Grain and Lumber Trade

Nineteenth century Chicago was a schooner city. Sailing ships made Chicago one of the world’s busiest ports. In 1871, the year of the Great Fire, more ships arrived in Chicago than in any other North American city. Schooners made up the bulk of the sailing fleet and were responsible for the rise of two of the city’s earliest and greatest industries: the grain trade and the lumber trade.

Lumber was largely traffic between Chicago and other smaller Lake Michigan ports.  During the years after the Civil War, lumber centers in Michigan and Wisconsin regularly sent hundreds of schooner loads of lumber to the Chicago market. In 1870, schooner traffic had transformed Chicago into the leading city of the west. Wolf Point became the site of the Lumber Exchange, where all cargoes of lumber entering the river were inspected and sold. It was not unusual for one hundred vessels a day to register at Wolf Point. Well into the 20th century schooners continued to play an important role in the transportation of lumber.

By the late 1880s, steamships had wrestled the bulk of the grain trade from schooners. Yet during the half-century when schooners were the principle means by which Chicago’s giant grain market was linked to the rest of the world, the city’s finest sailing ships were dedicated to the trade.