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 of people and products on the lakes. To a much greater extent, sailing ships had been subject to the whims of weather, whereas steamboats operated on the tight schedules that suited an industrializing nation.

The first steam-powered vessel on Lake Michigan was the Walk-in-the-Water, which in 1821 brought United States Army troops from Detroit to Green Bay.  The first steamers were paddle wheel vessels.  In 1841, Great Lakes shipbuilders began to experiment with propeller-driven ships. This design competed with the paddle wheel into the 1860s, when the propeller-driven vessels became dominant among steamships, on the lakes as well as on the oceans.