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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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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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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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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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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Calumet Sag Channel

Calumet Sag Channel

In 1913, the Corps of Engineers linked the Sanitary Canal to Calumet Harbor by means of the 16.5-mile Calumet Sag Channel.  This meant that barges coming up the Mississippi River system need not traverse the Chicago River at all, but that they could go directly to Lake Calumet.

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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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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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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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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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Aircraft Carriers

In 1942, with the nation engaged in war against Japan, there was an acute need for pilots trained to land on aircraft carriers.  Commander Richard Whitehead argued that the secure waters of the Great Lakes was the best place for training.  The paddlewheel steamer Seeandbee was hastily converted into the aircraft carrier, USS Wolverine.  A [...]

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