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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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