Friday, April 9, 2010

Chicago Maritime History

The fate of Chicago's maritime history is a lot like the fate of all of its newspapers that were not the Chicago Tribune: for want of a wealthy present-day patron, it languishes and is hard to learn about or use. The 33 articles, essays, book excerpts, and court decisions that make up From Lumber Hookers to the Hooligan Fleet: A Treasury of Chicago Maritime History are a big step in the right direction, thanks to the Chicago Maritime Society and Lake Claremont Press. Chicago was once a major port; today's scenic green-park-with-skyscrapers banks of the Chicago River downtown used to be packed with lumber storage and boats of all kinds.

An entire industry -- several of them -- have just disappeared. This was brought home to me in a recent research project which tangentially involved a guy who lived on the opposite coast of Lake Michigan and who made his living sailing on the lake in the summers and working in the woods in the winters. Just a few decades later, when evidence of his life and death were needed, there was almost no one around who knew or remembered the 1860s maritime culture.

As one would expect, this treasury does not draw on a deep well of material, and as a result is a choppy experience to read from cover to cover. Some facts are repeated from one essay to the next; others are repeated several times within the same one. My favorites include A. T. Andreas's long quotation on the Flood of 1849 (a fine example of European settlers' ignorance of their surroundings and its cost, although that's not how Andreas saw it); Elisha Sly's too-short workingman's view of life on the Illinois and Michigan Canal; Tom and Chris Kastle on maritime music; and Ann Gordon's devastating investigation of the (non-)investigation of the worst Great Lakes disaster of all, the overturning of the excursion boat Eastland at the dock in Chicago. Chicago's maritime role in World War II is accounted for and provides the context for Richard Brady's harrowing account of living through a South Pacific typhoon with winds over 200 mph. (The story is included because the boat he almost died on was built in Chicago.)

The enthusiastic amateurism without which this book would not exist also makes it sometimes difficult. Researchers who want to follow up on a provocative statistic will look in vain for reference notes of any kind. Some articles were written by experts who lovingly describe the technical specifications of a boat or an engine, but not the context or how they matter.

But professionalism isn't all it's cracked up to be, either. As a genealogist, I was mightily annoyed with historian Richard J. Wright. He spoke on wooden shipbuilding in Chicago 1836-1890 in a 1984 presentation at Loyola, reprinted here. In it he lamented that "nothing is known of a biographical nature or of the site locations" of the shipbuilders' yards, including "Hewitt & Judd, Stephen Gosselin, Matthews & Kenefick, and Akhurst & Douglas." Had he not heard of city directories?

Anyone with an interest in Chicago history or the Great Lakes will want this book. Hopefully a new generation of researchers will do the work to make the next treasury even more of a treasure.

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