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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Chicago as a Trading Post

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Chicago evolved from being merely a portage for the fur trade canoes, to the site of an important trading post.  Jean Baptist Pont Du Sable, a merchant of mixed African and French parentage, was the first to appreciate the business value of Chicago. By 1779, he had established a […]

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U.S. Life-Saving Stations

In addition to lighthouses, the government operated life-saving stations along the shores of Lake Michigan.  The United States Life-Saving Service dated from 1871, and once operated stations at Evanston, Chicago, Jackson Park and South Chicago. The Life-Saving Service compiled an impressive record during its brief history.  The Evanston station, for example, rescued all of the […]

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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 Shipwrecks

The dangers of Chicago’s waters, where more people have lost their lives than anywhere else on the Great Lakes, are twofold.  Chicago’s position near the far southern end of the lake leaves it exposed to the full fury of northern gale waters that have been driven the full 300 miles of the lake.  Off Chicago, […]

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Historical Chicago Lighthouses

Since 1832, Chicago’s harbor has seen a succession of lighthouses that have helped ships, laden with cargo and passengers, safely access one of the great port cities of the United States. The oldest Chicago lighthouse was built in 1832 near the site of the Michigan Avenue bridge and stood 50 feet high. The masonry tower […]

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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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Grain and Lumber Trade

Nineteenth century Chicago was a schooner city. Sailing ships made Chicago one of the world’s busiest ports. In 1871, the year of the Great Fire, more ships arrived in Chicago than in any other North American city. Schooners made up the bulk of the sailing fleet and were responsible for the rise of two of […]

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Warships on Lake Michigan

Unlike Lake Erie or Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan has never been the seat of war.  Yet, as the greatest port on the Inland Seas, Chicago has frequently been host to naval vessels.  Gunboats, submarines and aircraft carriers have all played a role in Chicago’s maritime history.

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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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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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