By Sigrid Pilgrim
Next time you paddle your canoe – think back some centuries: The American Indian nations who inhabited the area that is now Chicago knew the place as a canoe portage between the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers’ watersheds. But within two centuries – this area would host one of the busiest ports in the world.
Chicago became a busy port city connecting the produce and products of the Midwest with a national distribution system of lake vessels, canal boats, and railroads. The number of ships arriving and leaving the Port of Chicago in 1910 exceeded any port in North America and rivaled all the great harbors of the world, including London and Hamburg.
The Chicago Maritime Society was formed in 1982 with the purpose to research, celebrate, and educate the public about Chicago’s maritime heritage, and will open later this year The Chicago Maritime Museum at the Bridgeport Art Center, www.chicagomaritimemuseum.org. The museum’s founders also include Rita Frese, who is co-editor of a very interesting book called “A Treasury of Chicago Maritime History.”
The Museum houses an extensive collection of artifacts, models, art images, and more – including the superb collection of canoes and kayaks, outriggers, and other boats collected over his lifetime by Ralph Frese, known across the country and the world as MR. CANOE. Take a look at some of these beautiful boats at the website: http://www.chicagomaritimemuseum.org/sections/canoes/
Once a year, the Society and Museum also hosts the opening event, and is one of the sponsors of the Chicago Maritime Festival held at the Old Town School of Folk Music. This event celebrates the maritime history with exhibits, songs, arts, crafts, workshops and seminars, and is presented by individuals and organizations from the maritime communities of Chicago, the Great Lakes, and the world. A special hour was devoted to memories of one of the founders of the Society, Museum, and Festival: Ralph Frese, attended by his wife Rita, who also was presented with a blue-frosted birthday cake. A three-hour concert concluded the festivities in the evening celebrating marine life in songs, poetry, dance, lots of laughter, and great audience participation.
So next time you paddle your canoe – think about the Indians centuries ago who showed the white men the canoe portage from one watershed to another – and how this knowledge transformed this area into the economic powerhouse it has become. And help keep this history alive – visit the museum when it opens, maybe take out a very affordable ($35.00) membership or just enjoy learning more about Chicago’s Maritime History.
Ralph Frese Boat Building workshop for children, at the 2015 Chicago Maritime Fesitval
Model of The Griffin by Glenn Braun, on display at the 2015 Chicago Maritime Fesitval