The Chicago Maritime Museum

An introduction

You can’t truly know Chicago without knowing its waterways.

(They’re the reason the city is here to begin with).

And you can’t know Chicago’s waterways without the Chicago Maritime Museum.

Nestled in the Bridgeport Arts Center next to the Chicago River, the Chicago Maritime Museum is a dynamic newcomer to Chicago’s community of museums.

Designed by leading Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, the museum interprets Chicago’s unique past in ways that delight and inspire its growing rolls of visitors.


The inevitable miracle

Not so long ago, water was the highway of the world.

For thousands of years – and well into the 19th Century -- movement on land was slow, arduous, often perilous. People explored and thrived largely by navigating waterways.

This fact made the birth of Chicago inevitable.

In northern Illinois, two great watersheds come within reach of each other. Here, just a few miles separate the Great Lakes, with their links to the broad Atlantic, from inland rivers feeding the mighty Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico.

Early explorers realized that in this place two worlds would come together…that an entire continent would pivot on the small patch of ground between them.

That patch of ground: Chicago.

Why was Chicago key to unlocking the vast American prairies and the mountains beyond?

Why did a tiny village of 350 souls in 1833 grow to become a great metropolis -- and the world’s busiest port -- in an almost impossibly short span of years?

The answer: geography.

Our waterways attracted uncounted adventurers, farmers, sailors and workers from around the world.

Together, they created the rich mosaic we call Chicago.

Together, they became us.

We must tell the story of Chicago’s growth, so the residents of our great city can preserve what makes their community unique.

A community’s spirit endures only when actively transmitted to the next generation. The Chicago Maritime Museum is here to make our past accessible – and powerful – in the future we all share.

The visitor experience

The Chicago Maritime Museum intrigues and delights its visitors with a wide range of dynamic displays and programs.

The Museum space in the Bridgeport Arts Center teems with artifacts, maps, models, dioramas, and rare photos that bring Chicago’s waterborne history to life.

Community forums hosted at the Museum convene visitors to learn about Chicago’s historic waterways as well as to advocate for their future protection.

School programs engage students in their own voyages of discovery, through museum tours and authoritative curricula for teachers.

A publications repository of thousands of books and documents provide a treasure trove of rare and enlightening literature, including robust sources for scholarly research.

The Museum offers a rich tapestry of Chicago stories – and multiple reasons to return again and again.

Among our story's colorful cast of characters:

Jacques Marquette…the area’s first European explorer in 1673...first to recognize its potential

Upton Sinclair…whose book The Jungle outraged the nation over butchered carcasses floating in “Bubbly Creek” (now the site of our museum!)

Daniel Burnham…whose plan for Chicago saved the lakefront for the benefit of all.

"The Fox"…a shadowy 1970s figure whose secret exploits exposed industrial polluters

Ralph Freese…a craft canoe-builder and reenactor of Marquette’s explorations

The mission of Chicago Maritime Museum is “To preserve and present the heritage of Chicago’s waterways.”

But our real impact is to transform visitors.

Just as Chicago lies at the confluence of waters, the Museum brings together many branches of learning...

Geography: how geographic features shape society

History: romantic tales of explorers and warriors, trappers and traders, diggers and dreamers

Sociology: the story of those who came to Chicago, why they came and where they settled – a story that echoes today

Commerce and entrepreneurism: the economics of growth, the power of innovation

Environmental science and stewardship: Bubbly Creek -- a cautionary tale with a modern legacy

Civic engagement: how vital resources drive politics – and spur advocacy for their responsible use

Engineering and design: locks, cribs, bridges, deep tunnels – a river reversed and other marvels

Sport and recreation: waterways restored and preserved for canoeing, sailing, fishing

Along with these straightforward lessons come other, deeper ones.

Visitors to the Chicago Maritime Museum learn a new pride in their city -- and feel deeper kinship with fellow Chicagoans who share the same history.

They discover how our waterways shaped not just our city (and the nation and world beyond) but the optimism, inventiveness, and audacity of its inhabitants.

And in learning how our forebears prized and used our area’s resources, they gain a dawning sense of their own responsibility for our city’s future.

Philanthropy is essential to the Museum’s future.

The Chicago Maritime Museum enlightens people about how Chicago’s past shaped the city we experience every day…and reminds them how today’s decisions will influence its future.

It’s the kind of institution our city needs more of.

It’s also the kind of institution that requires charitable support to achieve its potential.

Philanthropy is the essential key to our plans to complete and expand our exhibits, to deepen our educational resources, to continue transforming the awareness and resolve of each new generation of visitors.

Like no other museum, the Chicago Maritime Museum captures, conveys and sustains our city’s origins.

By showing how Chicago found its soul and gained its place in the world, we make the past an accessible and powerful force in the future we all share.

Please become part of our unfolding story, with your generous contribution.

Chicago Maritime Museum

1200 West 35th Street

Chicago, Illinois


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