Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History

By Todd, Daniel | The Journal of Transport History, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History


Todd, Daniel, The Journal of Transport History


David M. Young, Chicago Maritime: an illustrated history, Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb IL (2001), 260 pp., US$39.95.

Under the pretext of furnishing an `illustrated' history Young gives us a sound, comprehensive survey of all matters nautical which have had the remotest bearing on transport in and around Chicago. As a matter of course he also strays farther afield, both geographically (down the Mississippi to New Orleans) and across the modes to embrace road and rail cartage. Central to Chicago's importance is its strategic position, occupying the pivot between the eastward-tending Great Lakes and the southward-flowing Mississippi. Much of Young's story revolves round the issue of overcoming this awkward `land gap' and thus linking two natural inland waterways.

To begin with, he sketches the canoe routes, touching on the fur trade and the penetration of the continent by the voyageurs. A minor trading post, Chicago established its value as a portage point between Lake Michigan and the northernmost tributaries of the riverine system controlled from St Louis. Riverboats eclipsed canoes in the early nineteenth century, the 12-15 ton carrying capacity of the bateau proving more alluring than the five tons carried by the largest canoe. By mid-century the rivers were thick with flatboats and keelboats; the former lifted loads up to 100 tons while the latter typically hauled forty-ton cargoes along the shallower streams. Young now shifts his attention to canals, providing a discourse on the crucial Erie and the 'mania' which followed it. The frenetic canal building instituted by the states threw up several cities - Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati and St Louis - each vying for a commanding role. All would present challenges to a neophyte Chicago, but it was St Louis which mounted the most potent threat. Overreliance on river transport proved St Louis's undoing, for Chicago, aided by the inception in 1848 of both the Illinois & Michigan Canal and its first railroad, was able to push out its hinterland over 100 miles to garner the headwaters of the Mississippi. By 1865 Chicago had become the country's `railroad capital', a vital junction on the route connecting prairie farmers and ranchers with northeastern consumers. A few years later, in 1873, the Illinois Central was running through trains to New Orleans, offering a north-south artery in opposition to the river services controlled from St Louis.

At this juncture Young focuses on Chicago itself, specifically its advantages and disadvantages - and the latter seem to have predominated - as a budding port. Reminiscent of aspiring ports the world over, Chicago was hampered by both landside space restrictions and severe draught limitations. Deepening of the mouths of the two rivers (the Chicago and the Calumet) constituting the port, together with pier building, involved the usual funding problems (and, interestingly, federal help was not forthcoming until the end of the century). Shallows notwithstanding, the port successively handled swarms of schooners and steamers, the latter evolving into the giant ore boats ('boat' is the preferred term) of the twentieth century which achieved lengths of 1,000 ft. …

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