I've seen a few boats go in and out of the Chicago River before, but never anything super substantial. Of course, shipping through the city, down to the Illinois River, and eventually to the Mississippi River is an important thoroughfare in the country, so it does happen. However, only about 40 trips through the city, per year, require lifting the bridges for larger ships.

But in 1953, a ship came through the Chicago River that was so massive, it closed down traffic on the water for nearly a full day, and to this day, remains the longest ship to ever navigate the city's twists and turns through downtown successfully.

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The Marine Angel Freighter was built during World War II and was used in the Atlantic. It was originally built in Pennsylvania as a fast troop transport ship. During the war, it did transport around 250 troops at a time. It also had a hospital on board for injured soldiers. Historically, records show the ship made trips between Bombay (modern day Mumbai in India) and the east coast.

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But when the war ended, many freighter and transport ships build specifically for the war effort were no longer needed. Many were retrofitted for new purposes, and the Marine Angel was one of them.

Of all the ships sold following the war, the Marine Angel would undertake one of the strangest paths of any freighter for its next role in life - a Great Lakes Freighter.

Marine Angel Through Chicago
Library of Congress

She was set to sail to Wisconsin where the ship would be retrofitted with self-unloading equipment, and converted from a saltwater vessel, into a freshwater freighter. So in 1953, The Marine Angel Freighter entered the Mississippi River, traveled up stream, then took a right turn on the Illinois River until it reached the mouth of the Chicago River.

This is where things get dicey, because the Marine Angel was 634 feet long, and 70 feet wide, moving against the current of a river that was 156 miles long, made mostly of man-made channels that Chicagoans used to divert the flow of the river to connect to the Illinois.

At the river's narrowest point, in the city of Chicago, it's less than a city block wide, and has some MAJOR sharp turns. But somehow the ship made it... barely.


In fact, when executing the turn in front of the Wrigley Building, on its last major turn toward Lake Michigan, the ship only had 7 inches of clearance from the edge of the river, and building structures.

The shipment of the Marine Angel through Chicago remains the longest ship ever to come through downtown. And thankfully, it was worth the trip, because the Marine Angel was retrofitted the following year in Manitowoc, WI, and continued to carry ore and grain until 2014, when it was taken out of commission, and now sits in storage in Muskegon.

So you can still actually go and see the stored ship that set records in the city of Chicago, and wowed residents for hours in October of 1953.

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