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.


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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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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Chicago as a Trading Post

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Chicago evolved from being merely a portage for the fur trade canoes, to the site of an important trading post.  Jean Baptist Pont Du Sable, a merchant of mixed African and French parentage, was the first to appreciate the business value of Chicago. By 1779, he had established a […]

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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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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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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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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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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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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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