Submarines on the Chicago Sanitary Canal

WWII Submarine in floating dry dock at Lockport, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Photo courtesy Gary Ward and the Lockport Historical Society, ca 1943.

WWII Submarine in floating dry dock at Lockport, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Photo courtesy Gary Ward and the Lockport Historical Society, ca 1943.

When I was in high school, boys said they took their girl to watch submarine races, meaning they went “necking”. After you read this you may wonder if this is how that old saying got started. Today I’m talking about real United States World War II submarines traveling down the Sanitary Canal.

In 1940, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in Wisconsin was commissioned to construct submarines by the U. S. Navy for use in WWII. The company, who had never built a submarine before, completed the first sub 228 days ahead of schedule, and promptly was awarded additional contracts. Ultimately, 28 submarines were constructed, at a cost of more than $5,000,000 LESS than the contract price. That’s pretty impressive when one thinks about defense spending in more recent years. Perhaps, since the company was new at the submarine business, they didn’t realize it was supposed to take longer and cost more.

The subs were tested in Lake Michigan, a process referred to as “shakedown training”, and were determined fit for service. The question then should occur to you—how to get the subs from Lake Michigan to sea? The St. Lawrence Seaway had not been opened yet.


Our Sanitary Canal, the engineering marvel constructed 40 years before the war, to the rescue again! The subs had a draft of 15 feet, and the Chicago River and Sanitary Canal could well handle that. Not to say the process was clear sailing (forgive the pun, please!). Here’s how the trip was accomplished:

Periscopes and radar masks were removed in order to clear bridges. One railroad bridge remained too low for passage of the subs, at Western Avenue. The Navy paid for lift machinery to elevate the bridge so the subs could clear. The subs then traveled down the canal to Lockport, where they were loaded onto a floating dry dock (or barge) for the remainder of the trip down the Illinois River, towed by the tugboat Minnesota, through the 9-foot-deep Chain of Rocks Channel at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. There the periscopes and radar masts were reinstalled.

Residents turned out to stand along the sides of the canal and watch submarines travel down the canal to war. So if you run across an oldster from one of our canal towns who talks about watching submarines on the sanitary canal during “the war”, he or she is not inventing a story to impress you, but describing a truly rare event.

My thanks to Gary Ward and Candace Hrpcha from the Lockport Historical Society ( ) for assistance with this article. If you have further interest I suggest you visit the website of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. This link is to a photo I especially liked:

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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