Ked Fairbank and the Chicago Maritime Museum






If you want to learn more about the days when Chicago was the busiest port in the country—and how the Great Lakes have shaped our history—take a tour with Executive Director Kellogg “Ked” Fairbank of the new Chicago Maritime Museum.


Ked Fairbank.


A downtown port on the Chicago River.

Located on the shores of Bubbly Creek on the South Branch of the Chicago River in the Bridgeport Arts Center, the museum features 100 rare canoes, French fur trading lore, an exhibit on the Eastland disaster, great visuals on Navy Pier’s role in World War II, and some of the most beautiful ship models of grand, masted schooners to be found anywhere. This fall, visitors will also have the opportunity to make their own ship models. Leaving, one feels as though they just sailed the Great Lakes, without ever leaving dry land.


Inside the museum.

Internationally renowned architect Dirk Lohan, grandson of Mies van der Rohe, serves as chairman of the board and designed the museum’s new space. Most board and staff members are passionate sailors, including Chief Curator, Don Glasell, who has raced the Mackinaw 60 times, and Ked, who grew up sailing on Lake Geneva.

Great grandson of N.K Fairbank, the industrialist who came to Chicago in 1855 from Sodus, New York, and would own all of what is now Streeterville, Ked told us about what he considers Chicago’s most exciting time—the Chicago that his great-grandfather took by storm.

In 1870, N.K.’s company made $2 million from the sale of lard, soap, and cottonseed oil. N.K. Fairbank & Co. manufactured Fairy Soap and the famous Gold Dust washing powder, internationally the most popular soap of its time, with ads featuring the powder’s mascots, the Gold Dust twins. The company was purchased by Lever.

A co-founder of the Commercial Club, Fairbank counted Marshall Field and Robert Todd Lincoln among his best friends. Fairbank, Arizona, was named for Ked’s great-grandfather, who financed a gold mine there, as well as Fairbanks Court, much closer to home.

The 1870s were an astonishing time for Chicago. People were pouring in from the east, and business was wildly competitive. The population had grown from 30,000 in the 1850s to 250,000 in the 1870s. Ours was the most important city for trade and export in the country. People came primarily on the waterways, on the Great Lakes and the rivers. The railroad was secondary. People passed through the city on the way to the Gold Rush.”


Bustling business on the water.


A view from above.

Ked grew up spending summers at The Butternuts, built by N.K. in 1875 as one of the first great estates on Lake Geneva. When he was not out on the lake sailing, he often curled up in the library with books signed by his great-aunt and his grandmother. Great-aunt Margaret Ayer Barnes won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Years of Grace in 1931 and her sister, Janet Ayer Fairbank, authored Rich Man, Poor Man and The Cortlandts of Washington Square, among other books. Her book, The Smiths, was runner up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1925.

“My grandmother championed progressive causes, and she was selected to be grand marshal of a suffragette parade here in 1906. More than 5,000 women marched outside the Republican Convention.”

Ked spent summers sailing on Lake Geneva and later commanded a swift boat in Vietnam. Having returned to Chicago after living and working in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, taking on a nautical assignment seemed just the right step for this historian.

“We want exhibits that tell a hell of a good story. We offer a unique cut on Chicago history. I was a history major at Harvard and want to answer all those history questions that begin with ‘What was going on?’ or ‘How did it impact our city?’  

“The heritage of our waterways reach back to Joliet and Pere Marquette, who came here by canoe in 1673 and 1674 from French Canada, to Mackinac Island, to what is now Green Bay, and then by portage and river, camping out in the frozen winter and teaching religion.

“I knew some of Chicago’s history through my own family’s history. Since I have lived around the world, I feel I have a global perspective, and I want to match up what was going on in Europe with what was going on around the Great Lakes.”


Readying canoes for the water.


The lumber trade.

An upcoming exhibit—scheduled to travel to Milwaukee, as well—will center on the Lady Elgin disaster of 1860 in which 300 people, including the mayor and many of Milwaukee’s civic leaders, perished. The wood-hulled side-wheel steamship sank off what is now Highwood after it had been rammed in the fog by the schooner Augusta. It remains the greatest loss of life in the open waters of the Great Lakes.

One of the most poignant permanent displays at the museum is of a dive suit used in the recovery efforts following the 1915 sinking of the USS Eastland, in which 844 passengers and crew died while still docked on the Chicago River.


The Eastland Disaster.

Ked reported on other upcoming exhibits on local heroes:

“Skip Novak was once a ‘dingy rat’ down at Belmont Harbor, and he went on to navigate King’s Legend, one of the fastest sailing yachts, in the Whitebread Around the World race. William Pinkney, who went to Tilden Tech High School here, became the first African American, and only the fourth person, to circumnavigate the globe alone by boat. We hope to represent their lives in future shows.

“We are also looking for activities for smaller kids to do with their hands and will offer model ship building classes and possibly boat building.”

You are sure to linger in the room lined with some of the 100 canoes donated by Ralph Frese, the conservationist known as “Mr. Canoe.” You’ll see include early wooden dugouts, Native American birch barks, and Eskimo wood and seal skin kayaks.


All about dugout canoes.


Early canoes.

We asked Ked, “Who is the figure in Chicago Maritime history you find most fascinating?” He chose Ellis Chesbrough, the engineer who reversed the flow of the Chicago River and designed the above-ground sewer system in Chicago by raising city buildings.

In 1849 a cholera epidemic swept through Chicago as a result of the fact that waste could not be moved out of Chicago and was polluting the drinking water. Dysentery was routine. He had designed the Boston water distribution system and was called in to be engineer of the Board of Sewerage Commissioners.

“The intake crib he built further out in the lake helped for a while because it allowed fresh water to come in, but the sewerage began to leak in after a time. It was his idea to build the Sanitary and Ship Canal, larger than the Suez Canal, and to reverse the Chicago River so that the sewerage would flow into the Mississippi River rather than Lake Michigan.

“Although St. Louis would later sue, saying that their water would become polluted, it was proven that it did not.”

Bubbly Creek, flowing past the Museum in Bridgeport, received its name due to the large amounts of animal blood that flowed from the nearby Union Stock Yards and were described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle in 1906. It was later dredged and young people rowing crew can now be seen instead on Bubbly Creek outside the broad windows of the Chicago Maritime Museum.


To learn more about the Chicago Maritime Museum, located at 1200 West 35th Street and offering plenty of parking, visit or call 773-376-1982.