Setting Sail

Chicago's history and development stem from its axis at the foot of the Great Lakes. This strategic location gave the City access to the St Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic Ocean as well as the radiating rivers that lead to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, a great network of freight trains serves the City moving Midwestern produce and products to the world and returning with goods from around the nation and the world. At varying times, Chicago has been the busiest port or one of the busiest ports in the world. It is a tall order to tell the story of Chicago's waterways and their emotional and prosperous impact on 19th, 20th and 21st century American growth.

Welcome to the Chicago Maritime Museum and our developing story of Chicago's maritime traditions and impact.

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Tugboats

The workhorses of the Chicago harbor were the tugboats.  During the 1870s, a tow from outside the breakwater to a berth in the river could cost as much as $25. During slack periods in the economy, which were frequent in the 1890s, tugboats desperate to recruit work would sometimes steam out as far as Milwaukee [...]

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The Burnham Plan

Because of Daniel Burnham’s plan for Chicago in 1909, the beaches and parks of the lakefront have been Chicago’s front yard for more than a century.  It took the national tragedy of the Great Depression to secure the federal funding that made it possible to partially implement Burnham’s plans for the north and south lakefronts.  [...]

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Yachting and Recreational Boating

On any given summer day, thousands of boaters head to Lake Michigan for sailing, cruising and yacht racing.  Today, seven harbors shelter over five thousand boats. Organized boating began in 1875 with the establishment of the Chicago Yacht Club.  It is the oldest yacht club on Lake Michigan.  The Columbia and Jackson Park Yacht Clubs followed [...]

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Chicago Shipbuilding

The Chicago Shipbuilding Company, located in South Chicago, was one of the most notable builders of steel ships for the lake trade.  In March of 1891 the company launched the Marina, the first steel-hulled ship built on Lake Michigan.  They also built many barges and were the first to do away with sails on barges, [...]

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Chicago-to-Mackinac Race

The highlight of the boating season in the Windy City is the Chicago-to-Mackinac Race.  From its humble beginnings in 1898, the race has become a gala occasion bringing together yachtsmen from all over the world.  The 331-mile race is one of the oldest and longest cruising races in the world.

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Illinois Naval Militia

The naval vessels with the longest history of association with Chicago were those associated with training sailors, which was first done by the Illinois Naval Militia. The militia trained on the USS Michigan every summer from 1890 until 1901.  The citizens of the Naval Militia were known in the press as “bluejackets” or “tars.”

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Great Lakes Naval Training Station

Naval Training Great Lakes, located near Waukegan in Lake County, is the U.S. Navy’s only boot camp facility.  Approximately 40,000 recruits pass through RTC annually with up to 7,000 enrolled at any time.  The base is like a small city, with its own fire department, Naval Security Force, and public works department.  While the Great [...]

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Whaleback

The Whalebacks and “600 Footers”

A unique stage in the development of Great Lakes shipping was the era of the whalebacks, 1888-1896.  The invention of Captain Alexander McDougal, the whalebacks were flat-bottomed, rounded top, steel ships that were remarkably steady sailors.  In less than a decade, 43 of this type of ship were built, most for use on the Great [...]

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St. Lawrence Seaway

During the late 19th and early 20th century, Chicago maritime commerce faced stiff competition from regional railway shipping and trucking.  When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, it was hoped that the improved locks linking the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean would revive the Port of Chicago.  Navy Pier was refurbished for the [...]

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City of Bridges

By the mid-1900s, Chicago’s river port was bridged by more spans than any other harbor in the world. The location of Chicago’s dynamic harbor in the heart of the city was a frequent source of frustration for pedestrians and teamsters. On a single day in 1854, a total of 24,000 pedestrians and 6,000 teams of [...]

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