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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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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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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Historical Chicago Lighthouses

Since 1832, Chicago’s harbor has seen a succession of lighthouses that have helped ships, laden with cargo and passengers, safely access one of the great port cities of the United States. The oldest Chicago lighthouse was built in 1832 near the site of the Michigan Avenue bridge and stood 50 feet high. The masonry tower […]

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Great Lakes Naval Training Station

Naval Training Great Lakes, located near Waukegan in Lake County, is the U.S. Navy’s only boot camp facility.  Approximately 40,000 recruits pass through RTC annually with up to 7,000 enrolled at any time.  The base is like a small city, with its own fire department, Naval Security Force, and public works department.  While the Great […]

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Lady Elgin

Lady Elgin

The Lady Elgin was known as the “Queen of the Lakes” because of her speed, reliability and gracious appointments. For nine years she sailed the lakes in safety, usually operating out of Chicago. The collision between the Lady Elgin and the lumber schooner Augusta on September 8, 1860 was one of the worst disasters in […]

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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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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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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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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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