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 James S. Dunham’s Crusade for the River

By Thomas J. Lutz 

A must-read for boatnerds and Chicagoans

Chicago would not be the world-class city that it is today if not for the tireless efforts of ship captain, business owner, and politician James Sears Dunham, whose life during the 1800s—a century dependent on the water—is the embodiment of everything that is and was Chicago maritime. This recounting of his life’s story reveals how the maritime community in Chicago shaped not only the city’s waterfront, but also the very image the city presents to the world today.

Among his peers, Dunham served as the Chicago River’s greatest advocate understanding its significance in developing the city into one of the world’s great ports, a role woefully misunderstood to this day. He battled politicians, business rivals, and the railroads to do what he felt best for the good of all. A review of his accomplishments provides insight into how Chicago’s lakefront, “The Loop,” and its bridges developed into familiar icons, offers new revelations about the river’s famous reversal, explains why the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was so needlessly tragic, and examines the staging of the 1893 World’s Fair far south of the city.

Award-winning historian Thomas J. Lutz brings to life Chicago’s forgotten maritime man, whose deeds have gone unheralded since his death in 1901, but whose lifelong crusade for the river helped shape the great metropolis.

Regional Studies  ISBN:978-0-9801750-0-4 | 216 Pages | $21.95

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Thomas J. Lutz was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and studied architecture at the University of Minnesota receiving his degree in 1972. He joined the Minnesota Historical Society, eventually becoming head of the historic sites survey program. In 1975, he joined the Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Chicago becoming assistant director, before leaving in 1979 to return to Red Wing, Minnesota. There he spearheaded a two-year community-wide revitalization effort before rejoining the National Trust in Washington, DC, where he joined the National Main Street Center in 1981. In1987, he became a private consultant for local and regional, community and economic development programs, taking retirement in 2000 as executive director of the non-profit Economic Development Corporation of Cass County, Minnesota.

Living in Chicago in 2002, Lutz began genealogical research into his father’s family, tracing their roots from Germany down to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where the initial family settled in 1847. He learned to his surprise that his grandfather’s cousin, Theodore Caspar Lutz, became the leading maritime contractor for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and formed a partnership with James Sears Dunham, eventually becoming the second in command of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company in Chicago. Under him, they became the largest maritime contractor in the nation, and ultimately one the largest in the world. Fascinated by his own family’s maritime roots, Lutz became even more intrigued with the involvement of Dunham, a man about whom little has been written, but who had such an enormous impact on the development of Chicago when it was the nation’s preeminent, 19th-century maritime city. His writing about Dunham led to receipt of the Henry Barkhausen award for Original Research from the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History in 2006, and subsequently to the publication of this book.
Lutz lives in Chicago with his wife Paula, a professional interior designer.

Contact the author at t_lutz@att.net