The Old-Fashioned Way to Get to Chicago Was by Water

Let’s take a trip to Chicago, by steamer.

WE’RE CELEBRATING MILWAUKEE’S 175TH ANNIVERSARY BY DELVING INTO THE CITY’S HISTORY WITH A NEW PHOTO EVERY MONTH. FIND MORE HERE.

Chicago has always been a great town to live 90 miles away from. Countless Milwaukeeans over the years have darted south for a taste of big-city life and then returned, usually on the same day, to the relative tranquility of their hometown. Today we travel by car on Interstate 94 or by rail on the Amtrak Hiawatha, but in the early years the preferred mode of transport was by water.

The Goodrich Line provided the boats. From 1859 until the company’s demise in 1933, Goodrich sailed every day during the excursion season from this dock on the west bank of the Milwaukee River south of Michigan Street.

The flagship of the line’s pleasure fleet was the Christopher Columbus, pictured here in the early 1900s. Launched in 1892, the Columbus was a “whaleback” steamer with a uniquely rounded hull. Longer than a football eld, it had a rated capacity of 4,000 passengers and regularly carried 1,000 more.

Used exclusively on the Milwaukee-Chicago run, the ship transported more people during its 40-year career than any vessel in Great Lakes history. It was not until 1932, when automobile competition and the Depression dried up passenger revenue, that the Christopher Columbus was taken out of service. Five years later, the legendary ship was cut up for scrap.

The old Goodrich dock is still used by excursion boats today, but they seldom venture far outside the city’s breakwater, leaving only the ghost of the Columbus to ply the chilly waters between Milwaukee and Chicago.

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

1. Cobblestone pavers and streetcar tracks created adventurous conditions for the city’s motorists and bicyclists. 

2. In the early 1900s, your Uber driver would have come with a horse and carriage. 

3. The $1 one-way ticket to Chicago would have cost more than $30 in today’s dollars. 

4. Straw beaters for the men and fancy hats for the women suggest that this was a Sunday crowd.


IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June issue.

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