Chicago Maritime Museum launches new exhibit featuring Chicago Captain Bill Pinkney

As Chicagoans hit the waterways this summer with kayaks, sailboats and bare feet, they may not be thinking about the ways water shaped the city, but the Chicago Maritime Museum is always honoring history.

Located on the Chicago River's Bubbly Creek branch that runs through the Bridgeport neighborhood, the museum has everything from the story of how World War II pilots trained on Lake Michigan to replicas of canoes used hundreds of years ago to navigate the Great Lakes.

Two new permanent exhibits were just launched. One tells the tragic tale of the Lady Elgin, a steamboat that sunk offshore of modern-day Highland Park. The other exhibit tells the story of Captain Bill Pinkney, the first Black sailor to solo-circumnavigate the globe around the five great capes.

"So what that means is that rather than go near the equator, or take the canals it's a much more challenging and much more historically impressive journey below the continents, "said Madeline Crispell, the museum curator. "We have amazing documentaries, footage blending Bill's original footage of that journey with interviews done with him and his loved ones. We couldn't be more excited to share this history."

Pinkney was also a "great friend to the Maritime Museum" until his death last August.

"He did not rest on his laurels after that journey. He was committed in all ways to education, working with children to learn about navigation, geography, everything you can learn from this kind of incredible voyage," Crispell said.

Pinkney was also a "great friend to the Maritime Museum" until his death last August.

The other new permanent exhibit highlights the dangers of maritime travel on the Great Lakes with the sinking of the Lady Elgin.

"The Lady Elgin was the grandest passenger steamer of its day. It was chartered on the eve of the Civil War by a militia out of Milwaukee. They were coming down to Chicago to support the presidential candidate Stephen Douglas, and it was on their return trip back to Milwaukee in the early hours of September 8 that they were struck by a lumber schooner in the middle of the night in a bad storm and the boat split in half and went down and sank killing more than 300 people," Crispell said.

She called it "the deadliest disaster in the history of open waters of the Great Lakes." The exhibit features actual artifacts from the ship, although many things remain lost.

"The waterways really shaped Chicago into the city it is today," Crispell said. "Its growth is a result of trade and travel on maritime passageways: the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. And you can really explore that history here at the museum."