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Chris D’Addario and Michael Cohen pose with their new DUKW boat, the sixth in their fleet. (Photo/Henry Clay Webster)
They migrated here because of the ducks. Well, DUKW boats, to be sure.
But unlike a lot of transplants with unusual “How I came to Pittsburgh” stories, Chris D’Addario and Michael Cohen have stuck by their original mission.
D’Addario and Cohen’s Just Ducky Tours uses DUKW boats — refurbished, amphibious WWII-era vehicles — to give sightseers narrative city tours from both road and river.
And after 13 years of running their eccentric DUKW (pronounced “duck”) boat tours, more recently from a little warehouse in California-Kirkbride, they can finally say it’s paid off.
In fact, the small company has achieved the impossible — expanding its workforce and capital during the economic downturn of the last two years. In mid-February, D’Addario picked up the company’s sixth DUKW boat from its former owner in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The two entrepreneurs met in ninth grade homeroom at Brockton High School in a Boston suburb. Becoming fast friends, they both harbored the goal of opening their own business. Just what kind of business, they weren’t sure.
At some point the two entrepreneur wannabes heard about the first DUKW tour business, founded shortly after WWII out in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. Neither D’Addario nor Cohen were trained mechanics or knew anything about the retired U.S. Army vehicles, but they didn’t let ignorance sway them, and read all they could find on the boats, as well as rode on DUKW boat tours in different cities.
“Like a lot of things built in WWII, the generals didn’t like it. This is one of the ideas that no one believed in,” D’Addario said.
The boats, designed by yacht builders Sparkman & Stevens and built by General Motors, were first used by the British. The British military then taught the U.S. Army how to drive the vehicles once the United States joined the war effort in 1942.
According to General Motors naming practice during that time, each letter in the DUKW designation has its own meaning. The “D” indicates the vehicle was built in 1942, the “U” stands for “utility,” the “K” indicates all-wheel drive and the “W” indicates two powered rear axels.
The boats are credited with carrying much of the cargo onto Normandy beaches on D-Day, but the military produced the amphibious vehicles in such great numbers that it sank many in the Atlantic before returning home from Europe.
Before D’Addario and Cohen could buy one of the DUKW boats, a Boston company opened with the same idea. Knowing that the city couldn’t support two similar businesses, especially with the hefty Boston tax levies, the partners decided to scout nearby cities for a better fit.
“Back then we scouted out quite a few cities, but Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” were the main competitors, D’Addario said. “We thought we’d find a city with a history behind it.”
“I was driving around Baltimore, and I just couldn’t find a good drive line,” said D’Addario, referring to clear roads that would offer the best views the city had to offer. He added that Philadelphia didn’t have accessible river entry points either.
“We both realized that the only way this business would work is if we had a good story to tell,” D’Addario said.
The Myrna Faith undergoing routine maintenance in Just Ducky Tour’s California-Kirkbride garage. (Photo/Henry Clay Webster)
Pittsburgh’s long history and surplus of available water entry ramps made it the perfect fit. The pair moved to Pittsburgh and bought their first boat, the green Myrna Faith, in the mid-1990s. Through a mixture of tinkering, reading manuals and hiring the occasional mechanic, they fixed the boat and began running tours in 1997.
Just Ducky Tours separates itself from other DUKW boat tours by training high-energy tour guides to give riotous history lectures at speeds as fast as 20 jokes-per-minute. With tours running an hour long, it makes for a quick but thorough run through of Pittsburgh’s lively story.
“We love telling the story of Allegheny City and how acrimonious [the annexation to Pittsburgh] was,” D’Addario said. “We might give people an abbreviated version of history, but it’s a very approachable version of history.”
The idea caught on quick enough for the two to purchase a second boat, Dahntahn Dottie, the following year in 1998. But their business didn’t produce enough money, and both Cohen and D’Addario took second jobs during the offseason for the first five years of running the business.
Cohen got a job at the Post Office, and at one point, D’Addario moved back to Boston to work at a restaurant.
The business finally started turning a slight profit in 2002, and the next year they bought a third boat — Miss Sliberty.
In 2007, Just Ducky had an extremely busy summer, but the owners ignored it because of the news in the economy.
“In 2008 we thought that there wouldn’t be the discretionary dollars there, but what we found is that since people were staying home, they were making us a part of their summer vacations,” D’Adarrio said. “Maybe they didn’t have enough money for Disney World, but they could afford us.”
With loans from the Northside Community Development Fund, the owners purchased two more DUKWs — Southside Sally and Norside Nelly — in the summer of 2009. Business was so good last summer that they were running all five boats full-time and employing over a dozen full-time tour guides.
Just Ducky Tours mechanic Joe Miller, of Crafton, works on Southside Sally in the company’s garage. (Photo/Henry Clay Webster)
It became clear that Just Ducky needed a sixth boat to allow the business to honor its reservations even if one boat required mechanical work.
Cohen said he envisions the business growing to about eight boats, but to do that, they’ll have to expand their warehouse or find a new one. With six boats under one roof, the Jacksonia Street shop is at full capacity, and the owners are talking about knocking out the back wall to build an edition.
Though D’Addario said the upkeep cost of DUKW boats makes for small profit margins, the business has finally provided the breathing room where money isn’t the only concern.
Simple mechanical upkeep like converting the new boat from drum brakes to disc brakes alone will cost $7,000.
But like the rest of the Northside, D’Addario, a Central Northside resident, said he only sees his business improving.
“I think what’s happened here in the last few years is amazing,” D’Addario said. “It’s fighting an uphill battle, and it’s winning.”