Episode posted October 28, 2020
Title: From the Chicago World’s Fair to Milwaukee’s Blatz Brewery
This is Cream City~Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore thought-provoking connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan. This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the histories and human stories of both cities.
Today we will take a bit of a sensory journey back in time. The visuals for this episode are must-sees. They are at my website, WendyCityChicago.com.
Between Chicago’s two World’s Fairs, 1893 and 1933, a busy, one-of-a-kind passenger steamship worked Lake Michigan.
The S.S. Christopher Columbus, one of the largest ships on the Great Lakes, was built in Superior, Wisconsin in time for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The ship was named in honor of the Fair. Serving as a ferry and sightseeing ride between downtown Chicago and the fairgrounds in Jackson Park, during the six months of the Exposition, the Columbus would transport nearly two million people.
After the Fair was over, the Christopher Columbus provided excursion services on the Lake. And up until the 1930s its most popular route was the day trip between Chicago and Milwaukee.
For nearly 100 years, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, passenger steamers on the Great Lakes were big business. Some trips on luxury liners were multi-day affairs between major cities and north woods resorts. But in the 1890s the easy and affordable day trip became wildly popular.
The S.S. Christopher Columbus was the dream of Great Lakes captain, inventor, and entrepreneur, Alexander McDougall. He had come up with an innovative design for ships that would improve maneuverability. Known as ‘whalebacks,’ the vessels had distinctive rounded hulls that allowed waves to break across with less force than over a conventional hull. The whaleback’s bow had the unusual appearance of a pig’s snout, giving them the name, ‘pig boats.’ Only about 40 whalebacks were ever built according to McDougall’s designs, almost all of them used as freighters.
The Christopher Columbus would be the longest whaleback ever built and the only whaleback designed for passenger service.
Due to its unusual appearance, McDougall had a difficult time selling his whaleback design to shipbuilders. So in 1888 he decided to build them himself in Superior, Wisconsin.
When the Columbian Exposition was being planned, he recognized a perfect opportunity to publicize his whaleback design. He contracted with the Exposition to provide an elaborate passenger ferry boat that would travel fast (only 20 minutes to the fairgrounds six miles away) and the loading or unloading 5,000 passengers in an astounding five minutes.
McDougall chose John McArthur, an experienced whaleback skipper, as the captain of the Christopher Columbus. McDougall told him, “There is your steamboat; take her down to Chicago and make a success of her.”
The ship was painted all white and luxuriously outfitted with electric lights, marble, oak, velvet, leather, a grand saloon and skylighted promenade deck, shops, restaurants, fountains, and a large aquarium filled with lake fish.
During the Exposition the Columbus was proclaimed, “the greatest marine wonder of its time” and “Queen of the Lakes.” She made multiple daily roundtrips between downtown Chicago and the Fair, routinely carrying 4-5,000 passengers on her four decks.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was a success for McDougall and his unusual whaleback ship. The Fair’s commissioners presented Captain McArthur with a gold watch engraved with the image of the ship. After the Exposition, Chicago would remain the homeport of the Christopher Columbus.
By the turn of the century, the Columbus was leased to the Goodrich Transit Line. Goodrich had started as a major freight shipper, but its greatest success would come as a passenger carrier. During the early days of rail travel, people found the experience too rugged, slow, and expensive. Goodrich stepped in and began to ferry thousands of people a day – travelers, workers, immigrants – all across the Great Lakes.
But the most celebrated Goodrich vessel was the passenger steamship Christopher Columbus. After the Fair, the company renovated the ship and initiated regular service between Chicago and Milwaukee. That route became a popular sightseeing attraction, the ship often filled with thousands of day-trippers.
Things were going well, except for a few events. In July 1905, the Columbus collided with a schooner in the Chicago River. No serious injuries were reported.
Then on July 24th, 1915, the worst maritime disaster and loss of life of all time on the Great Lakes would happen on the Chicago River, near the Goodrich docks. The S.S. Eastland capsized at its dock, rolling over on its side, which caused the tragic deaths of 844 passengers and crew members.
After the tragedy, all passenger ships were ordered to undergo stability testing. The Christopher Columbus passed with flying colors.
But she would experience her own most serious accident two years later. On June 30, 1917, with over 400 passengers aboard, while the Columbus was being maneuvered away from her Milwaukee dock by tugs, a powerful current of the Milwaukee River caused her to spin sideways. Her bow sheared off two legs of a water tower containing 25,000 gallons of water, which crashed onto the Columbus with such force that it killed sixteen passengers. Twenty more were injured. The pilot house was severely damaged, and the Columbus would be out of commission for the rest of that year.
The ship was repaired, and the excursion schedule resumed the following year.
The 1920s was the last great decade for the Christopher Columbus. The Goodrich Transit Company at this time marketed their Chicago-Milwaukee day trip as an affordable, pleasure-filled experience for one and all.
The Christopher Columbus would leave Chicago mid-morning, spend two hours in Milwaukee, then head back. This journey took the entire day: 90 miles to Milwaukee on the lake took the Columbus nearly five hours, meaning the ship was traveling no faster than 20 miles per hour. A leisurely pace for a ship that had been built for speed. That luxurious pace was repeated on the way back to Chicago.
Let’s take a ride on the S.S. Christopher Columbus on a beautiful summer day sometime in the late 1920s.
The parking for our automobile is easy in downtown Chicago near the boat docks. It’s a warm sunny morning and seagulls fly above our heads. We walk over to the Goodrich dock just west of the new Michigan Avenue bridge on the south bank of the river. We descend the stairs to river level, and we see the sign: “Excursions to Milwaukee. S.S. Christopher Columbus. Daily 10 AM Home 10 PM. Dancing Free.” Our tickets cost $1.75.
We join hundreds of other people to await boarding. Dressed in linen suits and dresses, every man wearing a hat, most women wearing stylish cloches. Among them were many excited children. Everyone seems to be in a festive mood. Finally, it is time to board. We climb up the gangway as a uniformed crew member greets us as he counts passengers.
We hear the captain call out: “All Aboard” and soon we are moving. We pull away from our Chicago dock at 10:00 am sharp, on our way to Milwaukee.
We crowd to the railings to look out at the buildings lining the river. Looking behind we enjoy a nice view of the handsome double-decked Michigan Avenue bridge. Behind it rises the Wrigley Building with its clock tower, gleaming white in the morning sun.
Up ahead we spot the Chicago Coast Guard Station in its Cape Cod-style building. We’ve heard talk about a lock being built between the river and the lake, but for now, we sail right on out toward Lake Michigan. On our left is Navy Pier, and its Goodrich docks with more of its fleet tied up there. Navy Pier has seen exciting changes of late – its new name, a new radio station, and many expositions being held there.
Now we are passing the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, which was constructed for the 1893 World’s Fair, just as our ship was. We see that the lighthouse is manned.
The lake is sparkling in the sun, and its waves are gentle today as we head north along the shoreline. Many of us can’t seem to break away from the railings; we want to notice everything and to feel the breeze.
But soon, people begin to move around the ship. Crew members in crisp suits and caps greet us. We even catch a glimpse of the captain in the pilot house. He looks especially distinguished in his bowtie and mustache. He gives us a wave.
We are especially eager to find out about our ship’s radio operations. The Columbus, call letters KC, was one of the first ships to be fitted with onboard radio in 1909. In his small office is the radio operator. Wearing headphones, he looks busy communicating with ports and other ships. His equipment is called a “radiograph” designed by the Radiomarine Corporation of America. Their motto: Ship to Shore, Shore to Ship, Ship to Ship.
We wander the decks, looking out at the shimmering lake and at the wooded bluffs along the lakeshore. Every once in a while, we pass other ships on the lake.
We see the variety of passengers enjoying the journey: families, couples, groups of young people. Some are seated, some standing, holding hands, holding children, arms around each other. People are smiling and engaged in animated conversation.
A portrait photographer is onboard taking pictures for a fee. Many gather around his boxy camera on its tripod to wait their turn, or simply to watch.
We have heard that the Columbus is known for its pure, filtered drinking water. Sure enough, we come upon a large porcelain fountain attached to the wall. The sign above specifies that it is indeed drinking water. A father in a fine suit helps his two children reach the fountain for a drink. Two cloche-hatted women follow in turn.
Two hours into our journey, we hear a bell clanging. It’s high noon and time for lunch.
Some passengers head first to the bustling soda fountain with its large windows and elegant decor. Due to Prohibition, we won’t be enjoying beer or wine, but we can order from a wide assortment of beverages, efficiently served by the soda jerks in white uniforms. We might choose root beer, Horlick’s malted milk, phosphate soda, egg creams, or fruity punch. Passengers crowd the soda fountain, smiling and raising glasses.
For lunch, we notice that many people are out on deck, seated rail side at tables, unpacking the picnic lunches they’ve brought. Some head to the modern cafeteria where they wait in line to make their selections before enjoying their meal at a dining table.
After lunch, it is time for dancing. As advertised, it’s free! We follow the crowds to the dance hall. A jazz band is already heating up the place. We eagerly hit the floor and dance among the energetic crowd, most of us doing some version of the foxtrot.
It’s about 2:30 pm. Hard to believe, but we are approaching Milwaukee. We sail up the Milwaukee River into the heart of the city. People wave at us from the banks. The captain is at the wheel expertly steering our massive ship. Tugboats lead us through the many bridges that lift for us, one by one. We glide past the large brick buildings of the Third Ward.
Milwaukee’s skyline comes into view. Some of the buildings we see were designed by Chicago architects: the Pabst Building – by Solon Beman – rising tall above the river, the First National Bank Building and the Gimbels department store, both by Daniel Burnham’s firm.
We tie up at Michigan Street. We are ready to disembark, eager to begin our time in Milwaukee. Everyone is smiling and chatting. The dock is crowded with hundreds of our fellow passengers all making our way to the street.
There, buses marked “Special” come for us and take us through downtown Milwaukee. We look out the windows at all the stores, cars, crowds.
On to our Milwaukee destination: a stop for refreshments at Blatz Brewery. We leave the buses and line up to enter the complex. The sign above the entrance reads “Val. Blatz Company Milwaukee.” This brewery building was constructed of the famous Cream City Brick and has an old-world flavor about it. No Blatz beer to be had, but we console ourselves with a foamy malt beverage or a root beer, and a big soft pretzel. Blatz has so far survived Prohibition by selling malt products. We find it curious that Blatz is also selling chewing gum.
We spend a little time at a Milwaukee park on a bluff overlooking the lake, filled with sailboats. We enjoy the trees, the flowers, the city harbor. It is late afternoon and time to board our buses, return to our dock and our ship and sail back to Chicago.
Night has fallen on our way back. It’s almost 10pm as we enter the Chicago River, admiring the skyscrapers and lights of Chicago. It has been a marvelous day.
In her four decades of service the Christopher Columbus was said to have transported more passengers than any other vessel on the Great Lakes. The steamship made one last appearance at Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933. Shortly thereafter, in the depths of the Great Depression, the S.S. Christopher Columbus was retired from service.
Thanks so much for joining me. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. See you next time.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Dance music: Darktown Strutters Ball by E’s Jammy Jams
Intro music: “Chicago Blues” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee” by KEdKE.