You see them going out every fair day from May into October, the excursion boats that take sightseers out for a two-hour-long view of the lakefront and skyline. When they return, the visitors can recite capsule histories of the John Hancock, Navy Pier, the reversing of the Chicago River. But when Richard T. Crowe takes passengers out on an evening cruise, eyes are more likely to be turned eastward, watching for the ghosts of ships that were long ago swallowed by the waves of Lake Michigan.

Crowe will tell his guests of the demise of the Alpena, a side-wheel passenger and cargo steamer that vanished on a stormy October night in 1880 on its way to Chicago from Grand Haven, Michigan. Debris from the ship was found, but the cause of the shipwreck was never firmly established. Time and again, in the following months and years lake sailors reported seeing the Alpena glide silently by.

He might also tell the story of the schooner Rouse Simmons, which docked at Clark Street every December with a load of Christmas trees from the north woods. In 1913, the ship disappeared somewhere off the coast of Wisconsin during a gale. The next spring, fishermen found their nets laden with small, soggy pine trees.

None of the tour groups Crowe led out on his “supernatural boat tours” last summer–his first season–were lucky enough to spot either of the ghost ships. “Ghosts are very elusive,” he says, “and it hasn’t happened yet.”

If anyone knows the habits of Chicago ghosts, it is Richard Crowe. He’s been guiding tours of the haunted and macabre in Chicago for 15 years–ever since he organized his first bus tour in 1973 and had to turn away 200 ghost lovers. Chicagoans and tourists alike were eager to learn more about such famous local ghosts as “Resurrection Mary” on the southwest side, the former pub owner who haunts his old building in Edgewater, and the specter who haunts the site of John Dillinger’s death next to the Biograph Theatre.

Crowe’s guests don’t just listen to a lecture and look out bus windows at sights. At the haunted pub, for example, he has visitors sit in the spot where the former owner died; there is said to be a cold spot there. On one tour in 1979, Crowe took his guests to the southwest suburbs to see the Maple lake ghost light, a red light whose appearance has never been explained. “We pull into the overlook,” Crowe says, “and all of a sudden: Boom! The red light goes on. Panic breaks out in the bus. By that time I had had them under my sway for about three hours with stories and the anticipation was running high. Two guys tried to push past me drawing revolvers–they were going to shoot the light. I had them calmed down finally. They were Chicago cops–they were really into it. And by the time they were seated, the light was gone.”

Many tour participants also share their own ghost stories–personal experiences and tales that have been passed down through several generations. “Now that I’m getting people to think of the waterways in a supernatural context, people have been starting to come to me with material,” Crowe says. “Any tour is really a two-way street. It’s a give-and-take situation where I’ll tell the stories, I’ll get the crowd into it, and very often somebody’s right back there to me and saying: ‘You know, I gotta tell you about my grandfather’s story,’ or ‘I gotta tell you what happened to me one night when I was out here,’ and so on.”

One disaster that lives on in local legend is the capsizing of the Eastland, the passenger steamer that capsized on a sunny day in July of 1915 as she was pulling away from her dock next to the Clark Street bridge. Passersby heard the cries of the 835 people who drowned that day, many of them employees of the Western Electric Company, which had sponsored the outing. It remains the worst maritime disaster in Great Lakes history.

No one expects the Eastland to return as a ghost ship. After all, she was raised from the river bottom, renamed the U.S.S. Wilmette, and sailed for years. But Crowe says he’s heard several stories about people who had psychic premonitions about the disaster and decided not to board the ship that day. Some people told Crowe of other supernatural effects that followed the sinking. “One woman, for instance, told me how in her family it was very often mentioned that that site was in some way bad luck or jinxed,” Crowe says.

“The granddad, I believe, of this woman was the one who had come up with the stories about how if you’re there at night you can actually hear the moaning sounds and sobbing sounds of the drowning victims. I don’t know. It could be a bit of imagination, and yet it is interesting that two, three generations down you’re still finding this very popular folkloric material being talked about.”

There’s a lighter side to Crowe’s specialty. Many Chicagoans recall the visits in the 1970s of the cement carrier Medusa Challenger. On nearly every visit at least one of the river’s lift bridges would get stuck creating traffic jams and causing bridge tenders to wonder whether the mythological Medusa, the sight of whose head turned viewers to stone, wasn’t perhaps behind it all. Even more remarkably, the ship’s curse seemed to work only in Chicago. Nowhere else did it cause problems. “There had to be something very strange about that,” says Crowe. “That is really beyond coincidence, I think, when you tally up the number of times that things happened–way beyond any kind of coincidence.”

Once the Challenger had a reputation as a troublemaker, people began anticipating her visits. One of those fell on a Friday the 13th, but, says Crowe, it was one of the few visits on which nothing happened. That convinced him that something strange was indeed going on. “Everybody was prepared, and the anticipation of it maybe cancelled it out,” he says.

There was a macabre sidelight to the visits of the Challenger, since she had an exceptionally deep draft. The police, says Crowe, “dreaded the visits because, it would always churn up a body. They always had extra paperwork that would be necessary.”

Crowe is not guaranteeing any churned-up bodies or ghost-ship sightings on his cruises, but after a couple hours of his tales, many passengers may be ready to at least see a will-o’-the-wisp or an orb of Saint Elmo’s fire. Two-hour cruises on the Skyline Queen start on Saturdays at 11 PM. Cruises start at the Mercury dock, Lower Wacker Drive at the southwest corner of the Michigan Avenue bridge. Tickets are $15; group rates are available. For more information call 332-1353.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.