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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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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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’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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Navy Pier

Built in 1916 as Municipal Pier #2, Navy Pier was planned to serve as a cargo facility for lake freighters and to provide docking space for passenger excursion steamers. However, with the onset of WWII, the Navy needed much more space for technical training.  In August 1941, Navy Pier was closed to the public, and […]

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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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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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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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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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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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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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