City of Big Waters
Chicago’s maritime history
See Illinois (unpublished)
Winking references to Chicago as a Third Coast city aside, few people in or out of the city think of it as a maritime city, in spite of the fact that it stands on a great fresh water sea. Chicago's businesspeople knew better. The people of the early city fed off its hinterland, but its businesses fed largely mostly on goods shipped via Lake Michigan to and from eastern cities. It cost a third less to move goods to St. Louis from New York in the 1830s by way of Chicago than by a Gulf port. Later. the lake bore raw materials into Chicago’s great manufacturing maw—grain, coal, ore, and lumber; even the ice used to chill the meat in giant packing houses was chopped from Michigan and Wisconsin and hauled south.
The roads, canals and (later) railroads that emanated from Chicago to rest of the state and Midwest were products of the lake trade too, as most of them were built to carry lake-borne goods to and from the city; in that sense even today’s transport system was built on water.
This brief history is taken from my unpublished manuscript of a guide to Illinois history and culture. I address only glancingly Illinois’s connections to the U.S. Navy, even though at least 40 ships have been named after the state, its cities, places, and people. An exception is my summary of the story of Naval Station Great Lakes, which opened in 1911 in North Chicago and trained one million of the four million Sailors during World War II.
Readers who want more information might consult the web site of the Chicago Maritime Museum or, better, read David Young’s Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History (Northern Illinois University Press, 2001).
The official seal of the City of Chicago features a lake ship in full sail, “emblematic of the approach of civilization and commerce.” The tacit admission that civilization came from the East apparently does not trouble the patriots at City Hall.
Nature is often credited with having made Chicago a maritime city, but while nature obligingly provided a lake it neglected to provide any convenient way to use it. The lake’s southerly currents had so smoothed Lake Michigan’s western shore that there were no decent natural harbors (save, arguably, Waukegan’s) between the Indiana and Wisconsin state lines. In most places along that shore, ships had to be tended from piers built out into the lake.
Winnetka and Wilmette were among the towns that had such piers, onto which were unloaded unload passengers, coal, lumber, and even Christmas trees. Excursion steamers docked that way at Evanston (off Davis Street and, in 1872, Dempster Street) until after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Port Clinton was laid out in 1850 on land in what is now north Highland Park. The town's entrepreneurs built a pier into the deep water to carry local farmers’ grain to Chicago, that being faster and cheaper than hauling it by wagon those 30 miles over bad roads. Cholera and railroads killed Port Clinton, which is recalled by Highland Parkers in names given a downtown shopping complex, an art festival, and a park.
The situation at Chicago was not much better. “The harbor of Chicago is the river, and nothing more,” reported an anonymous writer to Putnam’s magazine in 1856, and the river was hardly enough. The Chicago River was not endowed by nature to be a commercial river in any way but its location. The mouth of the Chicago River was usually blocked by a bar of lake-borne sand that the feeble currents of the river usually lacked the power to dislodge. Lake vessels had to anchor a half-mile or more offshore and transfer cargoes onto lighters that sat high enough in the water to navigate in and out of the shallow river mouth.
The Chicago "harbor" was narrow as well as shallow. Artificial basins had to built to permit any but the smallest watercraft to turn around. Lumber schooners and freighters were unable to maneuver in the narrow beds of the two downtown river branches; in both directions from from Wolf Point (the confluence of the north and south branches) these graceful craft became stupid and slow, river barges in effect that had to be towed to and from their docks.
Urgent necessity, the prospect of profit, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turned Chicago into a proper lake port. The transformation of the river into a working harbor began in 1835 when workers dug through the pesky bar at the river mouth. Work to deepen and straighten the river mouth (and keep the lake from undoing both) continued on and off into the 1860s. A pier jutting from the north bank of the river into the lake was built and extended, in stages, to fend off the sand-laden currents, The channel was dredged and re-dredged, a lighthouse erected, docks, grain elevators, and warehouses built, as were, in time, railroad tracks to service them.
The use of the word “harbor” to describe even the improved Chicago River mouth must have drawn snorts of derision from any patriotic daughter or son of San Francisco, New York, Sydney, or Liverpool. But if the Chicago port was inefficient, it was for decades less inefficient than other ways to move goods east and west. Thus equipped, Chicago entered the first phase of its commercial future as a trading and transfer point.
Travelers from around the world know that today’s Chicago boasts one of the world’s busiest airports; the city’s train stations collectively enjoyed the same distinction in the age of rail. Throughout the nineteenth century, the river harbor was Chicago’s truck terminal and railroad depot and airport combined; all thirteen miles between Bridgeport and the lake was lined with docks. During the city’s boom years, the commerce of a continent crashed into downtown Chicago, where two great transport systems met—ships plying the lakes all the way east to New York and Boston and Philadelphia (and through them, to Europe) and the new railroads that linked them in turn to the burgeoning American West. In the late 1880s Chicago became, and for many years remained the world’s busiest port, as measured by the numbers of vessels moving in and out of the docks. Nearly 17,000 vessels arrived or departed Chicago during 1900, for example, although other cities saw cargoes of higher tonnage or more value.
From 1830s until the 1920s or so, downtown Chicago tghus bore all the traits of a port city. The river was crowded with dens and dives. It stank, it was noisy, it was dangerous. Ships lined the river, tying up to docks and warehouses and grain elevators like piglets sucking at a sow. Ben Hecht, in his memoir of Chicago newspaper days, recalled living near the river. “Always the hoarse toots of tugboats,” he wrote in Gaily Gaily, “and the clip-clop of horses were a song of greeting.”
Companies, especially manufacturers, demanded a riverfront location for the same reason their successors demand sites near an interstate highway. Businesses that used, moved, sold or processed bulk goods hugged its banks; warehouses, dumps, yards, factories lined the river and its branches. The city’s meat-packing industry, forever associated with the Union Stockyards and Packingtown, in fact was first situated on the harbor, close to the docks, in a pork warehouse at Wacker and LaSalle.
Typical of the early establishments of this sort were Cyrus McCormick’s huge reaper factory, built in 1847 on the north bank of the river near the future Michigan Avenue and the Deering Harvester Company founded in 1869 by William Deering, which at its peak occupied eighty-five acres along the east bank of the North Branch, from Fullerton north to Wellington Avenue. (In 1902 Deering merged with the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company to form the giant International Harvester Company.)
Also on or near the river were the many firms that tended to the ships. As would happen in the railroad and automobile eras, keeping this transport system fitted out and repaired was itself a sizable local industry. Chicago firms supplied ships with sail and ropes, and Chicago yards built and repaired them. During the golden age of lake transport from roughly 1850 until 1875, the largest dry docks on the lake were found on the Chicago River’s North Branch.
The world thinks of Chicago as the mass processor of meat, but before the stockyards were the lumberyards. Beginning in the mid-1800s, lumber was sold by the shipload at the river docks at Franklin Street, and stacks of wood lined the South Branch of the river. (South Lumber Street still runs along the west bank of the South Branch between the Dan Ryan Expressway and 18th Street.) Much of the wood that built the West came through this stretch of the Chicago River; at the peak of the trade, a lumber schooner passed through the downtown bridges every 30 seconds. Lumberyards guarded the banks until the 1930s, making downtown Chicago a forest of wood without any trees.
People used to be a significant lake cargo too. Until rail and later highways were perfected, the lake was the easier and fastest way to get to Chicago from the East. As the 19th century waned, interstate travel on the lakes waned too, and the lake passenger boats carried mainly pleasure seekers on intra-lake excursions. In the early 20th century, notes David Young, these hulking excursion ships, “almost as luxurious as anything afloat on the oceans,” offered week-long cruises up and down the lakes. But the car—and air conditioning—did in the excursion trade just as the railroads had done in cross-country travel by lake steamer. By the time Navy Pier was finally opened in 1916, its passenger facilities were as pointless as a horse trough in front of a 1920s hotel.
The decline of passenger rail has given commercial intra-lake ferry service a new life on Lake Michigan, although for the moment the boats do not stop at Chicago. And Navy Pier in summer bustles with excursion boasts again. Alas, most of the latter merely ferry riders out to the lake for a putt-putt up and down the lake shore to gawk at the skyline while they have dinner.
The watercraft that carried Chicago to cityhood underwent the same kind of evolution as did land-based transport. The first were powered by human muscle. Commerce moved across Lake Michigan from the days when furs were sent back to Montreal aboard canoes 35 to 40 feet in length that needed fourteen men to crew. (These were paddle boats indeed.) Montreal obligingly sent back the boats filled with iron axes and missionaries. Cargo canoes were in use until the 1820s.
The hand-paddled boat was undone by sailing ships. The manifest advantages of wind-powered craft—they were faster and could carry more than any paddled boat—shifted the commercial advantage from the individual entrepreneur to toward the new big trading companies that could finance the construction of such behemoths. If canoes made Chicago a town, sailing ships made it a city.
Chicago’s lake fleet of the sail era was a motley lot of schooners, barks, and sloops, workaday vessels bearing mundane cargoes that often were owned by blackguards and captained by fools. Among these craft were single-masted sloops and two- and three-masted schooners of types perfected for use by New England coastal sailors. Schooners were cheap to operate and easily adapted to conditions faced by Chicago merchants. They were narrow enough to squeeze through the Midwest’s unprepossessing rivers and canals, for example, and could be fitted with retractable centerboards so they could slip through in shallow water.
The coming of steam saw many schooners fitted with engines, others were de-masted and used as barges that could be towed by steam-powered tugs. Steel-hull cargo boats. originally in the form of paddle-wheeled steamers, eventually undid the wooden schooner, but only because of the former’s larger cargo capacity, not because they were fitter for Great Lakes trade.
Even the most dashing of craft cold be humbled by the exigencies of trade. Most dashing, and most humbled, was the David Dows, a five-masted lumber schooner that was the largest built on the Great Lakes, indeed then the largest such ship in the world. Fast but far from nimble, she was ill-designed for her role, and was de-masted and converted into a cargo barge—an ignominious end for such grand vessel. Loaded with coal, she was being towed by a steamer when she sank during a storm at Thanksgiving of 1889; she lies in 40 feet of water, hull mostly intact, near the Indiana Shoals six miles east of Chicago.
Specialty cargoes requires specialized boats such as ore boats a la the doomed Edmund Fitzgerald, which has sunk in song thousands of times since 1976, when the ballad of its demise was popularized by Gordon Lightfoot. Cross-lake passengers packets included propeller-driven and side-wheeler paddle-driven models. Whaleback steamers and their variations (including "turtlebacks," "monitors," and "straightbacks") were cigar-shaped vessels that entered service in numbers in the 1890s; more than 40 were built. Most hauled freight but one passenger whaleback steamer was built—the Christopher Columbus, which at the time of her launch was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes. She was unveiled at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair and transported massive numbers of people between Lake Michigan ports prior to her scrapping at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 1936.
Lake craft were forever being recycled. Occasionally the recycling of a ship was more like a resurrection. The Eastland, the excursion boat that drowned more than 800 people when it capsized in the Chicago River in 1915, was raised, and in 1916 modified into a training vessel for the Illinois Naval Reserve and rechristened the Wilmette. Some of the posh passenger facilities from her Eastland days had survived her several conversions, so when President Franklin Roosevelt wished to meet with his admirals on a ten-day strategy-making cruise in 1943, the Wilmette was chosen in 1943 to carry the party.
For lesser passengers the Wilmette offered less comfy passage. Newspaperman Ernie Pyle, noting her unhappy past, would write that the Eastland/Wilmette was “still in sinking condition, I assure you" when he trained aboard her. After torturing recruits, the Wilmette would rest at her berth on the lakefront at the foot of Randolph Street, where she was a familiar figure until she was scrapped after World War II.
The 19th century craft that crowded the I&M Canal were less imposing but no less miscellaneous than those that plied the lake. They included canal boats, keel boats, steam tugs and barges. Most of them were built at boat yards along the canal at Peru, Lockport, and Bridgeport, yards that were forerunners of the railroad shops that would soon be built in Aurora and other cities. The largest of the canal boats were 15 feet wide and just long enough to fit exactly within the smallest of the locks along the way—100 feet. They were large enough that tow horses and/or mules could be stabled within the hold along with the "cannier family" and/or boat hands.
Commerce was not the only prod to development of ships and sailing in the Chicago area. War was another. The threat of war in Europe made clear the need for the U.S. Navy to be able to train lots of sailors quickly. In 1911 the Navy opened the Great Lakes Naval Training Station on the lake shore just south of Waukegan. The base was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and with good reason. The Navy’s famous construction brigade, the Seabees, began here, in 1917, as the Twelfth Regiment (Public Works). John Philip Sousa in 1917 was assigned to the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes as musical director, and there formed 14 regimental bands that occasionally gathered to perform as one, in what must have been a racket that could have been heard in Kenosha. And Great Lakes also was a pioneer in the racial integration of the Navy; among other milestones, in 1944 12 ensigns and a warrant officer trained there were commissioned as the first African American officers in the Navy.
The shore of an inland sea seems an apt enough place for apprentice sailors to get their feet wet, so to speak. But that was not the reasoning behind the U.S. Navy’s decision to locate Great Lakes Naval Training Center at North Chicago. Navy boot camp has very little to do with water. The site appealed to the Navy because if its convenient access to the rest of the nation—just as it has appealed to generations of Navy recruits for its convenient access to the entertainments of Chicago.
The base today is home to the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command (RTC), the central processing location for Naval recruits. Approximately 50,000 of them pass through Great Lakes’ boot camp every year. (According to Navy lore, recruits used to have to wear canvas leggings that looked like high-topped boots—thus the term "boot camp.") Great Lakes has trained and sent to the fleet more than two million recruits and trained nearly that many other sailors in its technical schools.
Great Lakes is the largest military installation in Illinois and the largest training center in the Navy and the third largest Navy base of any kind. Were it a separate municipality it would be a sizable suburban town in its own right—1,153 buildings on 1,628 acres served by 50 miles of streets and a population that includes hundreds of staff and their families and roughly 15,000 recruits in residence—“onboard” in Navy talk—at any time.
World War II saw Chicago turned again, improbably, into a navy town. In 1942 the Navy converted two large coal-burning side-wheeler passenger ferries into makeshift aircraft carriers, the Wolverine and the Sable, which were used by pilots from Glenview Naval Air Station to practice carrier landings. Navy Pier (the old Municipal Pier, renamed in 1927 in honor of World War I vets) found brief life as a base for this training. One trainee would recall that the pier itself was, as one put it “the armpit of the universe” but the city was “the best liberty town any of us were ever in, before, or since.” Unfortunately from the point of view of pier administrators at least, the war ended, leaving the pier quiet.
The excursion-steamer-turned-training vessel USS Wilmette was taken over the U.S. Navy for use as an ocean-going gunboat in 1918. The Wilmette never saw action as a combat vessel either, unless one counts this action against a German U-boat: under terms of the World War I armistice, a captured submarine, the UC-97, was to be sunk, and the Wilmette, back on Lake Michigan under command of the Naval Reserves, sent it down with 18 rounds—the first live shells fired on any of the Great Lakes since the War of 1812.
Navigating Lake Michigan took better sailors than lake ships sometimes had. The lake bottom is as tricky to navigate as a primary election. Underwater obstructions abound, such as the Glencoe Shoal off the North Shore residential town of that name; there, two miles from shore, the water is, unexpectedly, only eight feet deep. Groundings, collisions, and capsizings were common on these fickle waters. On September 8, 1860, the Milwaukee-bound steamer Lady Elgin, a double-decked wooden side-wheeler, sank offshore between Evanston and Highland Park after being rammed by a lumber schooner. Estimates of the dead range from 287 to 380, but whatever the number, it would have been higher had it not been for the heroics of a dozen or so Northwestern University students who jumped to the aid of survivors.
So regular was the need to pull shipwreck victims from the waters around Evanston that for nearly a half century life-saving was a popular extracurricular activity among Northwestern University’s more robust students. Beginning in 1871, one could go out for the “lifeboat crew” as one might go out for football today. Students plucked shipwreck victims from the water by the dozens (the university says more than 400) for which service they were paid $10 per person rescued. This lucrative trade lasted until 1915, when the student station was taken over by the new U.S. Coast Guard.
The decline in lake commerce has meant fewer shipwrecks, but Coast Guard crews based at Calumet Harbor and Wilmette Harbor are still called out on more than 500 search-and-rescue operations a year—most of them involving drunken or incompetent pleasure boaters from the city. The Coast Guard also polices traffic at such watery events as the annual Chicago Air and Water Show, many of whose 1,000,000-plus spectators take in the sights from on, and occasionally in, the water.
The most horrific sinking of a lake steamer did not happen on the famously treacherous waters of Lake Michigan but in the placid waters of the Chicago River harbor. On the morning of July 24, 1915, employees and family of Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works crowded onto steamers for a company excursion to Michigan City. One of them the Eastland, which sat off the southeast end of the Clark Street bridge Street. The Eastland had taken on some 2,400 passengers; when many of them crowded onto one side to look at other boats on the river, the craft capsized. More than 800 people drowned below decks or were crushed to death trying to escape—three times the number of lives lost in the Great Fire of 1871. Ironically, one of the reasons the Eastland went down was that it was top-heavy from the extra safety equipment on its top deck required on such craft since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
The Chicago River falls, the Calumet rises
If generals are always preparing to fight the last war, so do city planners accommodate urban activities that are about to become defunct. Such was the fate of Navy Pier. by the time it began life in 1916, as Municipal Pier, lake commerce was fading. Daniel Burnham had prescribed five such structures in the 1909 Chicago Plan. It was the only one built, and even it was downsized from the 1.5 mile leviathan originally planned. Even at its abbreviated length of 3,000 feet—nearly 3/5 of a mile—the pier was at the time of construction the world’s largest.
The pier as built was an attempt to mediate two crucial and conflicting uses for the city lakefront. One was commerce, and to accommodate it the pier was equipped with all the appurtenances—loading docks and warehouses—of a major shipping facility. But the pier also attempted to accommodate Burnham’s vision of the lakefront as a middle-class pleasure ground, and to that end the nonworking parts of the pier were decked out, literally, with carnival attractions.
The amusements originally offered at the pier seemed quaint by the 1930s, thanks to radio and the movies; lake cargo traffic declined too, thanks to trucks. Navy Pier for decades functioned as a sort of spare room for Chicago’s downtown, it being a space in which one could house all sorts of unexpected guests because it wasn’t really being used for much else. In the 1950s and ‘60s the facility was used as a backup convention and trade center. In 1946 the University of Illinois leased part of the Pier, which served, barely, as the university’s Chicago campus until 1965.
It came to life again as a cargo facility when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened Chicago in 1959 to ocean shipping. Widened for the purpose, the Pier was able to accommodate six ocean-going ships at a time; when such traffic was at its peak, in 1964, Navy Pier handled 250 overseas vessels annually. By the 1970s the big ships were bypassing downtown Chicago for Calumet Harbor, and the Pier was left to rot.
The pier's value as an historic artifact was plain enough—the Auditorium building at the eastern end of the Pier was officially named a Chicago landmark and restored in the 1970s. But it was not until the 1980s, when tourists had become the cargo on which downtown Chicago depended, that serious plans were made to bring Burnham’s original vision back to life. In 1989 the new Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority committed $150 million dollars to rebuild the pier as an updated version of the Victorian pleasure piers of England. The makeover included a one-acre indoor palm court, ice skating rink and miniature golf course, ferris wheel, IMAX theater, museums, a Shakespeare theater, and many eateries. Together such attractions draw more than eight million visitors each year, making Navy Pier Illinois’s most popular tourist destination.
Among the other relics of Chicago’s maritime past are lighthouses. They once dotted the Illinois shore of Lake Michigan. A light was built at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831; a newer pierhead light (built in 1893 to guide travelers to the World's Columbian Exposition and moved to its present site in 1919) still alerts navigators to the harbor entrance, although it stands at the south end of the harbor mouth’s north breakwater. (An official city landmark, the lighthouse was restored in 1997.)
A Calumet Harbor Light was demolished in 1995 but another pierhead light survives to mark the Chicago Harbor Southeast Guidewall just south of Navy Pier. In addition, the City of Chicago maintains lights on each of its four water intake cribs that sit three miles or more out on the lake—the Wilson Avenue Crib off Montrose Harbor, the William E. Dever Crib off the Chicago River entrance, the Four Mile Crib off Navy Pier, and the 68th Street Crib (Dunne Crib) off Jackson Park-South Shore.
Upshore from the Chicago Harbor light were other warning beacons. A light went up in 1855 on a point of land opposite the intersection of today’s Broadway and Sheridan Road in Highland Park. Another light station was built at Waukegan Harbor where stands a Coast Guard light tower from 1889 that was relocated in 1905 to the end of a newly extended harbor pier at the foot of Madison Street.
A steamer came to grief on the point in 1864, which led eventually to the erection in 1873 of a 90-foot brick lighthouse atop the 25-foot bluff that overlooks the promontory known as Grosse Point off Evanston. Its lantern (which were run on lard oil in those days) could be seen from as far away as twenty miles.
The new light rendered the old Chicago Harbor light redundant, but modern navigation technologies and the drop in lake traffic were to make the Grosse Point light redundant too. Federal authorities in 1936 deeded the lighthouse to the City of Evanston, which reconstructed it in 1984 using the original plans. The Grosse Point lighthouse now helps landlubbers navigate the past; it is one of only eight lighthouses in the country, and the only one on the Great Lakes, to be designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The heyday of Chicago as a port city lasted only about a century. Better ways to move goods were invented, and better places to handle them were built elsewhere. “The river,” noted a Forbes writer nicely in 1997, “is now a collapsed vein.” The river docks, the riverbank markets, the lumberyards, the traffic jams at and on the bridges—all are gone. Sailing ships these days belong to Chicagoland’s pleasure boaters, who are legion. (The Chicago Yacht Club’s annual Chicago to Mackinac Race, which was first run in 1898, is reckoned the oldest and longest (333 miles) freshwater sailboat race in world.) Indeed, the river downtown is hardly troubled by craft other than tourist boats and pleasure craft moving in and out of their winter berths and—a measure of its reversion to an earlier, almost forgotten era—the occasional canoe. Downtown Chicago is thus relieved of much inconvenience, but, sadly, much romance as well.
Twelve miles south of the Loop at the other end of Chicagoland were the Calumet marshes, the remnant of a glacial lake that drained into Lake Michigan through a fickle outlet that was given a dignity it did not deserve by being called the Calumet River. The area was low and marshy and had never been much built on, save by squatters and hunters and other entrepreneurs of the less well-dressed sort. At Calumet, speculators found the land Chicago’s industries needed to expand at one-tenth the price of land on the congested downtown riverfront. In the 1860s investors bought land around the mouth of the Calumet River and promoted it as a good site for iron works, and in that wonderful way that Chicago capitalists of the day had, persuaded Congress to vote money so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could turn it into a harbor.
Unfortunately, the Calumet River had even fewer virtues as a carrier of shipping than had the unimproved Chicago River, but unlike so much else in Chicago it was capable of reform. Beginning in 1869 the Corps spent 13 years turning the Calumet River into a harbor. As was done at the Chicago River, piers had to be built into the lake to keep sand from choking the river mouth, and the channel itself, which had scarcely been sufficient for canoes, had to be widened and deepened enough to handle commercial watercraft. The usual legal and financial complications delayed completion until 1891.
While it lacked the direct access to the Mississippi River system that the downtown harbor enjoyed via the I&M Canal, the former Calumet marshes did have access to the rest of the world via the lake and railroads. Lumber and grain and farm equipment manufacturing had flocked to the Chicago River; the same dynamic impelled a new generation of industries to congregate at and around Lake Calumet. What the McCormick reaper works had been to downtown Chicago, the Pullman Company’s new manufacturing complex was to the Calumet. The railroad car works was built in 1880 on 4,000 acres of land on the western shore of Lake Calumet, a site linked to the city by the Illinois Central Railroad.
The logic of George Pullman’s choice was not lost on his fellow industrial barons. At Calumet iron ore from the shores of Lake Superior and hard coal from Pennsylvania all met and combined to make steel. By the 1880s, seventeen thousand men worked in the mills of Republic Steel, Iroquois Steel, and U.S. Steel alone, and for decades the area bore comparison to Germany’s mighty Ruhr valley. By 1906, the docks at Chicago’s new harbor were as busy as those on the Chicago River.
Among the industries to settle on the Calumet was shipbuilding. Many a lake schooner had been built in Chicago yards in the mid-1800s, but the yards along the Chicago River lacked the space to build the larger ships that the trade came to demand, and as the 19th century progressed the local shipbuilding industry went the other way. For a time in the 1890s, the Calumet River hosted the leading builder of steel ships on the Great Lakes—the Chicago Ship Building Co.; founded in 1890, at one time it employed 1,200 men.
A few years later a usable channel was cut all the way to Lake Calumet, which beginning in the 1920s would itself be improved—let us say “altered”—into a harbor capable of handling bigger ships. Calumet Harbor was capable of handling bulk cargoes like ore (inbound) and grain (outbound) that could no longer be handled efficiently downtown, and Lake Calumet became an important transfer point between lake and ocean ships and river barges, duplicating, at much larger scale, the original function of the Chicago River dock facilities.
Completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s dazzled local boosters with the notion of Chicago as an ocean port. To accommodate them and the rapidly growing Calumet Industrial District, Lake Calumet was being developed as a real deep-water harbor. Drained, dredged, filled—often by steel mill slag and worse—the Calumet marshes were gradually turned into one of the more astounding industrial complexes in the world. The steel mills and grain elevators were joined by chemical works, and oil refineries.
Since the 1950s the Port of Chicago for all practical purposes meant Calumet Harbor at Lake Calumet. As recently as 1970, traffic volumes in and out of Calumet Harbor were huge. Ore carriers, the jumbo jets of the great lakes shipping, seemed to feature in every third photo then published as symbols of the city’s continuing industrial might. But Calumet’s traffic ebbed too, just as happened downtown, although for different reasons. Chicago industry was relocating elsewhere in Chicagoland in the 1870s, but by the 1970s it was closing down or leaving the region altogether. The massive industrial complex in that battered marsh sank into decrepitude. If the city’s manufacturing economy had outgrown its original river harbor downtown, by the 1970s and ‘80s the city’s shrinking manufacturing economy became too small for Calumet Harbor.
The Illinois & Michigan Canal
Chicago might have remained the least city on the lake, another Waukegan, had not nature provided an easy-to-make connection between the lake and the vast river system to the west that drains the middle of continent. Lake and rivers were separated, barely, by a ridge of land through the near-western suburbs traced today, roughly, by Harlem Avenue. Rain that falls to the east of this subcontinental divide flows into Lake Michigan and eventually the Atlantic; water that falls to the west of it moves via the Des Plaines River to the Illinois and thence, via the Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico.
The divide is not dauntingly high and thus is less a firm instruction to moving water than a topographical hint. Where the watersheds mingle was a boggy expanse known as Mud Lake that lay on the Chicago side of the divide near the present-day town of Stickney between Harlem and Kedzie avenues. In most months, Native American travelers and, later, French traders had to pole or even push boats across Mud Lake on their ways between the Des Plaines and the Chicago rivers. This portage was more than hard work, as the place was infested with leeches and mosquitoes. When snowmelt or spring rains swelled the lake, however, it was possible to float canoes not only above the mud but across the divide, thus moving with relative ease between whole worlds.
Water only deep enough to float a canoe from one place to another during some months of some years cannot support regular trade in bulk. A canal would make the connection between the Chicago and Illinois watersheds permanent and passing through them easier. Every explorer, missionary, trader, trapper, and soldier who paddled his way through Chicago beginning in the 1600s seems to have argued for a canal at the spot as a simple way to create a water passage from the Great Lakes to the Gulf and to the interior of the great West via the Chicago River and its South Branch to the Illinois River (via its tributary, the Des Plaines River) and thus to the Mississippi and New Orleans. Jolliet and LaSalle, for example, both reported the potential to French authorities.
Unfortunately, every traveler was not an engineer. The difficulties—financial, engineering, political—in moving dirt on that scale in the 18th century proved decisive. The French and the British disdained the project, there being not enough trade to justify it. The new State of Illinois was more ambitious, and less wise. In 1822 a Congress eager to develop its new West granted the State of Illinois a corridor of land for such a waterway, a strip 20 miles wide ceded to the U.S. in 1816 by the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa. Construction was to be paid for by the state but it was a daunting project for a state that was then able to only minimally accommodate its own government in Vandalia. Ground-breaking did not happen until 1836. A dozen years of sporadic work and not a little scandal followed, so the Illinois & Michigan Canal was not completed until 1848.
The project nearly bankrupted the state, in return for which Illinois got a ditch 60 feet wide and six feet deep that connected the Chicago terminus in Bridgeport, on the industrial Southwest Side, to its Utica terminus in LaSalle County. In its course the canal moved nearly 100 miles east to west but it also moved up and down; the latter required construction of fifteen locks capable of floating barges and other craft from one water level to another.
Thus was created a vital stage in what became the first inland water passage route from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. Because the craft had to be pulled by teams of horses plodding along a towpath along the water, passage was slow—as little as three miles per hour for a heavily laden boat. But passage was smooth and steady compared to overland travel by wagon. Nearly everything moved easier on water than on Illinois’s roads of the day, including passengers; packet boats were for a time a popular alternative to stagecoaches and wagons.
Canal commerce forced whole new towns into existence. Of them, Canalport, sprang up in the 2800 block of South Ashland Avenue to accommodate the bustle around the canal's Lock Number One. Bridgeport received its name from the bridge that linked it directly to Canalport; the two towns were annexed to Chicago in 1863. Lockport, in Will County, was as its name suggests the site of a key lock in the system, and the canal’s administrative headquarters was located here.
Old towns were lifted to a new prosperity by businesses that dealt in things that could move on barges. Distilleries opened in Joliet and Morris that drew on grain. The ability to move stone spurred quarrying in Lemont. Tiny Channahon soon boasted six grain elevators. Iron mills fired up in Joliet, run in part on coal shipped by canal from new coal towns downstream in LaSalle County. Lumber mills that processed logs from Michigan and Wisconsin popped up all long the canal. The canal provided energy as well as raw materials for industry; waterwheels ran mills at Lockport, Joliet, and Ottawa that processed corn, barley, and other crops into flour, starch, and beer. (The falling water in a later age would be harnessed by hydroelectric generators that lit Chicago’s streetlights.)
In the end, the I&M had to be built twice. To save enough money to finish it, the State had authorized a shallower cut than had been originally recommended. To ensure that enough water flowed through this modest ditch to float barges—and the hopes of lenders for repayment—water had to pumped into it from the South Fork of the Chicago River. This pumping sometimes caused the Chicago River, which ordinarily runs east into the lake, to temporarily reverse flow and move west toward the Des Plaines.
After it opened, it was plain that the shipping canal could also do double duty as a sewer canal by carrying foul waters of the Chicago River and its tributaries into the Des Plaines. However, pumps sufficient to float a barge could not deliver enough water to flush away a city’s sewage. The original, deeper cut was needed to steepen the gradient between source and outlet and thus speed the flow of water from the first to the second without pumps. Deepening the canal was begun after the Civil War, and the new improved version opened in 1871.
Alas, the delays in funding and construction meant that the canal teetered on the cusp of obsolescence from the start. The I&M was the last of the great 19th century inland canals, yesterday’s great idea, and the railroads began eating into its potential revenues almost as soon as it opened. Water-borne traffic passed it by too, it being too shallow and too narrow, its lock too short for newer commercial craft. Traffic on the Illinois and Michigan Canal peaked at just over one million tons in 1880, and began dropping thereafter, never to recover; in 1933 the I&M Canal was closed.
Still, it worked, if only for a while. Said the Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois in 1939, “The waterway has been, perhaps, the most significant single factor in the history of Illinois.” When the I&M breached the old portage at Harlem Avenue, modern Chicago was founded. Wrote Tony Hiss, “Two of the country’s three greatest watersheds had been connected, and in that moment, what the East Coast produced and what the Midwest grew could finally be exchanged with ease.” The judgment may be quibbled with but not wholly dismissed. The canal brought national trade to Chicago, which made it a city; it brought the Irish to Chicago, which made it a particular kind of city. It made it possible—indeed, practically made it inevitable—for Chicago to outdo St. Louis as the commercial center of the Midwest. And by introducing to northeast Illinois immigrants from new places, the canal set in motion the developments that would estrange Chicago from the rest of the state. The canal had national significance too. It was largely because of the canal, for instance, that the northeastern U.S. rather than the South populated the upper Midwest and West—facts of profound importance come the Civil War.
So vital was the water link at Chicago between East and West to the commercial evolution of the nation that the subcontinental divide has been named a National Historic Site—one of only two in Illinois, the other being President Lincoln’s house in Springfield. Not for nothing was that ridge of land called Chicago's "Plymouth Rock."
Its importance notwithstanding, few national treasures can have been treated so cavalierly. So little valued was the canal in the 1950s that the new Southwest (later Stevenson) Expressway was built atop seven miles of the canal miles between Ashland and Harlem avenues in Chicago. The once-busy Canalport/Bridgeport bridge across the river’s South Fork at Fuller Street was eventually removed. (The footings survive and are still visible.) A few of the slips built in Bridgeport in the 1850s to transfer goods between boats and railroads survive on the north side of the South Branch, but most were paved over when the canal terminal was converted into trucking facilities.
Several factors virtually guaranteed the canal’s post-closing neglect. Rambling across several counties, it belonged to no one. Sure, there was romance in what the canal once was; the locks had hardly closed for the last time when the FWP guide sighed in print: “Gone is the pageant of barge and packet, the holiday crowds on canal excursions, the drivers and horses along the towpaths.” But by then—the guide’s poem to the past appeared in 1939—the I&M for most of its length was a malodorous and weedy ditch that ran through some of the least prepossessing scenery in Chicagoland. Sewage canal on one side, junk yards on the other—arguing to save the old canal was like arguing to save an old car tire. By the 1960s, the State of Illinois prepared to sell off bits of its canal land to raise revenue.
As long ago as the 1930s, bits of the closed I&M Canal were being developed by the State for recreational purposes. The Civilian Conservation Corps converted miles of towpaths into hiking and bicycling trails. By then nearly a century old, the canal was officially Historic, so the CCC also rehabilitated sections of the canal proper (including locks, along with associated building such as lock-tenders’ houses) into exhibits worthy of a tourist’s attention. Such restoration, alas, proved premature, as the birth of the market for heritage tourism was still a generation away. The rescued relics themselves fell into ruin. Those who do not learn from history, it was clear, are doomed to rebuild it.
A vanguard of history-conscious citizens in northeast Illinois pointed out that the canal corridor was a kind of open-air museum of industrial technology, and thus of a crucial part of Chicagoland history. Local citizen-activists were led by the Openlands Project, and together they persuaded the state to create the 60-mile-long I & M Canal State Trail in the 1960s and early ‘70s. The canal was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. That was only the first step in what turned out to be a re-imagining of the corridor, not merely its reuse. Today the I&M Canal it is the centerpiece of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, a name as clumsy as the concept. This quasi-national “heritage park” that offers an unusual blend of history and recreation in what is usually politely referred to as an urban setting.
The Sanitary and Ship Canal/Calumet Sag Channel
The I&M had been built with shipping in mind, and sanitation was an afterthought. Planners of the new Chicago Drainage Canal reversed those priorities. The new canal was built with sanitation in mind, a larger, deeper canal being needed to collect the water needed to flush the Chicago River into the Des Plaines River instead of the lake. The new canal would have to be at least 14 feet deep before the force of water falling into it from the higher lake would be enough to push the city’s sludge-like river downstream—upstream according to nature’s original plan—into the Des Plaines and thence the Illinois. Which it did when it was opened in 1900, permanently reversing the flow of the Chicago River. The construction of the I&M Canal, the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and ultimately the Illinois Waterway, was chosen one of Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century by the American Public Works Association.
The Drainage Canal was not meant for shipping but its broader utility was not lost on Chicago’s alert businessmen. The expanded function earned the ditch a new name—the Sanitary and Ship Canal. The Sanitary and Ship Canal was wider and deeper than many downstate streams dignified by the name “river.” The channel, which ran parallel to the I&M between Bridgeport and Lockport, made a dandy thoroughfare for craft not too fastidious about floating on shit, so dandy in fact that the S&S rendered moot that stretch of the I&M between Bridgeport and Lockport. Traffic in that stretch of the ditch petered to a halt by 1912; the construction of a larger lock on the S&S enabled ships to be lowered all the way to the levels of the Illinois River at Joliet, which meant that the I&M was no longer needed at all.
While the Sanitary and Ship Canal was large enough to carry new commercial craft to the Des Plaines, passage to the lower Illinois River was blocked to large craft by rapids below Marseilles. The solution was to convert the Desplaines/Illinois itself to a canal by series of dams that would “improve” the river by backing up the water deep enough to float barges as far upstream as Joliet. The State of Illinois in 1908 committed to a $20 million bond issue to build such a navigable channel from La Salle to Lockport. It was the I&M fiasco all over again—construction did not get underway until 1921, and Illinois ran out of money in 1930 with the project unfinished, leaving the job to the feds, in 1933. Thus did the Illinois River became the Illinois Waterway, and Chicago again had an up-to-date water link to the Mississippi and the Gulf, this time capable of handling football-field-sized cargo barges
So much for ships. They moved efficiently through the Calumet but industry's poisonous wastes did not. Happily, the city’s sanitary engineers galloped, or rather floated to the rescue. The new Chicago Sanitary District in 1911 began to build a new canal that would draw water of the Little Calumet and Grand Calumet rivers and their tributaries that was polluted by the industries in and around South Chicago and East Chicago, Indiana from Lake Michigan west to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The Calumet Sag Channel linked the Sanitary and Ship Canal (near Lemont) to Calumet Harbor via the Little Calumet River at Blue Island. Begun in 1911, the Cal-Sag—named for the “sag” or gap in the glacial moraines carved by the outflow of a much larger ancient lake through which the canal passed—took 20 years to finish.
As had happened with the Sanitary and Ship Canal, the new sewage disposal artery also was recognized as a potential shipping canal. The new lake port at Calumet had no natural connection to the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the waters it led to. Shippers who wished to move cargo from Calumet to the state’s interior had to carry it north to the Chicago River mouth, thence down that stream to the Sanitary and Ship Canal to the Des Plaines. The Cal-Sag in its original form was too narrow to call a barge highway—it's more like a back road—but when it was completed in 1922, it provided a shortcut from Lake Michigan to Illinois’s inland river waterway, and traffic through it to the Ship and Sanitary Canal boomed.
The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the development of Lake Calumet into a deepwater harbor saw the Cal Sag Channel widened and deepened too, beginning in 1955. Thus was achieved on the South Side the joining of Great Lakes and Mississippi water systems that was first achieved at Bridgeport in 1848. The I&M Canal was outmoded within a few years of its opening but the Sanitary and Ship Canal, more than a century after its debut, remains important as means of moving bulk cargoes to and from the North American interior. Much of this traffic goes to and from the Calumet in the form of petroleum, cement, even mud, hauled up from Peoria to cover poisoned soils. Traffic in such bulk cargoes in most recent years is measured in the tens of million of tons.
A busy town with a river and canals running through is going to need lots of bridges, and Chicago built dozens of them—to the general inconvenience of river traffic. Bridgeport was so named by boatmen on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, whose eastern terminus was in that neighborhood because the Ashland Avenue bridge sat so low over the South Branch that barges had to be unloaded in order to pass under it.
The solution was bridges that could be moved out of the way when a boat or barge needed to pass. Several expedients were tried. In one of the many reminiscences by old Chicagoans, Edwin O. Gale recalled that the first “bridge” across the south branch was a log raft affixed by chains to each bank; when a loaded canoe needed to pass, the fastenings on one bank were let loose so the raft could be pushed against the other bank and out of the way by the current. Later, in 1834, a primitive wooden drawbridge was built across the main river at Dearborn Street; the idea was sound, but the bridge wasn’t.
Chicago ended up with 52 movable bridges, in fact, more than any other city in the world. Most of them were versions of the swing bridge, which moves out of the way of passing boats by pivoting horizontally on a pier in midstream. The Rush Street bridge that opened in 1856 was a swing bridge—reputedly the first iron bridge built west of the Alleghenies. Swing bridges put watercraft at risk of collisions but they put citizens at risk of kidnapping; when a boat approached one of the old center-pivot bridges, tenders swung the span open while people and wagons, caught at mid-crossing, were still on them.
Even a temporary interruption to traffic caused by movable bridges that is repeated dozens of times each day poses an intolerable impediment to land travel. One big reason that the land south of the Loop became Chicago’s first “Gold Coast” was that the North Side was inaccessible for all practical purposes because of congestion at the bridges across the Chicago River. The old swing bridge at Rush Street was “continually overcrowded,” wrote Lloyd Lewis in 1929, and no wonder; it then carried three-fourths of all the cars and a quarter of the trucks that entered the Loop district from the North Side—more traffic, it was said, than London Bridge.
Astonishingly, seven center-pivot swing bridges still stand on, or rather in, the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal; one is the bridge (now fixed in place) that since 1899 has carried the Illinois Central tracks across the Ship & Sanitary Canal east of Kedzie Avenue. There also is a restored swing bridge in Romeoville, where it carries hikers and bike riders on the Centennial Trail across the canal.
Another then-standard form of movable bridge was the vertical lift bridge in which the roadway is lifted between two towers on the banks. The 1915 Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge over the South Branch east of Canal Street, familiar to uncountable thousands of Amtrak riders as they crawl into the city from the south, is of this type. Lift bridges worked better than swing bridges, but lifting half a bridge is hard work, and the height of their towers make them intrusive in a downtown that was trying, haltingly, to make itself comely.
Engineers set to work making movable bridges that worked in a busy city. The solutions they came up with transformed the city and earned Chicago its first medals as a can-do city. (Say “Chicago style” to a bridge engineer and he doesn’t think of pizzas or tall office buildings.) Its bridges deserve mention with its great buildings of the 19th century, and indeed the authoritative AIA Guide to Chicago lists eleven of them as architectural landmarks.
Fitting the movable spans of a lift bridge with counterweights makes it easier to move them and requires a less hefty infrastructure. Chicago pioneered in the construction of two versions of bridges of this bascule (from the French for counterweight) type. One was the rolling lift bridge invented by William Scherzer. An example is the Cermak Street Bridge between Archer Avenue and Halsted Street near Chinatown, erected in 1906; the last bridge of that design in the city, it was replaced in 1998. Another rolling lift bridge by Scherzer is the “Eight Track” railroad bridge across the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal west of Western Avenue; its works are still to be admired, but the bridge has long been fixed in the lowered position.
Almost all of Chicago’s modern movable bridges have been a second type of bascule bridge—the trunnion bascule bridge, developed by local engineers at the turn of the 20th century. The halves of a trunnion bascule bridge pivot upward on a bearing or pivot known as a trunnion; lifting counterweights are hidden in pits beneath each span’s end. The resulting structure is compact and the operation efficient—just the thing in a bridge in a crowded city. The first trunnion bascule bridge to open in the U.S. was the Cortland Bridge (originally the Clybourn Place Drawbridge), which first carried traffic across the North Branch of the Chicago River in 1902. (The Cortland Bridge turned 100 years old in 2002; the structure in 1982 was designated a National Historic Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers, who know a good bridge when they see one.) The bridge that first carried traffic on what is today known as Lake Shore Drive over the Chicago River in 1937 was then the largest bascule bridge in the world.
So many bridges meant a lot of bridge accidents. The city’s river bridges have been pushed aside by ice floes, knocked down by floods, and rammed into by ships and barges. In 1964, an overloaded freight car damaged the B&O Chicago Terminal Railway bridge over the Sanitary and Ship Canal near Summit so badly that the weakened bridge was unable to support the weight of a train behind it, and its bucked under its weight. that train was loaded with live hogs, which were pitched into the water; survivors were rounded up but not before enterprising locals did some pig rustling that kept neighborhood barbeque pits sizzling for weeks.
Traffic conflicts between river and land craft were never eliminated, they merely became less acute as river traffic dwindled. Large lake vessels no longer move through downtown, and nearly all the barge-pushing river towboats that do work that stretch of the river have pilothouses that can be lowered to fit under fixed bridges. Some three dozen of the city’s drawbridges still work, as do five vertical lift bridges. As a result, what was cursed as an inconvenience is more likely to be cherished; the raising and lowering of bridges on the Chicago River’s main stem and the near-downtown stretch of the South Branch when the city’s flotilla of tall-masted pleasure boats moves to and from winter berths is today a popular spectacle.
The rest of Chicago’s movable bridges no longer move, having been fixed in their lowered positions. Fixing movable bridges saves money on maintenance and bridge tenders’ pay, not to mention the patience of citizens delayed while they wait to cross a raised bridge. “A savings to the city budget,” conceded construction historian Carl Condit about the policy, but “a loss to the romance of the water. And the entertainment that is a great city in operation.”
Not all of Chicago’s innovative bridges cross water. The North Avenue Pedestrian Bridge which carries bathers are others over Lake Shore Drive to the North Avenue beach in Lincoln Park was an engineering marvel when it opened in 1938. (It boasts a long span with no central support graceful enough to merit inclusion in an exhibit of modern architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.) Alas, the structure does not meet today’s accessibility standards, and the city plans to replace it.
Chicago’s suburbs insist—as they are wont to say about theater groups and restaurants and corrupt politicians—that they have nice bridges too. The early ones, of course, were no more prepossessing than Chicago’s. Milton Quaife, in his history of early Chicagoland roads, recalled the bridge that carried stagecoaches across the Calumet River south of the city in the 1830s. This bridge, he wrote, was
of such wondrous construction that memories of its passage were stamped indelibly on the minds of the pioneers. The structure was over sixty rods long, built of poles throughout . . . The effect produced upon travelers by the first sight of the structure is sufficiently indicated in the simple record that they commonly walked across it, rather than ride over in the vehicle.
These early bridges cannot be said to have been designed. Some seem scarcely to have been built. One of these bore travelers on the Chicago-Elgin road across the Des Plaines River in the early 1840s on planks that were merely laid, not nailed, atop wooden supports that floated on the water. Wagon drivers of the day reported that their rear wheels sank two feet into the water while crossing; one would assume their hearts sank even further.
In time bridge-building improved. Venerable bridges of all types from the golden age of bridge-building still grace the suburbs. Joliet has several of note: the Ruby Street Bridge, which carries Illinois 53 over the Des Plaines River, is a bascule trunnion bridge; the Cass Street Bridge (which carries US 30 west across the river) and the Jefferson Street Bridge are Scherzer rolling lift bridges; and the railroad bridge south of Jefferson Street is a vertical lift bridge.
Chicago is still building bridges, and the best of them recall the glory days of the local art. The rebuilt Roosevelt Avenue bridge (1995) was outfitted with obelisks that harkened to the days of the Burnham Plan. The Damen Avenue bridge north of the Kennedy Expressway at Diversey Parkway, which opened in 1999, has arches made of inch-thick hollow steel pipe that is four feet in diameter; the pipe is stiff enough that the arches require no cross bracing, which means that other bulky supports are unnecessary—the first of its kind in North America.
Just as bridge builders executed some finely designed structures, so Chicago architects have long borrowed from bridge-making both structural ideas and aesthetic motifs. William Lebaron Jenney used his knowledge of bridge construction to concoct the first iron/steel framing for tall buildings. One hundred years later, architects Perkins & Will put such framing on the outside of their Morton International Corporation headquarters building (now 100 N. Riverside Plaza) on the west bank of the river between Randolph and Washington; the building's rooftop support trusses reveal their kinship with the superstructures of the many river bridges nearby.
All these elegantly engineered conveniences have their own kind of beauty, and the best of them have come to be appreciated by aesthetes as art objects in themselves. Chicago bridges have been the subject of art photography. Graham Hutton, a Britisher who spent time in Chicago in the 1940s, recalled in Midwest At Noon how he liked to stand on the Michigan Avenue Bridge at day’s end, looking west at the sunset through the girders of the bridges over the Chicago River. The view set Hutton to wondering why a Midwest school of painting did not spring up here. Some would say that it did. Local bridges and river scenes were a favorite subject of the American Impressionist Albert Henry Krehbiel.
For visitors incapable of seeing the inherent beauty of bridges, the city has obligingly embellished its downtown bridges since the early decades of the 20th century. The Michigan Avenue Bridge across the Chicago River called for in the 1909 Plan of Chicago finally opened in 1920; it boasts ornamented abutments and four corner pylons decorated with sculpted reliefs that depict (rather fancifully) scenes from the city’s past. The 1996 bridge over the Kennedy Expressway at Madison Street is adorned with motifs drawn from the Chicago flag and 300 blue-hued pinpoint lamps.
Bridges are the site as well as the inspiration of artworks. Lighting artists of today have made downtown bridges the centerpieces of art installations. In 1998 Belgian artist Nancy Van Meer adorned the underside of the State Street bridge with four 150-foot paintings, visible to rubber-necking boat passengers and (when the bridge was up) passersby on the street. So often are the bridges made the centerpiece of such works, in fact, that in 1999 the Chicago City Council directed the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to develop policies governing the placement of temporary bridge art on city property.
Ghosts of the waterways
Of Chicago’s crowded, noisy nineteenth century riverfront, humming with life and menace, little remains. The rail yards, the grain elevators, the factories, the lumber yards—all gone. Few of these are much missed in today’s downtown, to be fair, but there is an exception. The South Water Street Market, an outdoor produce bazaar on the south bank of the main river, was closed in 1926. The FWP guide called the market “fascinatingly chaotic” in spite of the fact that it “cluttered the Loop for many years with a creaking confusion of wagons.”
Here and there one sees reminders of the harbor’s heyday. Ogden Slip is still there; it was built by the Chicago Dock and Canal Company which in turn was built by that capitalist among capitalists, William Ogden; Ogden also had a railroad, and built a spur to his docks, thus condemning the north bank of the river to a future as an early factory district. On the river side of the old Daily News Building (now Riverside Plaza) on the west bank of the South Branch between Madison and Washington, one can still see the docks at the water level where workers unloaded newsprint and other supplies for the printing presses that once rattled within. In 2007 a workman running a backhoe at a building site at the corner of Illinois Street and McClurg Court in the Streeterville district unearthed a 200-pound boat anchor.
The downtown riverbanks have since become more valuable as sites for office space than warehouses or grain elevators, of course, and the only warehouses being built there these days are in the form of condo and apartment towers. Some of the older harbor warehouses survive, but only because they could be converted for other uses. This happened to the Reid, Murdoch and Co. building (1914) on the north side between Clark and LaSalle, which now houses City of Chicago offices. The Pugh Warehouses on Ogden Slip (later known as North Pier Terminal) were built in 1905, and extended from McClurg Court east across what is now Lake Shore Drive; North Pier Terminal was converted in the 1980s and ‘90s into shops, restaurants, and offices.
Period photos evoke the sights and smells of the old harbor, but the visitor who seeks her history on the streets rather than the library must make do with a few artworks and bronze plaques that recall the great events and sites of the city’s riverine past. In 2000, when "Riverwalk Gateway" on the south bank riverwalk was unveiled; the mosaic mural comprises 16 narrative panels that trace the history of the Chicago River (with some digressions) from the days of Marquette and Joliet to the present. The reconstruction of Wacker Drive along the south bank of the main stem, completed in 2002, was an opportunity for the city to reinstall in more comely settings statues, sculptures, and plaques (more than two dozen of the last alone) commemorating the history that happened there.
The only remnant of the I&M Canal left in Chicago, including its mouth, is today the setting for the City of Chicago’s I&M Canal Origins Park at 28th and Ashland. This 2.8-acre park along the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River is the City of Chicago’s first archeological landmark; it overlooks both the old canal mouth and the street approach of the former bridge to the original Bridgeport community. A further plan is being discussed to reclaim 15 more acres of nearby river-edge property into a Canalport Nature Park. At 2731 S. Archer Avenue the visitor can still see an 1872 frame commercial building, the era when the canal was one of the nation’s maritime Main Streets. Bridgeport’s streets themselves are a monument to the era; accommodating the canal forced engineers to reorient local streets, and these contortions in the street grid survive to this day.
Farther west, quite a bit remains of the canal support infrastructure of bridges, aqueducts, dams, locktenders' houses, and towpaths. Lockport is a veritable museum of canal relics. The M. J. Hogan Grain Elevator, built in 1862 at 124 West Williams in Seneca is the last remaining grain elevator on the Canal. Locktenders' houses still stand in Channahon and Aux Sable; some three miles west of Dresden is the Aux Sable aqueduct, a 136-foot-long “water bridge” that carries the canal over Aux Sable Creek. A toll house—the only one to survive—still stands on Columbus Street in Ottawa.
Sturdy enough to carry 150 tons of coal or stone without complaint, the canal boats proved remarkably fragile against the weight of time. Not one canal boat survives intact. In 1996 a large section of the I&M was “de-watered” by the failure of a dam that shunted water into the canal. When the water dropped in the Morris Wide Water, a turning basin down-canal near Morris in Grundy County, there was exposed the hulls of seven long-ago sunk canal boats. The relics’ temporary emergence into the late 20th century gave archeologists a chance to study them, although salvage was impossible; they were submerged again when the dam was repaired to await some future resurrection.
While Chicago proudly displays to a puzzled world such maritime exotica as a captured German World War II submarine—the U-505, permanently moored on the east side of the Museum of Science and Industry—not a single vintage lake schooner survives to remind us of the city’s own maritime past. Chicago does, however, have a museum in which vintage Great Lakes ships are displayed for the curious—Lake Michigan. Like so many museums, the lake’s exhibits recall the experience of war—in this case, mariners’ ancient war against storm and fog and ice. More than 10,000 vessels are thought to have sunk on Lake Michigan, and wrecks of nineteen of them have been located off Chicagoland. Cold Lake Michigan water is an excellent preservative, and much wreckage (including their unlucky human casualties) remain intact. These relics are much visited—and occasionally plundered—by recreational divers, who report finding ships logs that were still readable after a century. As one experienced diver has put it, “There's no other way to get this close to history."
Recreational divers spend many millions each year in Illinois and Wisconsin exploring wrecks. The State of Illinois owns more than one million acres of Lake Michigan lake bed, and on them lie the remains of hundreds of wrecked ships. The Illinois’s Historic Preservation Agency is locating, inventorying, and researching the historic wrecks off its shore in conjunction with local maritime and diving groups such as the Chicago Maritime Society (which reports the location of new wreck sites to archaeologists) and the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago, a volunteer, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the study and preservation of Lake Michigan shipwrecks.
Probably the most famous of these wrecks is that of the Lady Elgin, whose bow section was found some ten miles off Highland Park in 1989; in 1995, the ship's remains were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among other lost ships: the Wells Burt, a coal-laden three-masted schooner that in 1883 foundered in a gale enroute to Chicago and sank in about 40 feet of water three miles off Evanston; the Tacoma, a steam-powered tug that went down in 1929 off the 68th Street water intake crib; Wings of the Wind, a schooner that foundered in 1866 after a collision with another ship off the Wilson Avenue crib; the passenger steamer Iowa from 1872 which in old age was converted to freight hauling and went down in 1915, three and a half miles east of Chicago; the St. Mary’s, a lumber schooner that went down in the same storm that doomed the Lady Elgin in 1860, whose likely remains were found in 1989 15 miles off Highland Park in 110 feet of water; the Seabird, in which 33 people died when it burned to its waterline in 1868, and which lies about seven miles off Waukegan.
“Who owns history?” is a much vexed question that in the case of underwater relics has a fairly straightforward answer. Private divers who discover historically significant wrecks had long claimed them under ancient admiralty law, but in recent years most courts have ruled that the more relevant statute is the 1987 federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act. That law was passed in recognition of the historical value of shipwrecks, and ceded ownership of ships that lie on public lands to the states. That claim was codified by the General Assembly with its 1988 Illinois Abandoned Shipwreck Act.
Under terms of the Illinois law, wrecks older than 50 years are generally assumed to be historical and the property of the people. State preservationists justify this assertion of a public interest as necessary to protect a priceless historical heritage; some divers grumble that the states’ claims of ownership have more to do with securing potential attractions for their respective tourism industries. The 1988 statute put a legal fence around historic shipwrecks threatened by looting by treasure hunters and commercial salvors. Removing items from such wrecks—“salvage” in the eyes of divers, ‘theft in the opinion of state historical preservationists—is a crime. ●