Hartford River Cruises provides a whole new view of Hartford and the surrounding area via the Connecticut River. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Founder Brian Downey to learn more.

NAN PRICE: What inspired you to create this business?

BRIAN DOWNEY: I grew up in Western Massachusetts and I went to Massachusetts Maritime Academy. When I graduated, I had a summer job working as a captain on riverboats on the Connecticut River. I ended up joining the Coast Guard and I spent my career stationed all over the country and Europe.

The whole time, I always thought about what a great job that was on the Connecticut River. The original company I worked for shut down its operations 10 or 15 years ago, then someone else took over and ultimately retired. So, there was a gap. I had identified this gap and thought maybe I should look into it, since I’d retired from the Coast Guard.

There’s a sad element to the story. My wife, who had been with me since 1989, passed away in October 2020. Along with the usual emotions one experiences with loss, I decided I wanted to do something big and bold to honor her. That’s what ultimately prompted me to take this big step.

I wanted to do something not only big and bold, but I wanted to do something that was good for the community. I think starting this business checked all those boxes. I had a boat in mind, which we named the Kathryne Elizabeth after my wife.

NAN: What a beautiful way to celebrate your wife and create a legacy for her.

BRIAN: It’s incredibly sad, but we’re trying to make it into a positive.

NAN: When did you formally start the business? 

BRIAN: I started looking at the boat in December. I had to give it a lot of thought because it’s an expensive venture. I finally decided to go for it around April and I bought the boat in May.

Since May, it’s been an absolute whirlwind getting the boat ready, establishing marketing, setting up bank accounts, and hiring people—I have two boys who are going to help me in addition to other employees. I’ve hired several captains and several crew members. And I’m still splitting my time living outside of Portland, ME and in an apartment in Hartford.

NAN: Why Hartford?

BRIAN: I took a good look at Hartford, which has come a long way in the past 30 years, both economically and environmentally, and it just made a lot of sense.

What really led me to Hartford was the dock area at Mortenson Riverfront Plaza was turnkey. It was totally suitable for commercial operation. So that part was good. The river’s totally navigable. So that was all good. And then economically, there’s the Connecticut Science Center, the Hartford Yard Goats are in town, and the Connecticut Convention Center is here, in addition to all the more traditional places nearby, like the Mark Twain House and Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House.

We’re looking to tap into some synergy with all those other businesses and attractions and make it more like a real Hartford experience.

NAN: Have you planned any collaborations?

BRIAN: About a month ago, I started walking around the neighborhood and handing out brochures to local businesses, just to let them know we’re here and we’re happy to create group collaborative efforts with things like special rates. I got a lot of interest.

Understandably, some places like the Convention Center aren’t open yet and we came in too late in the season to work anything out with the Yard Goats this year, but maybe next year.

One thing I’m excited about the Connecticut Science Center, because Governor Lamont launched a program for kids 18 and under to receive free admission at Connecticut museums through September 6, 2021. So, they’re expecting good crowds and I’m hoping people will want to head down the steps to take a boat ride.

NAN: What would you tell somebody about the Hartford River Cruise experience?

BRIAN: That’s a great question. It’s pretty cool. Right now, the Connecticut River is teaming with all kinds of wildlife. On the boat, you get a much better appreciation for this natural resource that is flowing right through your city.

And, as you get further downstream, it becomes very picturesque. We see a lot of wildlife including regular eagle sightings and periodically Atlantic Sturgeon jumping out of the water.  On certain cruises, we tuck into Weathersfield Cove, which is another hidden gem. You can learn a lot of history and learn a little bit about the ecology of the river by taking a cruise.  That’s what I tell people.

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