From Canoes to Cargo Ships

1200 W 35th St #0E-5010 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.

City of Schooners

Lake Michigan was once filled with schooners. As technology progressed and larger, powered, boats became prevelent, the types of transportation found on Chicago's waterways began to change.


For more than a half-century the schooners dominated the Port of Chicago, but throughout the long age of sail on Lake Michigan, steamships gradually assumed more and more of the trade. During the 1880s and 1890s steamships drove the schooners from their niche as the region’s bulk carriers. Steam power brought reliability to the movement of people and products on the lakes. To a much greater extent, sailing ships had been subject to the whims of weather, whereas steamboats operated on the tight schedules that suited an industrializing nation. The first steam-powered vessel on Lake Michigan was the Walk-in-the-Water, which in 1821 brought United States Army troops from Detroit to Green Bay. The first steamers were paddle wheel vessels. In 1841, Great Lakes shipbuilders began to experiment with propeller-driven ships. This design competed with the paddle wheel into the 1860s, when the propeller-driven vessels became dominant among steamships, on the lakes as well as on the oceans.


A unique stage in the development of Great Lakes shipping was the era of the whalebacks, 1888-1896. The invention of Captain Alexander McDougal, the whalebacks were flat-bottomed, rounded top, steel ships that were remarkably steady sailors. In less than a decade, 43 of this type of ship were built, most for use on the Great Lakes. Their era was short lived, however, because of the need to develop large deck hatches to unload cargoes quickly.

600 Footers

In 1906 the first modern Great Lakes freighter was born, the J. Pierpont Morgan. Built in South Chicago as an iron ore carrier, the Morgan was 605 feet in length. For the next 35 years the “600 footers” formed the backbone of the lake marine freighters.


The workhorses of the Chicago harbor were the tugboats. During the 1870s, a tow from outside the breakwater to a berth in the river could cost as much as $25. During slack periods in the economy, which were frequent in the 1890s, tugboats desperate to recruit work would sometimes steam out as far as Milwaukee to find schooners in need of a harbor tow. Among the most important tugs on the Chicago River were those operated by the fire department. Due to the disgusting array of pollution in the river, a mixture of industrial waste and run-off from streets reeking of horse droppings, the surface became combustible every summer. Long after most other shipping abandoned the Chicago River harbor, tugboats continued to utilize the waterway.

Cover photo courtesy of Chicago Maritime Museum

Find hotels near this post

Waterways and Rivers: Chicago's Maritime History

From Canoes to Cargo Ships

Cookie image

We use cookies on this website. You are free to manage these via your browser settings at any time. For more information about how we use cookies, please see our Privacy Policy.