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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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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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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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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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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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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Chicago-to-Mackinac Race

The highlight of the boating season in the Windy City is the Chicago-to-Mackinac Race.  From its humble beginnings in 1898, the race has become a gala occasion bringing together yachtsmen from all over the world.  The 331-mile race is one of the oldest and longest cruising races in the world.

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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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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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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 [...]

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