boat captain comes even close to the amount of time he spent on the water,” said his son Mike Borgstrom, who now heads Wendella. “He worked seven days a week for 15 hours a day in the summer . And, in the other months, he worked as a carpenter.”

Mr. Borgstrom died Aug. 24 at home in Glenview from congestive heart failure and kidney disease, according to his family. He was 89.

Bob Borgstrom.

Bob Borgstrom.

Provided

He never stopped marveling at how the river had changed over the decades.

“The color, the smell, it was just disgusting years ago,” said Mike Borgstrom, adding that his father, on more than one occasion, found a floating body in the river, usually in the spring.

“Now, people are kayaking, and there’s different types of fish in the water and even this giant snapping turtle people are talking about,” he said referring to a turtle that captured Chicagoans’ attention this summer and was nicknamed Chonkosaurus.

“He once jumped in to the river and saved a woman who jumped off the Michigan Avenue Bridge. He took his wallet out of his pocket and took his shoes off but was wearing his father’s watch, an Omega. It was the only valuable thing he had on him.”

A Wendella boat on the Chicago River.

A Wendella boat on the Chicago River.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

Wendella began in 1935 when Mr. Borgstrom’s father Bo Albert Borgstrom, a Swedish immigrant who was working at a Chris-Craft boat shop on Navy Pier, bought a fire-damaged boat and turned it into a 97-passenger cruise vessel. Today, Wendella has five tour boats and five water taxis.

The name of that first boat was Wendela, with one L. It was left that way because of an old sailor’s superstition about bad luck accompanying a name change. It’s unclear what the significance of the name was or why, at some point, another L was added, Mike Borgstrom said.

Mr. Borgstrom liked to fish in Florida and drink beer, especially German beer, and, according to his son, was the first customer at the famed Billy Goat Tavern when it opened its subterranean doors beneath Michigan Avenue in 1964 — steps away from Mr. Borgstrom’s riverfront dock.

“My dad wandered over to see what was going on and was the first guy in the door, and he did a lot of work as a carpenter for the owner, Sam Sianis,” said his son, noting that Mr. Borgstrom became pals with Sianis and a few of the other regulars, including the late columnist Mike Royko.

Mr. Borgstrom raised his family on the North Side in Edgewater and Budlong Woods. His wife Lila Hanna Olson died in 2011. After her death, he retired from the family business.

In addition to his son Mike, Mr. Borgstrom is survived by son Steven, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

A celebration of his life is being planned.

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