A Major Inland Port Today

3600 E 95th St Chicago

Chicago Maritime Museum
Written By Chicago Maritime Museum

It is a tall order to tell the story of Chicago’s waterways and their emotional and prosperous impact on 19th, 20th and 21st century American growth. Welcome to the Chicago Maritime Museum and our developing story of Chicago’s maritime traditions and impact.

As an important passageway from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system, Chicago thrived as a port city in the 19th century. For more than 100 years, schooners and then freight steamers loaded and unloaded a major portion of the country’s lumber and grain supply on the docks of the Chicago River. Up until 1900 when the flow of the Chicago river was reversed by completion of the Sanitation and Ship canal, Chicago’s shipping business was in full display to downtown pedestrians, as stevedores and longshoremen hustled to move crates of dry goods and bulk commodities. In 1916, Navy Pier was built to keep ships out of the Chicago river by offering them moorings at the Pier.

Today, a person could live a lifetime in Chicago without ever witnessing a freighter chug past on Lake Michigan. And yet, Chicago remains one of the busiest inland ports in the world. That’s because in order to alleviate growing congestion on the Chicago River, in 1921 the Illinois legislature authorized the city to build a deep water port 20 miles south of Chicago at Lake Calumet and in 1922, the Calumet-Saganashkee Channel (CalSag Canal) was completed to bypass downtown Chicago. Today, gigantic lake freighters and barges carrying more than 18 million tons of raw material each year, circumvent the city and head to Calumet Harbor to unload and reload their cargoes of bulk steel, sandstone, grain and rock at the modern Port of Chicago.

An International Shipping Hub Serving all Corners of the Globe

“Cargo passing through Chicago comes from as far as Africa and Central Europe, we accommodate mostly bulk commodities — building materials like steel, stone and rock. Most of the finished goods are coming from Asia and therefore head to the California coast.” - Anthony Ianello, executive director of the Illinois International Port District.

Before the advent of railways and trucking, maritime shipping on the Great Lakes was the most efficient way to move cargo. Today, the majority of general freight is transported over land, but ships continue to haul bulk cargoes such as iron ore, coal and limestone for the steel industry. The bulk freight shipping business developed on the Great Lakes because it was more economical to transport the raw ingredients for steel to centralized plants than try to make steel on the spot.

And while land transport has dominating the commercial shipping business over the years, Chicago has remained an important maritime port because of its geographical connection with railways and highways. Eastern railroads terminate in Chicago, and rail lines west, north, and south start in the city. And because major interstate highways pass through the Chicago area, trucking companies maintain central terminals at the Port.

Today's Port

The Port of Chicago includes Iroquois Landing, a 100-acre terminal with 3,000 feet of ship and barge berthing space, and Lake Calumet Harbor, consisting of four transit sheds totaling over 400,000 square feet adjacent to approximately 3,000 feet of ship and barge berthing space. The harbor also houses two of the largest grain storage facilities in Illinois with a capacity of approximately 14 million bushels and one of the largest tank storage farms in Illinois, with a capacity of approximately 800,000 liquid barrels.

With hundreds of ships and thousands of barges unloading and reloading cargo each year, Chicago remains the largest inland cargo port in America.

{Cover photo from Illinois International Port District via Chicago Maritime Museum.}

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Waterways and Rivers: Chicago's Maritime History

A Major Inland Port Today

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