When Chicago was an International Port

Posted on June 28, 2018

Navy Pier in Early 60s

The photo shows Chicago’s Navy Pier, possibly in the early 1960s, with 5 ocean-going ships along side. It could handle 6. Note the skyline and the FDR Lake Shore Drive Bridge in the distance. This was just after the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks & canals that allowed ships from the Atlantic Ocean to go to the far reaches of the Great Lakes. Natural obstacles that had to be worked around included Niagara Falls, Canada. The Seaway was a joint project of the US & Canadian Government and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It is a tremendous economic success. Giant grain freighters bring tons of wheat from Manitoba to ports around the world. Other ships bring much needed foreign steel to manufacturing plants in Ohio & Michigan.

While it is an economic success, it is an ecological disaster. Large ships use sea water as ballast to maintain proper balance in different marine environments. That means, they may take on water from one area for stability in rough weather, for example, and then discharge it in another area miles away in order to navigate a shallow channel. The result is the introduction of foreign marine life into bodies of water that may not be able to absorb it. Two examples in Lake Michigan are the Lampreys & Zebra Mussels. These animals have devastated the local aquatic life by eating the local fish. It is an odd twist that, as you walk along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago, the water looks clear and beautiful. Years ago, the water was kind of murky. Even though the water now looks better, it’s actually worse. The cause of all that murkiness was life. Big fish, little fish all kinds of little squishy things were all intermingling happily until the Zebra Mussels moved in and ate everybody, more or less. The water that looks clear is actually empty, and that’s not good.

Even though the Seaway’s still going strong farther north, Chicago’s benefit was short lived. Only a few years after this photo was taken, the advent of container shipping made it far cheaper to ship containers of goods from foreign ports to US coastal cities and on to Chicago by truck or rail. When that happened the Pier fell into disuse except for a temporary home for the University of Illinois at Chicago while its campus was being built. There were also many car shows and special events, but most of the 500,000 square feet of freight sheds stood unused until the 1980’s, when it was turned into an entertainment venue.

Chicago still has aspirations of being an international port, at least on paper. The city and State of Illinois maintain a presence at the mouth of the Calumet river, 20¬† miles south of Navy Pier. They do some shipping there, but not much. The main business of the Illinois International Port District is golf. They converted some polluted brown field sites of former heavy industry on the shores of nearby Lake Calumet into a first class golf course called Harborside. It’s a terrific course, I’ve played it myself & recommend it highly, but that’s not what you’d expect a port authority to be running.

Navy Pier is currently one of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations. A lot of locals won’t go there because it tends to be crowded. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.” But, if you walk out all the way to the end of the pier, about 3/4 of a mile, the crowds thin out and the air is fresher. And then you can turn around and look back at the city and think about all the good and bad changes that have happened since the photo was taken so many years ago.

Photo: A Pictorial History of the Great Lakes