Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History

By Hunt, D. Bradford | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History


Hunt, D. Bradford, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History. By David M. Young (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001. Pp. ix, 248. Illustrations, maps, tables, index. Cloth, $39.95).

The title of this book is slightly misleading. David Young's Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History ranges well beyond the city's waterways to encompass the river-borne commerce of nearly the entire Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Valley. This ambitious regional view is both a strength and a weakness. Chicago's economic growth was intimately tied to its strategic water location, as Young reminds us, but a broader view leaves out much-needed depth on Chicago's maritime experience. Readers seeking analysis of change over time at the city's ports, vessels, and cargoes will be disappointed. Instead, this book offers a solid synthesis of published research, much of it from less well-known journals like Inland Seas, that will appeal to general readers looking for an accurate, generally well-written narrative of the Upper Midwest's maritime highlights, with special attention to canal constructions, maritime disasters, and the decline of Great Lakes shipping in the twentieth century.

The regional view has great value in refocusing students on maps and economic history, as Young places Chicago, and especially its Illinois and Michigan Canal, at the center of a water-borne transportation network stretching from the St. Laurence Seaway and New York City (via the Erie Canal) all the way to New Orleans. Before the coming of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century, ever-larger canoes, flat-bottomed canal boats, schooners, and steamboats were by far the most efficient way to move bulk goods (and to a great extent people) between the Midwest and the East Coast. After the railroad, water-borne commerce suffered but never disappeared; it still holds a competitive advantage in moving coal and iron ore. The regional focus also allows Young to review why Chicago rose above its mid-nineteenth century rivals like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati. Like previous scholars, Young places geography at the center of much of Chicago's destiny. While he admits the railroad's eventual triumph, he opens his book with the bold if awkward statement: "Its waters and the boats that sailed them built Chicago, not the iron horse or horseless carriage" (3). Despite the hyperbole, his discussion of the regional nature of maritime traffic is a healthy reminder that commerce depends on networks, not merely urban centers.

Drawing on the major histories of William Cronon and others, Young summarizes the importance of shipping in bringing natural resources from the hinterlands to Chicago, spurring economic growth. Timber schooners brought wood from Wisconsin to build Chicago; canal boats floated grain from Illinois farms to the city's markets; and barges carried Mesabi Range iron ore to its steel mills. Further, for a brief period in the mid-nineteenth century, steamships ferried people from the east to settle the region. All this traffic made Chicago one of the busiest ports in the world in the 1870s-at least in terms of ship movements, but not gross tonnage.

Young sees the maritime world as primarily a transportation activity, and he is most interested in canal construction, numbers of ships, and gross tonnages, much as an older generation of railroad historians described triumphs of ever-increasing miles of track, numbers of locomotives, and mergers of companies.

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