The Chicago Maritime Museum works to preserve and raise awareness of Chicago's maritime history. The city became the major metropolis it is today because of its location between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River system, enabling it to become one of the most vital ports in the United States. The museum opened in 2016 on the first floor of the Bridgeport Art Center, and posseses a collection of over 10,000 artifacts. Items of note include a large collection of historically significant canoes and an original diving suit from the 1915 Eastland disaster. The museum also hosts a historical maritime lecture series as well as other community programs.
The growth and success
of Chicago is directly attributable to the city’s strategic location between
the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system. The area’s potential was
first revealed to Europeans in 1673 when French explorers Louis Jolliet and
Father Jacques Marquette were led by Native Americans to a small portage
connecting the Des Plaines River (a tributary of the Mississippi River) and
Chicago River (a tributary of Lake Michigan). The portage, a piece of land
suitable for transporting cargo and small boats from one body of water to
another, made it possible to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi
River and down through to the Gulf of Mexico. A thriving fur trade soon started
developing in the region between the Native Americans and the French; later the
French would be replaced by the British, and then the Americans. Many towns and
settlements grew around the area to capitalize on the trade.
The City of Chicago was
not officially founded until 1830. In 1848 the Illinois & Michigan Canal
was completed, which replaced the portage and allowed for complete waterway
access from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. The city grew
rapidly as it was flooded by a new wave of commerce. Wharves, warehouses, and
factories crowded the shores as hundreds of ships filled the waters, carrying
goods destined to be transported all over the world. Despite being far inland,
Chicago became the busiest port in America by the late 1800s; at one point it
was frequented by more ships than at San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia,
Mobile, Charleston, and Baltimore combined. During the early 1900s traffic
began declining in Chicago as newer ships were too big for the harbors, and the
river shipping industry overall was displaced by the rise of railroads and
automobile highways. By the 1920s, all of the wharves had been demolished.
Today the commercial port is located in the Calumet River, while the shores of
Chicago are primarily dominated now by recreational boating.
With most of the
visible remnants of Chicago’s maritime history gone, efforts were made to save
what was left. The Chicago Maritime Society was established in 1982 to preserve
and tell the story of Chicago’s relationship with the area’s waterways. Over
the years the society collected over 10,000 artifacts of maritime history, but
lacked a place to permanently display them. Finally in June 2016 the society,
now under the name Chicago Maritime Museum, opened a permanent location on the
first floor of the Bridgeport Art Center. The 10,000 square-foot space was
designed by architect Dirk Lohan, chairman of the museum and grandson of famous
architect Mies Van Der Rohe. The museum is located in Chicago’s Bridgeport
community, and sits by the shore of Bubbly Creek, a tributary of the Chicago
River; the museum eventually hopes to move to Navy Pier for its stronger
connections to the city’s maritime history.
The museum displays a
chronological history of Chicago’s waterways from the days of French fur
trading to recreational boating in the modern era. Artifacts on display include
artwork and images; various model ships; a large collection of historically significant canoes, many
belonging to popular canoe maker Ralph Frese; and the only surviving diving
suit used in recovery efforts following the U.S.S.
Eastland disaster of 1915. The museum
also engages with the community through different events, including hosting
lectures on historical maritime topics as part of the Bridgeport Art Center’s
Third Friday Open House.