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.


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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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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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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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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A Lakefront for the People

Chicago’s 29 miles of open and free lakefront can be credited to the city’s visionary civic leaders. Thanks to the foresight of catalogue mogul Ward, in 1890, the town’s lakefront was ruled to be “Public Ground – A Common to Remain Forever Open and Free of any Buildings, or Other Obstruction whatever.”  Ward launched a […]

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Illinois & Michigan Canal

Constructed between 1836 and 1848, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, allowed boat transportation from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The canal enabled navigation across the Chicago Portage and helped establish Chicago as a major interior transportation hub, opening before railroads were laid in the area. Its function was […]

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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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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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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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