Calumet Fisheries hasn’t always been at the foot of the 95th Street bridge, although the little red-roofed shack that serves fried perch and catfish and home-smoked shrimp and salmon seems as integral to the scenery of Calumet Harbor as the drawbridges that lift for the passing ships or the tall cranes that unload steel coils from their holds. The take-out restaurant, which was founded early in the century, used to be next to the 92nd Street bridge. In 1928 the building was loaded onto a scow and moved three blocks down the Calumet River so the bridge could be widened.
Now it’s in a perfect spot for watching the ships come and go. The sleek black freighters that call at the harbor are industrial dreadnoughts several city blocks long, and they always draw an audience. Folks who’ve only seen the ships sailing far out on the horizon can’t believe how big they are, says the restaurant’s manager, Roberta Morales.
“That amazes a lot of people,” she says. Morales has worked in the restaurant for 30 years. “It amazes me to see them stand there with awe, because I see it every day. But they run out there with their food and say, ‘Oh, the bridge is up.’ You see a ship out on the water, you say, ‘Oh, that’s a ship on the water.’ When they’re docked, you can see how large they are.”
When the ships’ crews come ashore, Calumet Fisheries is often the first place they go. But the sailors, who hail from as far away as Poland and China, usually don’t want to hang around the southeast side, so Morales directs them to the Metra station or calls them cabs.
“There was a ship here a week ago from Sri Lanka,” she says. “They come in, sometimes they’ll buy fish. Their main interest is beer and cigarettes. Or they want a cab downtown. We’ll get them a cab and we’ll tell them the name of the [ship] terminal and say, ‘Give this to the cabdriver when you come back.’ If we were on their soil, we’d want someone to be friendly.”
Most of the ships that dock at the harbor are carrying steel or salt. Across the street from the restaurant is a mountainous pile of Canadian salt, partly covered with a black tarp, that will melt ice on the city’s streets this winter.
The fact that steel is shipped here is one of the great ironies of life in the rust belt–it’s like sending coals to Newcastle. The southeast side of Chicago used to produce so much steel it was called “the Ruhr of America,” but now
it’s cheaper to import it than it is to make it at a mill a few blocks away. Last week the Panamanian freighter Federal Mackenzie was berthed right across the river from Calumet Fisheries, unloading a hold full of steel. Morales says it’s common for old steel-mill veterans to buy an order of fried catfish, carry it out to the bank, and watch the ships bring in the cargo that ended
“You see older people, they come down to the river, and it’s like they’re reminiscing,” she says. “They’re watching the ships unload the coils, and I want to say, ‘A penny for your thoughts.'”
The death of the local steel industry hurt Calumet Fisheries, too. “Oh ho ho, goes without saying,” Morales says. “We used to be open 17 hours a day, 18 hours a day. Now we’re open 12 hours a day. It happened gradually, as the mills declined. I used to employ 17 or 18 people. Now I’m lucky to get seven.”
In the two smokehouses out back, employees used to hang fish over the wood fires every day. Now it’s every other day at the most.
Partly because the loss of steel jobs has impoverished the southeast side and partly because the Great Lakes have been overfished, Calumet Fisheries sells more foreign seafood than it once did. Lake perch, at nine dollars a pound, is too expensive. Smelt, another once-popular lake fish, is almost impossible to obtain. Trout comes from Canada. You can’t help but see the parallel.
When the mills were still staining the sky with soot, Calumet Fisheries won a tiny measure of distinction by appearing on the cover of the April 1978 issue of National Geographic in an aerial photo of the southeast side. The magazine cover is displayed on the wall, the restaurant’s red roof circled.
The joint had another brush with fame in 1980. The bridge-jumping scene from The Blues Brothers was filmed on 95th Street, right in front of the restaurant. The street was closed for four blocks so the Bluesmobile could pick up enough speed to make the leap over the partially opened drawbridge. That meant few customers, so Morales had plenty of time to watch the stunt unfold.
“They came from 95th and Commercial,” she remembers. “Seventy, seventy-five miles an hour. They actually had a ramp onto the bridge. They went right over in that junky car.”
The scene was filmed from the south side of the street, so Calumet Fisheries doesn’t appear. Still, for years the restaurant displayed photos of the Blues Brothers’ visit on its wall. The photos were stolen some time ago, but “we still have people that come in once a week that want to look at them,” Morales says.
This time of year the Saint Lawrence Seaway freezes up, isolating the Great Lakes. The international ships stop coming, which hurts business. But there’s another form of traffic that brings customers into Calumet Fisheries year-round. Drivers on the Skyway can look down and see the restaurant’s bright red shingles. Some of them get off the highway and buy a plate of smoked oysters or fish-and-chips.
“They say, ‘Oh, there’s that fish house,'” Morales says. “So many people don’t know our name. They just know us as the fish house on the bridge.”
Calumet Fisheries, 3259 E. 95th (773-933-9855), is open daily from 10 AM to 10 PM. –Ted Kleine
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roberta Morales and misc. store photos by Nathan Mandell.