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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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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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.  […]

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Maritime Commerce Today

In recent years, commercial shipping through Chicago has dropped off with competition from nearby ports such as Burns Harbor, Indiana Harbor Ship Canal and Milwaukee.  But with its complex networks of harbors, canals and rivers, maritime commerce remains a vital part of Chicago.

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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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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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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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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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Aircraft Carriers

In 1942, with the nation engaged in war against Japan, there was an acute need for pilots trained to land on aircraft carriers.  Commander Richard Whitehead argued that the secure waters of the Great Lakes was the best place for training.  The paddlewheel steamer Seeandbee was hastily converted into the aircraft carrier, USS Wolverine.  A […]

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Calumet Sag Channel

Calumet Sag Channel

In 1913, the Corps of Engineers linked the Sanitary Canal to Calumet Harbor by means of the 16.5-mile Calumet Sag Channel.  This meant that barges coming up the Mississippi River system need not traverse the Chicago River at all, but that they could go directly to Lake Calumet.

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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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