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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Reversing the River’s Flow

While the Chicago River continued to play a minor role in commerce, the growth of Calumet Harbor made it necessary to adapt the area’s inland waterways to the needs of the rapidly expanding Chicago area.  In 1900, the Metropolitan Sanitary District succeeded in permanently reversing the flow of the Chicago River.  Since the late 1860s, [...]

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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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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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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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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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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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Steamboats and Steel Hulls

For more than a half-century the schooners dominated the Port of Chicago, but throughout the long age of sail on Lake Michigan, steamships gradually assumed more and more of the trade.  During the 1880s and 1890s steamships drove the schooners from their niche as the region’s bulk carriers. Steam power brought reliability to the movement [...]

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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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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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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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