By Jennifer Young

The Chicago Maritime Museum has a mission to “preserve and present the heritage of Chicago’s waterways.” That story would be incomplete, indeed, without substantial reference to the humble but utterly effective conveyance–the canoe. In fact, canoes played a vital role in the exploration of North America, including the upper Midwest and, of course, the waterways throughout the present-day Chicago region. The Chicago Maritime Museum displays replica of these canoes that illustrate the role the vessels played for Native Americans and also the early years of exploration and settlement.


The earliest canoes were made from logs. In time, indigenous tribes of North America refined canoe craft, constructing the vessels from hollowed-out tree trunks and birch bark . At the time North American explorers arrived, they found the canoes of Native Americans to be sophisticated and remarkably well engineered. The canoes were sturdy enough to travel across open stretches of water–Great Lakes waters. They were also wide enough for carrying substantial cargo–even in shallow waters.

The durability and available space aboard the canoes made them ideal for trade. As a result, the vessels became integral to the development of Chicago water trade. Pioneers, voyageurs, and enterprising tradespeople would rely on the canoe to travel and eek out a living in the wilderness–the wilderness that would ultimately be settled and become cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.


Visitors to the Chicago Maritime Museum will find that the story of Chicago’s maritime history begins with Native Americans. Area tribes like the Potawatomi, Illinois, Ottawa, and Miami were master canoe builders. Birchbark canoes became the most popular convenance owing to its versatility. Native American craftsmen peeled rolls of birch bark from trees and sewed the strips together, placing them over the canoe’s wooden frame. They used pine pitch or spruce gum to seal the seams. Once complete, the finished canoe would be lightweight, easy to maneuver on the water, and capable of carrying large cargos.

The museum preserves and displays artifacts related to birchbark canoes and the voyageurs and other explorers who quickly adopted them for trade and exploration. As missionaries and settlers arrived in the area, they adopted these canoes for transportation too. If you choose to visit the museum, you’ll find history related to Chicago’s missionaries and early settlers. As for original historic canoes–these are rare and hard to preserve as they were crafted from organic materials.


Aside from its fantastic canoe collection, the Chicago Maritime Museum also features other exhibits related to the region’s maritime history, including Great Lakes lighthouses, shipwrecks, the Chicago River, regional waterways, Chicago as a trading post, bridges, canals, and more. The museum features lectures, educational programs and outreach, and even model building classes. Sign up to learn model shipbuilding techniques while learning about maritime travel and commerce in Chicago’s waters.

The museum is located at 1200 West 35th Street, River Level in Chicago. It is open Tues. – Sat. from 10 AM to 4 PM. Adult admission is $10, but seniors and children under 12 may visit for free.