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 hub of United States. For more than a century, schooners and then freight steamers loaded and unloaded a major portion of the country’s lumber and grain supply on the docks of the Chicago River. Up until 1921, Chicago’s shipping business was in full display to downtown pedestrians, as stevedores and longshoremen hustled to move crates of dry goods and bulk commodities.

Today, a person could live a lifetime in Chicago without ever witnessing a freighter chug past on Lake Michigan. And yet, Chicago remains one of the busiest inland ports in the world. That’s because in order to alleviate growing congestion on the Chicago River, in 1921 the Illinois legislature authorized the city to build a deep water port 20 miles south of Chicago at Lake Calumet. Today, gigantic lake freighters and barges carrying more than 18 million tons of raw material each year, circumvent the city and head to Calumet Harbor to unload and reload their cargoes of bulk steel, sandstone, grain and rock at the modern Port of Chicago.

“Cargo passing through Chicago comes from as far as Africa and Central Europe,” says Anthony Ianello, executive director of the Illinois International Port District. “We accommodate mostly bulk commodities — building materials like steel, stone and rock. Most of the finished goods are coming from Asia and therefore head to the California coast.”

Before the advent of railways and trucking, maritime shipping on the Great Lakes was the most efficient way to move cargo. Today, the majority of general freight is transported over land, but ships continue to haul bulk cargoes such as iron ore, coal and limestone for the steel industry.  The bulk freight shipping business developed on the Great Lakes because it was more economical to transport the raw ingredients for steel to centralized plants than try to make steel on the spot.

And while land transport has dominating the commercial shipping business over the years, Chicago has remained an important maritime port because of its geographical connection with railways and highways.  Eastern railroads terminate in Chicago, and rail lines west, north, and south start in the city. And because major interstate highways pass through the Chicago area, trucking companies maintain central terminals at the Port.

The Port of Chicago includes Iroquois Landing, a 100-acre terminal with 3,000 feet of ship and barge berthing space and Lake Calumet Harbor, consisting of four transit sheds totaling over 400,000 square feet adjacent to approximately 3,000 feet of ship and barge berthing space. The harbor also houses two of the largest grain storage facilities in Illinois with a capacity of approximately 14 million bushels and one of the largest tank storage farms in Illinois, with a capacity of approximately 800,000 liquid barrels

With hundreds of ships and thousands of barges unloading and reloading cargo each year, Chicago remains the largest inland cargo port in America