Starved Rock Country has long been a popular destination for recreational boating in north central Illinois, with its beautiful sandstone cliff faces and calm, wide waters drawing countless leisure boaters and the occasional river cruise stopover. Now, thanks to the newly established Ottawa Packet Company, exploring the Illinois River will be easier than ever before.
The Sainte Genevieve, a 149-passenger sternwheeler, soon will offer daily tours of the scenic waterway. Spearheaded by Gentry Nordstrom, owner of The Chrysalis Group Management and Realty, and Nathan Weiss, owner of Ottawa Millwork Company, this passion project finally is coming to fruition as the vessel arrives home at its new port in downtown Ottawa on Saturday, March 12.
So why did they choose Ottawa for the exciting new tour boat venture?
“We saw an opportunity – Ottawa is this historic riverfront town – but the river isn’t very accessible,” Nordstrom said. “Unless you own a boat or know someone who owns one, you don’t get to spend much time out on the water. Outside of rentals at Heritage Harbor, there’s not many ways to enjoy the river. This is a way to make it more accessible and provide some great, much needed, event space.”
Nordstrom sees this as a large tourism draw for the city, bringing in overnight stays and day-trippers alike with high-quality, evening sight-seeing excursions, one of the many one- to two-and-a-half-hour tours they plan on hosting aboard The Ste. Genevieve riverboat. Most trips will take place in the stretch of water between Starved Rock and Marseilles, with hopes of expanding to include longer duration trips that will show guests how the lock system works. Dinner cruises, featuring small plates from favorite local restaurants, and regularly scheduled live events also are expected to be cornerstones of their activity calendar.
The Ottawa Packet Company has been working in conjunction with the city of Ottawa to have their home port be located right along the downtown riverfront, near the site of the former River Rescue building, adding a beautiful new addition to the city’s vintage skyline.
The journey to owning a riverboat began in late September 2021, when Weiss reached out to Nordstrom about the possibility of partnering together and purchasing the Julia Belle Swain, a legendary steamboat located in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The pair even had a personal connection to the vessel, as Weiss’ father, Tom, with the help of Nordstrom’s father, John, handcrafted and installed a custom, ornamental mahogany bar and millwork for the Julia Belle Swain back in 1985.
While the Julia Belle Swain deal ultimately didn’t materialize, Nordstrom and Weiss now had the riverboat bug and were doubly committed to tracking down the perfect vessel for Ottawa.
“That boat was more than we could bite off, but we knew that this was a good idea and that we wanted to keep exploring it,” Nordstrom said. “Nathan stayed on the hunt, he was connected with Kevin Stier, who operates the Riverboat Twilight out of Le Claire, Iowa. Kevin called him up one day and said he’d found us the perfect starter boat.”
That perfect sternwheeler was The Mark Twain, a 149-passenger excursion vessel docked in Cincinnati, Ohio, and already Coast Guard-certified and fully operational. Nordstrom and Weiss jumped on the opportunity, and drove out east for a tour and sea trial.
“Right away, we knew that if we’re going to do this, it has to be this boat and it has to be right now,” Nordstrom said.
By early December, they closed on The Mark Twain, and began preparations for the planned two-week trek down the Ohio, and up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. However, the voyage to the new home port was not without its challenges.
About a week into the trip, Weiss, along with the crew on board, encountered a bad windstorm, and the boat was blown into an outcropping of rocks near the shoreline. The vessel’s hull was breached, and quickly began taking on water. Luckily, they were able to get towed to a nearby quarry in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.
“That was our saving grace; they were very hospitable to us and really helped us out at a difficult time,” Nordstrom said. “Starting out, I knew the boat was going to name itself on the trip. We knew we wanted to change the name from The Mark Twain to set it apart from similar boats with the same name.”
After the boat safely landed in Ste. Genevieve, Weiss’ wife, Jessica, proposed Ste. Genevieve as a possible name for the vessel. So they began researching the history of Ste. Genevieve’s namesake, the patroness saint of Paris in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and discovered some parallels.
“At one point during her story, Ste. Genevieve’s enemies conspire to drown her in a lake, and they’re unsuccessful,” Nordstrom said. “After reading that, we knew the boat had named itself.”
The boat spent about a month in St. Louis getting repairs to the hull on a dry dock. While they had the vessel out of the water, they went ahead and made several more modifications and repairs that will keep the paddlewheels turning for decades to come. The newly minted Ste. Genevieve resumed her journey to Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 19.
Setting the boat apart from the herd, the twin paddlewheels on The Ste. Genevieve aren’t just for show – they’re the boat’s sole source of propulsion. This creates a leisurely throwback experience, best enjoyed from the vessel’s open-air, top deck.
The Ottawa Packet Co. hopes to kick off its season in late May and, weather dependent, host tours through late November or early December. During the off-season, the boat will be docked at Heritage Harbor, serving as additional event space in the winter months.
For more information on The Sainte Genevieve and The Ottawa Packet Co., email firstname.lastname@example.org.