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.

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.

Learn More...

DSCN0909

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0938

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0881

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0921

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0936

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0956

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0933

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, […]

Learn More...

DSCN0947

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 […]

Learn More...

DSCN0900

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 […]

Learn More...