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Have oceangoing cruise ships ever departed from Chicago?
March 26, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I recently watched an episode from the old Bob Newhart Show ("Bum Voyage") in which Bob and Emily leave on a 63-day cruise to Europe. At the end of the show they're on the cruise ship and all their friends show up to see them off. Then I realized this ocean cruise was originating in Chicago. Is this even possible? Did oceangoing cruise ships leave from Chicago in the 70s? I know the show was fictional, but to me this would be as strange as a cruise ship departing from Kansas City.

— gbarr42, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

What do you mean, is it possible? Of course it's possible. Chicago wouldn't be here, or at any rate wouldn't have risen to its present exalted state, if it weren't possible. Granted, we're not to the point that you could have the Queen Mary 2 tie up at Navy Pier, and I'm not seeing this happening any time soon. But vast sums have been spent over the years to make Chicago and other Great Lakes ports accessible to oceangoing vessels. Most of said vessels are freighters, their numbers are relatively few, and the principal passengers (as distinct from the crews) have been zebra mussels and other pests, leading many to think this oceangoing vessel thing wasn't such a hot idea. Nonetheless, reality has at last caught up with TV scriptwriters' imaginations —  while oceangoing cruise ships didn't depart from Chicago in the 1970s, they do now. What we're looking at here is one of the classic City-of-the-Big-Shoulders stories: by God we're going to be an ocean port, and we're not going to let the lack of an ocean in the vicinity stand in our way.

Chicago as gateway to nautical adventure isn't as nutty as you might think. If you've ever glanced east when walking on the beach, you've noticed there's a sizable body of water out there — maybe not as big as your typical ocean, but big enough to accommodate oceangoing craft. In fact, during World War II, the U.S. Navy used Lake Michigan as a place to train aircraft carrier pilots away from prying Axis eyes. Lake Michigan connects to Lake Huron, Huron to Erie … this is all coming back to you, I'm sure. The last link in the chain, Lake Ontario, connects to the impressively wide Saint Lawrence River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. So from a high-level point of view, Chicago has always been an ocean port, and getting the world to realize it was just a question of adroit PR.

To be sure, a few practical obstacles had to be dealt with as well, namely rapids, shallows, and above all a 570-foot difference in elevation between lake and sea levels — a problem manifested most spectacularly at Niagara Falls, where the river connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario drops 173 feet. Detouring past such impediments required astonishing feats of construction, the best known of which was the 365-mile-long Erie Canal, which bypassed not just Niagara Falls but an entire Great Lake (Ontario), connecting the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie at Buffalo. When completed in 1825, the Erie Canal made it possible to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes entirely by water — an enormous boon in pre-railroad days. Standing at the front door to the U.S. interior, New York soon became the country's dominant seaport. Chicago got started later, and had to build another canal connecting it to the Gulf of Mexico to cement its place in the national firmament.  That done, however, the city became the continent's chief interior transportation hub, and looking around now, you'd have to say things worked out.

The one problem, from the standpoint of Chicago's global ambitions, was this: while the Erie Canal meant you could get from here to the ocean by boat, it had to be a pretty small boat — the canal as first built was 40 feet wide and four feet deep and accommodated horse-drawn barges. Though subsequently enlarged, the waterway remained a modest affair, and if you look at it now (it's still used, mostly for recreational traffic), you know what was painfully evident to Chicago boosters early on: we'll never get an ocean liner down that.

Thus the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which in 1959 opened the Great Lakes to honest-to-God ships, mainly as a result of digging channels through or around obstructions in the St. Lawrence River. (The Welland Canal, built earlier, provided a detour past Niagara Falls.) Midwestern interests, which had banged the gong for the seaway for decades in the face of eastern opposition, argued that it would turn the Great Lakes into a freshwater Mediterranean, a fourth coast, etc.  The seaway debuted to great fanfare, the highlight from Chicago's perspective undoubtedly being a visit from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, who steamed into Monroe Harbor on the royal yacht. Buoyant local officials could tell themselves: We've hit the big time at last.

Not quite, or at least not because of the seaway. International shipping on the Great Lakes never rose to the projected levels — "salties" today account for just 5 percent of lake freight. Seaway backers say that's because the locks and canals are too small for today's monster ships, and that the solution is making them bigger, at a cost of $10 billion. Environmentalists shudder, pointing to the scores of alien species now infesting the lakes, most of which, including the much-cursed zebra mussel, were carried here in the ballast water of foreign vessels. (A few radicals, in fact, have floated the notion of banning international shipping from the lakes altogether.) Normally one would expect economics to trump mere green concerns, but in this instance greed is undoubtedly tempered by thoughts along the following lines: The seaway-lakes system stretches for 2,300 circuitous miles, involves the patient negotiation of numerous locks and channels, lacks facilities for containerized freight, much of which comes from Asia anyway, and four months of the year is blocked by ice. Sure, some claim it's still cheaper than hauling everything by land to coasts #1, #2, and #3. But who are we trying to kid?

So that's why you're not seeing a lot of oceangoing cruise ships tying up at Navy Pier, which, after handling a peak of 250 ships in 1964, fell into disuse and was largely derelict till reborn as the present pleasure palace in the 1990s. But cruise ships haven't vanished altogether. Until 2007 the German shipping company Hapag-Lloyd offered Great Lakes cruises aboard the 423-passenger Columbus, which I can tell you from personal knowledge docked at Navy Pier (some friends sailed in on it). True, the cruises were confined to fresh water (Toronto was generally the easternmost destination), but the towering vessel and international manifest (many of the passengers in my recollection were German), combined in my case with a pleasant lunch on the busy pier on a sunny summer's day, produced as authentic a maritime experience as one could hope for without actually sailing anywhere.

The Columbus has been withdrawn from the lakes due to low water, but you can still board a cruise ship at Navy Pier — and this one will take you all the way to the ocean. The 100-passenger Grand Mariner, operated by the Great Lakes Cruise Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan, departs Chicago June 13 on a 15-day tour that will take it to Warren, Rhode Island by way of lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, the Oswego and Erie canals, and the Hudson River. True, the salt water portion of the journey mainly takes you up Long Island Sound, which may not be everyone's idea of the bounding main, but it's plainly identified on my Rand McNally road atlas as an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. Two other oceanbound cruises are scheduled for later in the summer. Tickets start at about $4K. So there you go.

Wait a minute, you say. Nothing against Warren, Rhode Island, but Bob and Emily were clearly headed to Europe on their 63-day cruise, and that's what I want too.

Well, I can't promise scheduled service. However, I heard from a pleasant Dutchman named Chris Rombouts, a ship aficionado who sailed from the Netherlands to Cleveland in a Polish freighter in 2005. Cost: $1,450. Length of trip: 14 days. He arranged the voyage through a Dutch company called Cargo Ship Cruises that specializes in such junkets. The accommodations were a bit spartan — no shuffleboard or black-tie dinners, just movies in Polish. I haven't definitely established that you can depart for Europe from Chicago (or more likely, some pier in Milwaukee), although the steamship company promises they'll get back to me. But my feeling is, you want a cruise? You got a cruise. Just don't complain you expect 63 days.

— Cecil Adams

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