Chicago Maritime Museum Opens in Bridgeport

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The new permanent location for the Chicago Maritime Museum opens on Saturday with the lofty goal of salvaging the city's almost-forgotten maritime history.

“Chicago Tonight” got a preview of the new space located on the Bubbly Creek branch of the Chicago River. 

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The famous Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, grandson of Mies Van Der Rohe, designed the museum. 

“The Chicago Maritime Museum aims to become recognized as the leading authority on our waterways and their significance to Chicago and the world in the past, present and future,” Lohan, who serves as museum vice president, said in a press release. “It is a fact that the waterways in our region determined the location of the city of Chicago and impacted our history.”

You may know that Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper and the railroad capital of the nation. But most Chicagoans have no idea that our city was once America’s busiest seaport and that it was founded as a maritime city.

If you look at Chicago’s beautiful lakefront park system and the skyscrapers along the river with Wacker Drive and the new Riverwalk, it’s as if this whole earlier maritime history has vanished.

The river and the lakefront were entirely different a century or so ago. Docks and wharves lined the river along with railroad yards. The river was clogged with schooners and canal barges loaded with raw materials like lumber and grain, while the lakefront was swarming with steamships and cargo schooners.

The Maritime Museum opens June 4 at its new location at the Bridgeport Art Center. The Maritime Museum opens June 4 at its new location at the Bridgeport Art Center.

So why would Chicago, a city that is thousands of miles from either coast, be such a major seaport?

Something called the continental divide served as a muddy portage between the Des Plaines River and the Chicago River, connecting the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. And in the 1700s the fur trade was booming. Beaver fur was used for hats and this made people like John Jacob Astor into multi-millionaires.

The museum shows examples of birch bark and dugout canoes used by Native Americans and French Canadian voyageurs working for Astor and other fur magnates who paddled to Chicago to exchange goods. And there’s a typical voyageur costume on display as well.

This trading post eventually became a major world city. We had known since the 1600s that this portage was the only missing link in an otherwise continuous waterway from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. And in the age before trains, waterways were the state of the art in transportation.

In the early 1800s, the fledgling U.S. government started digging a canal across that portage and land speculators realized that a city built at the mouth of the Chicago River would be at the center of the most important trade route in the country.

The government booted out the Native Americans in a series of treaties, opening the door for a flood of settlers who poured into Chicago to make their fortunes. The city became the fastest growing in the world, and quickly became that bustling port city we talked about earlier.

The Chicago River wasn’t just a port for cargo, either. Another room in the museum shows the age of steamships in Chicago and many of these were enormous passenger liners. People would use them to go to resort destinations like Michigan City and St. Joseph, for example.

One of those steamers was the ill-fated S.S. Eastland, which capsized in the Chicago River in 1915. One of the most amazing artifacts in the museum is a dive suit that was actually used in the search and rescue operation. The ship had some 2,500 Western Electric employees on board heading for a company picnic in Michigan City. More than 800 perished in the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Great Lakes.

But the Eastland disaster didn’t spell the end of a maritime Chicago. The transformation was already in the works as railroads and highways improved.  In the 1920s, all the docks and wharves along the river were demolished and replaced with Wacker Drive, which Daniel Burnham had proposed in his 1909 Plan of Chicago.

The industrial lakefront was replaced with our lakefront park system, Illinois Center and river-edge developments in Streeterville.

Chicago still has a maritime economy, but our port is now in the Calumet River to the south. From the downtown waterfront the big ore freighters and other ships going to Calumet are over the horizon and we don’t see them. 

And on the river we still have barge traffic. But most of the boating we see in Chicago now consists of tour boats and kayaks in the river and sailboats and yachts on the lakefront.

This summer the world’s most famous sailboat race, the America’s Cup holds preliminaries in Chicago – the first time the race will be held in fresh water.

This new museum really is a window into a lost history, and one way the museum recreates that history is with models. Lohan has built many architectural models in his long career, so he has a soft spot for the ship models.

The Chicago Maritime Museum is scheduled to be open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on June 4. Tuesday through Saturday. Hours are subject to change. Double check times before heading out the door. The museum is located at 1200 W. 35 th St.

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