The Marine Angel

How I ended up in Chicago is about family. My grandmother (my dad’s mom) moved to Chicago in the early 1930s. Like many people during the Depression, she relocated to find work. My dad followed her to the city when he was sixteen. My parents met during college (in Indiana), Wed, then eventually moved to Chicago. I was raised in the suburbs north of the city.

I love Chicago! I will always call myself a Chicagoan, regardless of where I live. It’s in my blood.

I was raised near Lake Michigan. Some of my earliest memories involve the lake. As a kid, I had endless summers at the beach. It was where I first learned to swim (and nearly drowned!). Our local beach had a beach house and a swing set. Even as a teenager I loved that swing. The beach is gone now, as it has eroded away, but I can still see it as if it was yesterday.

As you can guess, I am in a couple of social media groups involving Chicago. In one of the groups, someone posted an interesting article.


The Marine Angel traveling the Chicago River. Copies of this photo are available at the Library of Congress.

It was the story of the ship, the Marine Angel, which was the largest ship to reach Lake Michigan in one piece. The day was March 6, 1953. She entered the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico, traveled north to the locks of the Illinois and Des Plain rivers, then on to Lockport, Illinois. From Lockport, she entered the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects to Lake Michigan. The trip from Lockport to the lake was 28 miles and took the Marine Angel 57 hours to reach it.

The Marine Angel traveling the Chicago River.

It came closest to hitting the river banks at Van Buren street, having only seven inches of clearance on either side of the ship. I get nervous just reading that!

The Marine Angel during WW II.

The Marine Angel, built in 1945, was originally a World War II freighter. It regularly transported 250 Army troops from East Coast ports to Bombay, India. It also included a 100-bed hospital.

The Marine Angel during WW II.

In 1953, the final destination for the Marine Angel was Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where it was converted into an ore bulk carrier. In the shipping industry, they call these types of ships, lakers. Lakers, or lake freighters, are bulk carrier vessels that travel the Great Lakes. Since the late 19th century, lakers have carried bulk cargoes of materials such as limestone, iron ore, grain, coal, or salt from the mines and fields. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a laker.

The newly named McKee Sons, in the 1950s.

After its conversion the Marine Angel was rechristened McKee Sons The McKee Sons sailed until 1979. It laid idle for several years until 1991 when the Upper Lakes Towing Company acquired it converting it into a barge. In December 2014, it was moved to long-term storage at Muskegon where she sits today facing an uncertain future. It is amazing to me that this ship was in use for roughly 69 years!

The Marine Angel, after her last conversion, into a barge.

I find the history and the 1950s photos fascinating. It makes me wonder if my dad took the time to watch the Marine Angel traveling to the lake. Dad worked in one of the grand skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue, just a short walk to the Chicago River. He was an engineer, so I would think he would naturally be curious about moving such a large ship through such a narrow space. I know I would have been there to watch this event, had I been born!

I hope you found interest in the slice of Chicago history.

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