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. Join us at our new location on the shores of Bubbly Creek at the Bridgeport Art Center.

 

 

 

 

U.S.S. Michigan and Merchant

The first iron-hulled ship on the Great Lakes was the U.S.S Michigan, launched in 1843.  She more than proved the utility of iron in marine building by remaining in active service longer than any other iron-hulled ship. In 1861, the first commercial iron-hulled ship, the Merchant, began her career of 20 years of service on […]

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Excursion Ships and the World’s Columbian Exposition

One of the most popular passenger routes was across the lake from Chicago to the Michigan ports of South Haven and Glen Haven.  Excursion ships brought tourists for weekend visits and returned with cargoes of fresh fruit from the orchards of southwestern Michigan. For more than 20 years, the largest and most elegant of Chicago’s […]

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Indian and French Fur Traders

Chicago’s maritime history begins with the American Indians.  Many different native people’s called Chicago home, including the Illinois, Miami, Ottawa and Potawatomi. All of these people were masters of the craft of canoe building.  The most adaptable and useful canoe made by the Indians were the birchbark canoes. Rolls of birchbark were peeled off of […]

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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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Making a Modern Port

In the first decade of the 20th century, the heavy industry businesses relocated from the Chicago River to the edges of the city, and ship sizes became too great for the narrow downtown waterway.  South Chicago, where the Calumet River enters Lake Michigan, became the new hub for the ore carriers and grain ships. In […]

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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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Christmas Tree Ships

The last ships to dock in Chicago at the end of the shipping season were the Christmas Tree Ships. The late November-early December voyages were extremely hazardous. From 1887 to 1918, Herman Schuenemann or his family sold Christmas trees from the deck of a schooner tied up at the Rush Street bridge. Captain Schuenemann perished […]

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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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Navy Pier

Built in 1916 as Municipal Pier #2, Navy Pier was planned to serve as a cargo facility for lake freighters and to provide docking space for passenger excursion steamers. However, with the onset of WWII, the Navy needed much more space for technical training.  In August 1941, Navy Pier was closed to the public, and […]

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Eastland Disaster

On July 24, 1915, the steamer Eastland, docked on the Chicago River, was boarded by 2,500 happy excursionists from the Western Electric Company.  They were bound for Michigan City, Indiana and a day of music and picnicking.  The improperly ballasted ship suddenly pitched on its side as it prepared to leave its river berth. Jack […]

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