Lonely Planet Writer

Chicago's newly reopened Maritime Museum aims to salvage the city's neglected sea history

Chicago’s Maritime Museum reopened this weekend in a new space situated on Bubbly Creek, a branch of the Chicago River. The custom-designed space showcases the unexpectedly watery history of the biggest city in the US Midwest.

George Lucas plans new museum on Chicago waterfront.
Chicago waterfront – began life as a trading post in 18th century. Image by Julen Hurbe-Ormaetxe / CC BY 2.0

Chicago, capital of the US Midwest, isn’t the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of the world’s great port cities. But it began life in the 18th century as a trading post linking the US east coast (via Lake Michigan) and the Gulf of Mexico (via the Des Plaines River a short distance inland). Among the museum’s exhibits are birch bark and dugout canoes used by Native Americans and French-Canadian voyageurs working for local beaver fur barons of the time.

A diving suit on display in the Chicago Maritime Museum
A diving suit on display in the Chicago Maritime Museum

The booming port city would grow to become, for a time, America’s busiest seaport. Docks, wharves and railyards once lined the river, and steamships, cargo schooners and barges jostled for position on the waterfront.

At the end of the 19th century, with the help of a system of canals and locks, the city pulled off one of the great engineering feats of the day by reversing the flow of the Chicago River. Instead of draining into Lake Michigan, this short and otherwise unremarkable waterway now connected with the Des Plaines River to flow into the Mississippi basin, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico and the rest of the world.

A native American Indian canoe in the museum
A native American canoe in the museum

Chicago remains an important port to this day, but its modern-day port facilities are now south of the city centre, on the Calumet River. The downtown port facilities have been replaced by skyscrapers (themselves a Chicago innovation) and the Riverwalk.

Since opening in 1982, the museum has amassed an impressive permanent collection. “More than 6,000 items have been collected including watercraft, models, articles, books, displays, art, images and artifacts,” says Dirk Lohan, vice-president of the Museum. Part of the Bridgeport Art Center, the museum is open Tuesday to Saturday at 1200 W 35th Street.