The Port of Chicago consists of several major port facilities within the city of Chicago. The port is operated by the Illinois International Port District (IIPD). It is a multimodal facility composed of Senator Dan Dougherty Harbor (Lake Calumet) and the Iroquois Landing Lakefront Terminus. Calumet Harbor is the central element of the Port District; it is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Port of Chicago links inland canal and river systems in the midwestern United States to the Great Lakes. From there, shippers have access to the St. Lawrence Seaway a link to the Atlantic Ocean and international markets. In addition, shippers have access to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. The IIPD is the only port facility that is both a Great Lakes Port as well as an Inland Rivers Port.

As indicated in the article’s headline, the Port of Chicago bills itself as the “greatest intermodal facility in North America” through its marine, rail and highway connections. 

Tonnage from all over the world comes into the Port of Chicago via ship. In addition, practically all Midwest barge carriers serve the Port’s terminals with open top, covered and liquid commodities. This equipment is suited for inland waterways as well as for service to and from other ports on the Great Lakes.

Midwestern shippers that use the Port of Chicago’s marine capabilities instead of overland transportation to a coastal port save financially.

A historical photo of construction at the Port of Chicago.
(Photo: Illinois International Port District)

Chicago and the IIPD are located at the eastern terminus of North America’s western railroads and the western terminus of North America’s eastern railroads. It is the only port that is used by six of the seven North American Class I railroads.

Twelve railroads (including the six Class I railroads) using the Chicago rail hub service selected terminals at the port, which has excellent terminal and rail switching services. Another advantage is that the major railroads in the Chicago area have reciprocal switching arrangements. This means that line haul movements to and from the area by one railroad and service to a port terminal by another railroad is handled without extra switching charges for either shippers or consignees. 

Tank cars are seen on some of the rail lines that serve the Port of Chicago. (Photo: Illinois International Port District)

Nearly 600 line haul and local cartage carriers provide a full range of motor services to the port.  Many trucking companies provide overnight service to and from locations throughout the Midwest. In addition, the Port of Chicago is strategically located at the convergence of the three largest interstate highways. In addition to these interstate highways there are four more interstates within 10 miles of the port. It is the most accessible port for transloading and multi-modal distribution in the Midwest.

In regard to support services, freight forwarders, export packaging, international banking and customs brokers offer their specialized services at the port. In addition, consolidators, shippers’ associations, forwarders and expediters, specialists in fragile and perishable cargoes and other services are available to port customers. Specialized transportation-related services, such as marine insurance, cargo inspection and surveying, off-premises storage, weighing and certification are offered by a variety of businesses. Finally, the port has significant warehouse facilities.

The following is found on the port’s website: “Any commodity can be moved through the Port of Chicago economically and efficiently to anywhere, from anywhere, anytime.”

A Port of Chicago infographic. (Image: Illinois International Port District)

History of the port

Chicago was founded at the mouth of what is now known as the Chicago River on Lake Michigan by an 18th century fur trapper. Almost since its founding Chicago has been a center of commercial shipping. Chicago was a distribution point for fur traders from the Upper Midwest; later Midwestern farmers and lumber producers shipped their products east from Chicago.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal, an inland waterway. (Photo: Chicago Public Library)

‍The Illinois and Michigan Canal was built and opened in 1848. It formed an inland water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The canal increased shipping to and from Chicago before the railroads supplanted the primacy of America’s canals.

Until well into the 20th century, Port of Chicago activities were centered on the Chicago River. The city’s Harbor and Waterways Commission developed plans to construct several piers in 1909, which led to the construction of the famous Navy Pier. The Illinois legislature passed legislation in 1913 that enabled Chicago “to acquire, develop, own and operate port facilities within the city limits.”

An aerial view of Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1943. Note the two aircraft carriers in the center of the photo.
(Photo: uicarchives.library.uic.edu)

In 1921 the modern Port of Chicago was born when the Illinois legislature passed the Lake Calumet Harbor Act, which authorized Chicago to build a deepwater port at Lake Calumet. Chicago adopted the Van Vlissingen Plan in late 1921. It continues to be the Port’s basic framework for commercial shipping and industrial development.

In 1935 a regularly scheduled overseas shipping service was established; in 1941 the Chicago Plan Commission developed a plan for industrial development of the Lake Calumet area. The U.S. Congress authorized the Calumet-Sag Project in 1946. Its purpose was to facilitate barge traffic between Lake Michigan and the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Construction of locks along the St. Lawrence Seaway. (Photo: stlawu.edu)

The Illinois legislature created the Chicago Regional Port District in 1951 (later renamed the Illinois International Port District). Its purpose was to oversee harbor and port development. The next year the legislature established the District as an independent municipal corporation of the City of Chicago. It received title to about 1,600 acres of Lake Calumet marshland. A 1953 plan outlined construction of a turning basin, docks, grain elevators and public terminals. The plan also renamed the harbor the Senator Dan Dougherty Harbor. Dougherty was an Illinois state senator from 1947 to 1976. Proponents sought to complete the harbor construction prior to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1958. The deadline was met; the port opened in 1958, prior to the Seaway’s official dedication on June 26, 1959. 

In exchange for a long-term lease, Union Tank Car created an enlarged deep water turning basin and additional slips along the east side of the harbor in 1960. Over time it built 91 liquid storage tanks; they have a combined capacity of 800,000 barrels.

Grain is loaded at the Port of Chicago. (Photo: Illinois International Port District)

The Lake Calumet facility is located six nautical miles southeast of Lake Michigan at Lake Calumet. It receives international ships in those months when the St. Lawrence Seaway is open; barge traffic occurs year-round. There are multiple transit sheds and bulk, liquid bulk, break bulk and container traffic uses the facilities. 

The Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad is a short line railroad that serves the south quadrant of the Lake Calumet facility. The railroad moves commodities to four transit sheds that combined have over 500,000 square feet of storage space, which are adjacent to approximately 3,000 linear feet of ship and barge berthing space. In addition to the transit storage operations, the harbor’s southwest quadrant has two of the largest grain storage facilities in Illinois. Together, they have a capacity of over 14 million bushels. The harbor’s southeast quadrant contains one of the largest tank storage farms in Illinois; its capacity is approximately 1 million liquid barrels.  

A Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad locomotive pulls a load of freight railcars.
(Photo: Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad)

The Lake Calumet facilities are completely secured; they are controlled via U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Coast Guard authority. There is 24/7/365 security monitoring, gate control and roving personnel.

Navy Pier ceased commercial shipping operations in 1972. The Port District acquired an additional 190 acres at the southwest corner of Lake Michigan and the mouth of the Calumet River in 1978 and then built two new terminal sheds. The site was renamed as “Iroquois Landing,” which gave the District a second major waterfront site for future development.

Currently, Iroquois Landing is a 100-acre, open paved terminal that has 3,000 linear feet of ship and barge berthing space; its navigation depth is 27 feet. It has two 100,000-square foot transit sheds as well as a 30,000-square foot transit shed with direct truck and rail access.  

Iroquois Landing. (Photo: Illinois International Port District)

The port’s Iroquois Landing facility receives international ship traffic that has passed through the St. Lawrence Seaway. It also handles domestic commodities that arrive via barge from the Gulf of Mexico and points north and south of and along the Mississippi River system as well as the Illinois River.

Since 1979 the Iroquois Landing Terminal has been seen as the finest deep draft and shallow draft terminal on the Great Lakes and the inland river system. From that site there is access for ocean, lake and river vessels.

Current circumstances

The Illinois International Port now moves more general cargo than any other Great Lakes port; its annual total (waterborne) tonnage is over 19 million tons. This puts Chicago in the top 36 ports in the United States. 

A 2017 economic impact study of the Port of Chicago by the Great Lakes Seaway Partnership reported the IIPD’s contributions to Chicago, Cook County, Illinois and the Great Lakes region.

Among the study’s findings were that the IIPD and maritime commerce supported:

6,381 jobs
$820.4 million in economic activity
$514.8 million in personal income and local consumption expenditures
$192.6 million in federal and state tax revenue

Facilities like the Port of Chicago, the Port of Detroit and other ports on the Great Lakes offer shippers alternative choices for the transportation of their goods.