Exodus of the ‘Ghost Ship’ could mark a sea change for the old Port of Chicago

A reborn port would be huge for the South Side, the city and the region.

SHARE Exodus of the ‘Ghost Ship’ could mark a sea change for the old Port of Chicago
Chicago’s Ghost Ship, the C.T.C. 1 — a 620-foot freighter — has sat alongside grain silos since 1982.

Chicago’s Ghost Ship, the C.T.C. 1 — a 620-foot freighter — is scheduled to be hauled away from the Port of Chicago, where it has sat alongside grain silos since 1982.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The Ghost Ship will be hauled away soon from its longtime spot next to the Port of Chicago’s massive grain silos on the Far South Side.

The abandoned 620-foot freighter, C.T.C. No. 1, has been moored in Lake Calumet near 130th Street since 1982. Given that the old port is out-of-sight and out-of-mind to most Chicagoans, the ship’s removal likely will draw more public attention than the facility has received in decades.

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Still in business

A few things to keep in mind as the Ghost Ship gets the Big Send-Off:

The Port of Chicago itself looks like a disused relic of the past, but it is still in business, annually taking in almost 17 million tons of lumber, steel, cement, lime and other goods. The Illinois International Port District also owns the nearby 36-hole Harborside Golf Course and has a total of 1,800 acres under its control, an area five times the size of Grant Park.

In addition, the port has trimmed away $40 million in long term debt within the last 10 years. And Executive Director Clayton Harris III, appointed in 2016, is the first real professional to run the district in decades.

The Port of Chicago soon will receive a portion of a $35 million state appropriation for Illinois’ 19 ports. In addition, funds from the city’s Lake Calumet Industrial TIF District will pay for $3.48 million in rail and road improvements.

The new cash infusions will allow for some much-need patching up of the port, but we believe now is the time for the Chicago and the state to make a more substantial and sustained public investment that could fundamentally turn the port around.

A reborn Port of Chicago could be a huge benefit to the South Side, the city and the region. And it could finally make the port the Great Lakes workhorse its creators envisioned.

How it all began . . . and why

The Port of Chicago was expected to be a cornerstone of modern Chicago when it was established in 1951 in anticipation of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.

The seaway is a series of canals, dams and locks that comprise a 370-mile commercial shipping lane along the U.S./Canada border, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. When the seaway opened, big ships from the Atlantic could reach Lake Michigan for the first time, then sail down to the mouth of the Grand Calumet River where the Port of Chicago’s Iroquois Landing — a terminal of warehouses and facilities — awaited.

Goods could be shipped further inland along the Grand Calumet to Lake Calumet, where the port district built the 1,600-acre Lake Calumet Terminal, with its ship berths and docks. The terminal includes those grain and liquid storage silos that are so strikingly visible from the Bishop Ford Expressway.

The southern end of Lake Calumet leads, in turn, to the Little Calumet River, which feeds into a series of waterways that link to the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf Mexico.

Chicago already was the nation’s rail center in the 1950s. With the opening of the port, the thinking went, the city also could become the waterborne shipping hub of the nation.

The fall

But Chicago’s dominance in inland shipping never happened. Much of the port’s traffic involved Great Lakes steel shipping, an industry that virtually died in the 1970s and 1980s and hit Chicago’s steel-producing Southeast Side especially hard. Shipments of iron ore, limestone and other materials used to make that steel also dropped.

The port district itself also was mismanaged. A 1987 report by then-Lt. Gov. George Ryan found that the port’s longtime board chairman, John J. Serpico, regularly awarded no-bid contracts, oversaw board members with no maritime experience and poorly ran the entire operation.

The Ryan report called for a complete overhaul of the port and Serpico’s dismissal, but the recommended reforms were never carried out. Serpico continued to lead the port until 1999. He stepped down only after being indicted for taking a kickback for setting up a union loan for a hotel project in downstate Champaign.

In 2008, a study by the not-for-profit Civic Federation called for the port authority’s dissolution. Under the group’s plan, city government would run the port, the Cook County Forest Preserve would take over undeveloped port land and the Chicago Park District would run Harborside golf course. The recommendation was not adopted.

The future

Yet for all its troubles, the Port of Chicago remains a remarkable asset. It is the largest port on the Great Lakes, linking the American heartland to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. It is the elbow of a powerful arm.

What might its future look like? And what might that mean for Chicago?

We’ll discuss that in second editorial to come on Friday.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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