Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Interpretive Digital Essay : Water in Chicago
Essay: People and the Port
Photo Essays:
Solitary Lives
City of Bridges
Chicago Harbors
Essay: Using the Chicago River
Photo Essays:
Goose Island
Indiana Dunes
Essay: Sanitation in Chicago
Photo Essays:
The Sanitary and Ship Canal
Water-Related Epidemics
Essay: Water and Urban Life
Photo Essays:
Houses and Water
Shoreline Development
Growing Up Along Water
Solitary Lives along Chicago’s Lakes and Waterways

Ferry Keepers

Ferries had a small but important role to play on Chicago’s waterways. As the demand for travel across a river increased, but before a bridge could be built, a ferry sufficed. The first official ferry over the Chicago River began in 1831, just after Chicago organized as a town. Bridges quickly replaced ferries across the region, but a few remained into the twentieth century.

Ferry keepers had little control over the rhythm of their work days (and nights). Ferry keepers' lives could quickly switch from busy and full of people to quiet and solitary. They had to always be ready to respond to traffic.

A.T. Andreas’ Account of Beaubien as Ferry Keeper (Andreas, p. 106)

Mark Beaubien was one of the few ferry keepers in the Chicago area. He arrived in Chicago in 1826 from Detroit to visit his older brother Jean Baptiste Beaubien, a trader at Fort Dearborn. Mark and his wife Monique decided to make their home at Chicago. They bought a small cabin from James Kinzie and in 1831 built the first frame structure in Chicago, the Sauganash Hotel. The couple operated the hotel (which was far from a solitary life) for several years on the Chicago River just south of Wolf Point–the confluence of the north and south branches into the main stem. Also in 1831, Beaubien became the first ferry-keeper at Chicago. He was on call night and day, to ferry travelers across the Chicago River. Later, Beaubien also served several terms as a lighthouse keeper on the Chicago River and as a toll keeper along a plank road in Du Page County.

See also: French and French Canadians; Metis; Hotels; Lisle

Polk Street Ferry, 1908

While bridges replaced ferries in most spots, occasionally ferries were maintained even after bridge construction. This was the case in the early twentieth century at 18th Street along the south branch of the Chicago River, where a ferry transported goods in view of the Polk Street Bridge.

See also: Bridges

River Ferry Boat, 1922

Private ferry boats also operated on the Chicago River for years after bridges eliminated the necessity of public ferries. The Wrigley Company, located just to the north of the Michigan Avenue Bridge by the early 1920s, operated a ferry for its executives and employees. It most likely transported workers between the company headquarters, the train stations, and other points along the river.

See also: Near North Side