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.

Whaleback

The Whalebacks and “600 Footers”

A unique stage in the development of Great Lakes shipping was the era of the whalebacks, 1888-1896.  The invention of Captain Alexander McDougal, the whalebacks were flat-bottomed, rounded top, steel ships that were remarkably steady sailors.  In less than a decade, 43 of this type of ship were built, most for use on the Great […]

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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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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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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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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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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-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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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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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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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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