A Brief Chicago Maritime History

By David M. Young  ¶

The French-Canadian voyageur Louis Jolliet was the first to notice the potential utility of the place that was to become Chicago when in 1673 he paddled through the area on his way home to Montreal toward the end of his voyage of discovery with Jacques Marquette. The American Indian nations who had inhabited the area, the Illiniwek and Wea, as well as the Potawatomi, who were soon to live there, knew the place as a canoe portage between the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers’ watersheds, but they considered Checagou too marshy for permanent settlements.


Courtesy of Chicago Maritime Museum

However, Jolliet had commerce on his mind; he wanted to establish a fur-trading business in the American interior and saw the utility of digging a canal “half a league” long to connect the Des Plaines River flowing to the Mississippi and the Chicago River flowing the other way via the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence. Although he did not mention it in the accounts of his voyage, such a canal would inevitably result in some sort of settlement. He had no way of knowing that within two centuries, the sluggish Chicago River would become one of the busiest ports in the world and the city that arose on its banks would become one of the largest on the continent–the transportation center of the North American interior.

The enlightened disinterest of Louis XIV in colonizing the American interior, assorted Indian wars, and the eventual collapse of New France at the end of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War in America) in 1763 conspired to put an end to any Gallic plans for a canal or settlement at Chicago. The British, who won the war, had little interest in developing Chicago: Detroit was their western outpost. So it was up to the newly independent United States after 1783 to try to develop Chicago. The first task the new nation faced in the interior was to neutralize the sometimes hostile tribes, and with that in mind in 1803 it built Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River, where it empties into Lake Michigan.

Still the place languished as a sleepy trading post for almost three decades, until the federal government and the newly created State of Illinois dusted off Jolliet’s proposal for a canal and decided to do something about it. Two events that occurred far from Illinois’s borders were to have an enormous influence on Chicago’s eventual development. At the other end of the Great Lakes, New York State in 1825 completed DeWitt Clinton’s Erie Canal to link the lakes at Buffalo with the Hudson River and the growing port of New York. That led to the settlement of the Great Lakes basin.

The other event was the application of the steam engine to power vessels in the early nineteenth century by a variety of inventors in Britain and America. That led to the development of steamboats that could plod upstream against the current on rivers that were navigable within a hundred miles of Chicago and, somewhat later, of ships (on the Great Lakes they are also called boats even though some of the dwarfed oceangoing craft) capable of quick traversing those inland seas and into the Chicago River. The only problem that remained was connecting the rivers on which the steamboats operated and the lakes on which the ships sailed. Such a connection would extend New York’s economic hegemony via the rivers inland across the Great Plains for another thousand miles to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

There wasn’t much money available for digging a canal in a frontier state like Illinois in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and even a federal land grant for the project proved inadequate to finance it. But just the anticipation of such a project in the 1830s sparked a speculative land boom that resulted in the transformation of Chicago from a sleepy trading post to a bustling little city.

The Canal Age

It might seem strange from our prospective in the twenty-first century, when airplanes span the continent in a matter of hours and automobiles are ubiquitous, that building a canal would generate that much excitement. But the first half of the nineteenth century was the Canal Age in America. People preferred the comfort of traveling by water. Stagecoaches were drafty, bumpy, dusty, hot in summer, and cold in winter, and at certain times of year when the rain fell, the roads became impassable. Freight wagons were slower and more expensive. So despite the fact that a new-fangled invention called the railroad had burst upon the scene, the states built canals as fast as they could to connect their natural waterways. Illinois’ International Improvements Act, approved in 1837, provided the financial mechanism to build Chicago’s canal as well as railroads covering much of the rest of the state.

When construction finally started on the canal, it had been decided that Jolliet’s proposed ditch connecting the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers was inadequate, that a 97-mile canal was needed to connect Chicago with the head of navigation of the Illinois River at LaSalle. By the time the canal was finished in 1848, after an interruption when the state almost went bankrupt, Chicago was already a bustling lake port and city approaching 30,000 inhabitants. The Illinois and Michigan Canal quickly turned the Chicago River into a traffic nightmare clogged with sailing ships and steamers off the Great Lakes, tugs, and canal boats.

The Railroad Arrives

As it turned out, 1848 was perhaps the most important year in Chicago’s development. Not only did the canal open, but the steam elevator that permitted fast loading of ship holds, the telegraph, and the railroad all arrived. In fact, the Galena & Chicago Union Rail Road was built as an extension of the Great Lakes. Serving as a conveyance to meet the ships visiting Chicago, it hauled the manufactures and pioneers from the East out onto the prairie and the agricultural products of their labors to feed the populations of the Atlantic Seaboard and Europe. The Aurora Branch Railroad was built two years later with the same purpose in mind, and the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad in 1852 was intended as a competitor of the I&M Canal as well as an extension of the lakes.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Chicago was already the nation’s largest railroad center, with ten lines fanning out across the Midwest and reaching various ports on the Atlantic Coast, and by the end of the decade it was linked by rail to California on the Pacific Coast. It was also possible for a person—or a bushel of wheat—to travel entirely by water from Chicago to New Orleans, New York, Montreal, and Europe.

Despite the growing presence of railroads, the defining characteristic of Chicago’s skyline in the middle of the nineteenth century was the jungle of ships’ masts looming above the Chicago River. For the most part, they were the tallest structures in town—at least before the Great Fire of 1871 caused the city to shift from wood frame to masonry construction.

The port, which was visited by thousands of ships annually, was a world unto itself. Lumber hookers—sailing schools piled high with timber to build Chicago and the settlements across the treeless plains—crowded the river alongside canal boats, tugs, packets, side-wheelers, propellers, and assorted sailing vessels hauling the harvest east to market. In 1871 nearly a billion board feet of timber arrived in  Chicago by ship, 32 million feet left by ship for points east after processed into lumber, and another 37 million feet went west on the canal. More than 56.5 million bushels of grain left Chicago by ship for the East that year.

The city—and especially its port—was the place where sailors from small towns along the Great Lakes and immigrants bound for pioneer homesteads on the plains got their introduction to the Wild West. Hookers (the other kind) inhabited the sleazy dives along the banks of the river, where a teenage sailor from Ohio could lose his virginity, get drunk, and get mugged all in a night. Con men abounded to loot unsuspecting pigeons of their wealth without having to resort to violence. Some vessel captains insisted on being armed when they pulled into the Chicago River.

There were great disasters on the lakes that, as Herman Melville noted in Moby Dick, “have drowned many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.” Besides storms there were collisions, fire, and explosions that claimed ships. Other ships simply disappeared, leaving anxious wives, shipowners, and consignment merchants on the docks wondering day after day what had happened. Finally they gave up, went home, and filed for probate. Lady Elgin, Seabird, Phoenix, and Alpena are the names of long-lost ships that are now largely forgotten. Sometimes even the sleepy Chicago River turned ugly, as it did in the flood of 1849 and when the Eastland capsized and went down a few feet from shore in the middle of downtown Chicago. The river last acted up in 1992, when a drilling crew poked a hole in an abandoned freight subway tunnel beneath it and flooded most of the basements in the Loop.

Maritime Commerce Evolves

Even as the port of Chicago reached its zenith in the 1870s, maritime commerce was changing. The railroads had long before taken away from the lakes and canal the passenger and high-value merchandise freight business and quickly monopolized the growing meatpacking traffic for which the waterways were unable to compete. The refrigerated railcar was too fast and efficient. The forests of Michigan and Wisconsin that provided Chicago with its lumber trade by the end of the century had been expunged. Conservation was not a familiar topic in the nineteenth century. The last vestige of the lumber trade for all intents and purposes disappeared in 1912 when Herman Scheunemann’s Christmas tree ship (Rouse Simmons) went down with all hands in a storm.

Advances in iron and steel construction and steam engines made possible the development of ever-larger vessels that rendered the sailing schooners obsolete. Thus ore boats and colliers capable of carrying thousands of tons of cargo came into existence to successfully compete with the inexpensive 200-ton schooners.

This coincided with the gradual shift of the city’s port from the Chicago River downtown to the Calumet River on the Far South Side. As the city was rebuilding from the Great Fire of 1871, land downtown became too expensive for industrial use, so the growing steel industry moved its operations to the South Side, followed by assorted manufacturers. Steel needed huge quantities of iron ore and coal, which were most economically hauled by ship.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal could not compete forever against the rate-cutting railroads, so its primary role late in the nineteenth century became that of a sewage ditch. Chicago pumped its effluent into the canal and downriver to St. Louis and New Orleans to avoid polluting the lake from which it drew its drinking water. Eventually, when the canal proved inadequate as Chicago’s sewer, the city dug new, bigger ones: the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Cal Sag Channel.

The Twentieth Century

As the twentieth century dawned, the nation’s river and canal system was in dire straits, and Great Lakes traffic had begun what would be a long decline. The railroads had put most of the steamboats out of business, and the barges that replaced them were carrying little more than coal. The I&M Canal west of Joliet was rapidly obsolescing. The principal traffic on the new Sanitary and Ship Canal between Lockport and Chicago was sewage.

On the lakes, fewer ships called on Chicago, but they were made of steel and powered by steam engines and were larger than their predecessors. The declining cross-lake packet industry still carried some vacation passenger traffic and fruit and vegetables but was beginning to suffer from competition from motor trucks and automobiles. Ironically, the city built Municipal Pier (later Navy Pier) in 1916 to get the packets off the Chicago River docks just as that once bustling industry began its precipitous decline into oblivion, accelerated by the nation’s hard-road building program after World War I.

The war had a positive effect on one segment of the maritime industry, however. The railroads became clogged with wartime traffic they couldn’t handle and were federalized for the first and only time in their history. As a result, the federal government decided to resuscitate the moribund riverboat industry to provide some alternatives to railroads. The massive public works project included the creation of a nine-foot shipping channel from New Orleans to Chicago by building a series of locks and dams on the Mississippi, Illinois, and Des Plaines rivers between St. Louis and Chicago. The task was finished in 1933 with the completion of what is called the Illinois Waterway, connecting the Sanitary and Ship Canal with the Mississippi.

The improved waterway proved its utility during World War II, when assorted warships were built in Chicago (patrol craft), at Seneca on the Illinois River (LSTs), and at Manitowoc, Wisconsin (submarines), and floated down the rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. However, the decline in Chicago’s maritime trade resumed despite another massive federal effort to revive it.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Bring International Traffic

The United States and Canada combined to build the St. Lawrence Seaway to give oceangoing ships access to the Great Lakes. International traffic increased for a time, and the city reopened Navy Pier, which had been used as the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, but the continuing development of the University of Illinois, but the continuing development of ever-larger ships on the oceans limited the seaway’s new locks. So Navy Pier was redeveloped in the 1990s as a recreational facility catering to the lakefront and Chicago River had become recreational waterways. The last big ship to regularly use the river was probably the tug barge E-63 on its trips between the lake and Sanitary and Ship Canal at the end of the twentieth century. By then the Calumet River and lake had become the city’s principal port.

But the new port, too, was constrained by events beyond the city’s control. One by one, the big but obsolescing steel mills on the city’s South Side closed, as did a number of industries serving them, like the coal trans-loading facilities. The container revolution in freight was another culprit.

The city and state built an intermodal (container) transfer port near 95th Street to serve the growing market, but it was closed and converted into a park after the railroads took away the container business. Once standard rail-marine shipping containers were developed in the early 1960s, it became cheaper to off-load (at ocean ports) containers bound between Europe and Asia and ship them across the North American continent (through Chicago) by rail than it was to use the Panama Canal or St. Lawrence Seaway.

As the twenty-first century dawned, a few lake freighters still called on Chicago as did some oceangoing tramp steamers. The two canals still had a healthy traffic in barges, but nowhere near their capacity. An occasional oceanic tour ship visited the city carrying Europeans across the Atlantic to see the fall colors along the Great Lakes, but the passengers flew home from O’Hare International Airport. The only appreciable cross-lake traffic was aboard the Badger, a rebuilt car ferry that plodded between Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, far north of Howard Street. The huge grain elevators that stood along the city’s two rivers were silent.

Yet the Chicago River bustled with recreational boats, water taxis, and tour boats. Navy Pier’s dock was crowded with tour boats during the summer season. The most exciting maritime events in Chicago by then were the Venetian Night festival, when the city was visited by surviving square riggers from around the globe, and the annual yacht race to Mackinac Island.

This article is excerpted from the Introduction of From Lumber Hookers to the Hooligan Fleet: A Treasury of Chicago Maritime History, edited by The Chicago Maritime Museum (nee the Chicago Maritime Society), published April 1, 2008, by Lake Claremont Press in Chicago. Permission to excerpt was granted by the Chicago Maritime Museum, 1200 West 35th Street, Suite 0E-5010, Chicago, Illinois 60609. Telephone 773-376-1982.

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