Kane County History: The Story of St. Charles' Paddlewheel Riverboats

Kane County History: The Story of St. Charles’ Paddlewheel Riverboats

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Tim Kirsininkas, marketing manager for the St. Charles History Museum. Images are courtesy of the St. Charles History Museum.

Chester Anderson (far left) prepares to depart for a cruise with his first boat, the Honeymoon Queen in 1945. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. CHARLES HISTORY MUSEUM)

For more than 70 years, summertime on the Fox River in St. Charles has been defined by a pair of rose-adorned sternwheelers gently churning up and down the Fox River.

For the first time ever, the iconic St. Charles paddlewheel riverboats have set sail under new ownership, as the St. Charles Park District took over operations in March, purchasing the Fox River Queen and St. Charles Belle II from their longtime owners and operators, the Anderson family.

The company began as Chester “Chet” Anderson purchased a $200 refurbished boat called the Honeymoon Queen in 1945 and began giving rides from his home located in Pottawatomie Park, which still stands next to the boat docks to this day.

Anderson and his wife, Barbara, together started the cruise operation that would eventually become known as the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats. As the Andersons’ business grew in popularity, their boats were replaced several times, each time becoming bigger and more modern.

The original St. Charles Belle pictured sailing past the Pottawatmoie Golf Course in the 1970s.

The original St. Charles Belle, constructed in the early 1970s, was the first boat Anderson owned to sport the signature classic sternwheeler look, which mirrored vessels of the same type from the late 1800s. The new boat brought a distinct charm and a beautiful sense of style to cruising on the Fox River, and following the construction of this boat, his family business took off in popularity.

This particular vessel was replaced by the fully custom-built and modernized double deck St. Charles Belle II in 1981, closely followed by its sister boat, the Fox River Queen in 1987. At this point, Chet’s son Rich took over the operation, and he and his father regularly captained both boats together.

Rich served as the proud owner and operator of the paddleboats for nearly 30 years until his retirement last fall.

Rich Anderson

The boats have been the definition of a family-run affair, and have become a true St. Charles summer tradition for plenty of families all around the St. Charles area. The boats hold a special place in the hearts of many as a venue for weddings, family reunions, birthday and retirement parties, and so much more.

Generations of Andersons and their family friends (including myself) also worked aboard the vessels as their first paying summer job.

In fact, when recognizing Chet and Barbara with the prestigious Charlemagne Award for lifetime achievement and dedication to the St. Charles community in 1986, Mayor Fred Norris made sure to personally thank both of them for providing him with his first paying job as well.

These beautiful boats and their homegrown story are something that St. Charles can truly be proud of, and rest assured, the Andersons’ legacy and the generations of family memories these boats carry will be in good hands with the members of the St. Charles Park District at the helm.

Representatives of the St. Charles Park District, the Anderson family, and past and present employees pictured at the official dedication and ribbon cutting of the Fox River Queen on May 28. Photo: St. Charles Park District

  • FEATURE PHOTO CAPTION: The first commercial boat on the Fox River, S.S. Pacific, pictured at Pottawatomie Park circa 1910.

‘History Happy Hour’ July 25 Aboard The Fox River Queen

Photo courtesy of the St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau, http://www.visitstcharles.com

The Fox River in St. Charles is a scenic corridor of beauty that runs right through the heart of St. Charles that is also rich in history!

Join the St. Charles History Museum aboard the Fox River Queen from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 25 to learn about the rich history of the Fox River Valley.

You’ll learn about how the river helped to form the many communities that exist today along the river, some of the other historic commercial boats that have operated on the waterway like the S.S. Pacific, and historic locations along the river route like the famous Al Capone hideaway. Appetizers and two drink tickets included!

Visit www.stcmuseum.org/events for more information and to buy tickets.

New Exhibit Ties St. Charles’ To The Titanic

Our exhibit Tip of the Iceberg: St. Charles’ Ties to the Titanic explores the experiences of three particular passengers from different classes aboard the ship when it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.

Third class passengers Alice Berg Johnson and her two children, Harold and Eleanor, were heading home to St. Charles when they boarded the Titanic and narrowly escaped the sinking. Molly Brown is highlighted as the First Class passenger because of her actions during and after the sinking.

The Caldwell family’s story is told because not only were they traveling home to Illinois, but they were also incredibly lucky as they survived the sinking as a whole family.

The exhibit is open during the museum’s regular hours, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. More information available at www.stcmuseum.org.

Read The Kane County History Series!