Raising Chicago from the Muck
Founded in 1833 with a population of 200, Chicago saw rapid growth in its first two decades due to its position as a transportation hub and its economic allure to rural Americans and immigrants from abroad. Twenty years later, with a population greater than 60,000 and flood-prone topography, the circumstances demanded improved sanitary conditions as standing water and a lack of drainage infrastructure contributed to six consecutive years of epidemic outbreaks. The topography, just four feet above the elevation of Lake Michigan, not only inhibited natural drainage but limited the ability to install engineered drainage systems. In 1856, City Engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough devised a plan to build a sewer system above ground and fill the grade over the sewers, while raising buildings as much as ten feet to accommodate. For the next decade, the first comprehensive sewer system in the United States, the "Chesbrough sewers," were constructed. During this time, engineers displayed their inventiveness by raising buildings, rows, and blocks of structures as tall as six stories, many of which remained occupied as commerce continued during the lifting. This presentation chronicles the sanitary engineering and structural ingenuity that elevated Chicago, both physically out of the muck and culturally into a world-class city.