Maritime Commerce History

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.

Chicago was once home to various Native American tribes. The original explorers on the Great Lakes were American Indians seeking to trade with other colonies and people. Eventually, commerce expanded to include grain, lumber, coal and other varieties of goods.

Native American and French Fur Traders

Chicago’s maritime history begins with the American Indians. Many different native people’s called Chicago home, including the Illinois, Miami, Ottawa and Potawatomi. All of these people were masters of the craft of canoe building. The most adaptable and useful canoe made by the Indians were the birchbark canoes. Rolls of birchbark were peeled off of trees and sewn together over a wooden frame and the seams were sealed with pine pitch. The finished product was lightweight, highly maneuverable and capable of bearing heavy cargoes. Best of all, such canoes could be repaired during the course of journey with materials readily available in the Great Lakes region.

By the 1600s French fur traders in Canada had begun to adopt the canoe as a mean of exploring the interior of North America. Louis Jolliet was a French Canadian explorer known for his discoveries in North America. Jolliet and Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, a Catholic priest and missionary, were the first non-Natives to explore by canoe and map the Mississippi River in 1673. Although the missionary died a year after his sojourn in Chicago, other French missionaries and traders followed him. For both Indian and French fur traders, Chicago was the site of an important portage linking Lake Michigan with the Des Plaines River via the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Chicago as a trading post

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Chicago evolved from being merely a portage for the fur trade canoes, to the site of an important trading post. Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, a merchant of mixed African and French parentage, was the first to appreciate the business value of Chicago. By 1779, he had established a successful trading post in cooperation with the Potawatomi Indians, who lived along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Other fur traders followed, and by the 1820s Chicago was the most successful trading area on Lake Michigan.

Grain and Lumber Trade

Nineteenth-century Chicago was a schooner city. Sailing ships made Chicago one of the world’s busiest ports. Schooners carried iron ore from Lake Superior after the Soo Lock opened in 1855 and coal from Pennsylvania for the steel mills in Chicago which grew dramatically during the civil war. In 1845, 250,000 people arrived from Buffalo by paddle wheeler. In 1871, the year of the Great Fire, more ships arrived in Chicago than in any other North American city. Schooners made up the bulk of the sailing fleet and were responsible for the rise of two of the city’s earliest and greatest industries: the grain trade and the lumber trade.

Lumber was largely traffic between Chicago and other smaller Lake Michigan ports. During the years after the Civil War, lumber centers in Michigan and Wisconsin regularly sent hundreds of schooner loads of lumber to the Chicago market. In 1870, schooner traffic had transformed Chicago into the leading city of the west. Wolf Point became the site of the Lumber Exchange, where all cargoes of lumber entering the river were inspected and sold. It was not unusual for 100 vessels a day to register at Wolf Point. Well into the 20th century, schooners continued to play an important role in the transportation of lumber.

The first train line, The Galena line, arrived in Chicago in 1850. By 1852, almost 50% of the grain arriving in the city came by train with the rest by barge on the I&M canal. Grain was loaded on the schooners which carried it to Buffalo for reloading on Erie canal barges. On the way back to Chicago, the schooners would stop and load up with wood from the Wisconsin or Michigan forests. By the late 1880s, steamships had wrestled the bulk of the grain trade from schooners. Yet during the half-century when schooners were the principal means by which Chicago’s giant grain market was linked to the rest of the world, the city’s finest sailing ships were dedicated to the trade.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Maritime Museum.

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