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.

port 1

Chicago’s Modern Port

An International Shipping Hub Serving all Corners of the Globe As an important passageway from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system, Chicago thrived as a port city in the 19th century. The Illinois & Michigan Canal, finished in 1848, enabled navigation across the Chicago Portage and helped establish the city as the transportation […]

Learn More...

DSCN0943

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.”

Learn More...

DSCN0947

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0921

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0958

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0950

Submarines

The U-505, the World War II German submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry, is perhaps the best known and the most widely visited warship in Chicago history.  Less well-know is the UC-97, a German submarine from World War I, that was brought to Chicago as part of a war bond drive in 1919.  […]

Learn More...

DSCN0873

Ft. Dearborn

Built in 1803 beside the Chicago River, Ft. Dearborn was constructed by troops under Captain John Whistler and named in honor of Henry Dearborn, then United States Secretary of War. The original fort was destroyed following the Battle of Ft. Dearborn in 1812, and a new fort was constructed on the same site in 1816. […]

Learn More...

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0934

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0869

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, […]

Learn More...