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Saturday, March 2

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"No bottom here -- the shortest route to China."
-- sign found on wagon abandoned in one of early Chicago's muddy streets

The streets of Chicago in the first half of the 19th century were virtually impassible for much of the year. The city and its streets were built only slightly above water level, and most of the roads were no more than unpaved, dirt tracks. As a result, while in the winter the streets might freeze and on dry summer days they would be hard and dusty, during most of the year the streets were quagmires of mud and water.

A popular joke in the city during this period tells the story of a gentleman who, passing by a street, discovers a man buried up to his shoulders in mud. The gentleman asks the man, "Can I help you?" "No, thank you," the man replies, "I have a good horse under me."

Chicagoans realized, however, that horses struggling knee-deep in the muddy city streets was no laughing matter -- especially when the poor road conditions meant a 12 mile trip would equal a full day of travel. In some areas the city tried laying simple wood planks over the streets, but drainage was still a problem and water would collect under the planks, rotting and warping the wood. The poor drainage also bred disease and contributed to several deadly outbreaks of cholera. Something had to be done.

Ellis S. Chesbrough, an engineer from Boston, was brought to Chicago to lead the newly created Board of Sewerage Commissioners and help design the country's first comprehensive underground sewer system. Chesbrough concluded, however, that the street level in Chicago was too low to be able to dig sewers that would provide adequate drainage, but he proposed a plan that seemed impossible. Chicago became the wonder of the world as the city chose a course that was bold, inventive and utterly astonishing. Since they couldn't tear the city down, they would raise it up.

In 1855 and 1856, the city passed a series of ordinances ordering the grade level of the streets to be raised between four and 14 feet. The process took more than 20 years to complete and was accomplished by literally raising the city. Buildings were lifted up by "dozens of men turning dozens of jacks in unison so that new foundations could be built underneath." (Cronon, 58)

The Tremont Hotel, a six-story building, was lifted while guests stayed in their rooms. David McCrae, visiting Chicago from his native Britain, witnessed the raising of the Briggs House, a five-story hotel constructed of solid masonry, and wrote incredulously, "The people were in it all the time, coming and going, eating and sleeping -- the whole business of the hotel proceeding without interruption." (Mayer, 96)

Even more incredible, some building owners, instead of raising their structures, chose to move them to an entirely new location. It was not uncommon to see frame houses or shops being rolled down the street to a new neighborhood -- often with the building's occupants sitting inside. Other building owners, rather than bear the cost of raising their homes or businesses, moved into the second floor of their buildings, created a new entrance and used the first floor as basement storage. Even today, in some areas of the city such as Pilsen or the Heart of Chicago neighborhoods, you can still find some old homes with first floors that appear below street level.

Chicago's vaulted sidewalks are also a legacy of this street raising project. As the buildings were lifted, new sidewalks had to be constructed to accommodate the new entrances and meet the new street grade. As late as 2001, there were still over 2,000 vaulted sidewalks left in Chicago, but the 150 year-old construction was becoming a dangerous hazard. Holes in the vaulted sidewalks can be over five feet deep, revealing the original level of the street. City construction crews, however, have been systematically filling in the vaulted sidewalks, and the Chicago Department of Transportation has an Emergency Vaulted Sidewalk Program that performs emergency repairs on "severely deteriorated" areas. Still, the old homes on the Near South Side and the remaining vaulted sidewalks are wonderful reminders of this fascinating period in Chicago's history.


Chicago Public Library. Down the Drain: Chicago's Sewers: The Historic Development of an Urban Infrastructure.

Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Mayer, Harold M. and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Swanson, Stevenson, ed. Chicago Days: 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City. Wheaton, IL: Cantigny First Division Foundation, 1997.

Have a topic you would like to see in "Ask the Librarian"? Send your suggestions to librarian@gapersblock and it may be featured in a future column.

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Pete / February 12, 2004 8:51 AM

It's also worth noting that George Pullman, later of railcar fame, first came to Chicago to raise downtown buildings to the new, higher street level. His most renowned building-lifting effort was the Tremont Hotel, which you cited.

Andrew / February 12, 2004 10:15 AM

About seven years ago, the city repaired and filled the vaulted sidewalks down in Chinatown. Cinnamon and I were walking around all the construction, marvelling at the dusty-but-still-intact original first floors to the buildings, when we found a spoon that had been dislodged by the digging. It was green with corrosion from being buried for so long -- nice to know now about when it was buried.

Alice / February 12, 2004 10:50 AM

Yes, thanks Pete, and there's more about the Pullman connection in the excellent online exhibition "Down the Drain" on the Chicago Public Library site to which I linked.

And, Andrew, I'm so glad you mentioned the Chinatown visit. Cinnamon had posed this question to me months ago and mentioned the construction and the appearance of a first floor below the level of the street on some of the buildings in Chinatown. I considered this column to be my very belated answer to her query. :)

It might take me a while to get to them, but I don't forget which questions have been left unanswered!

dce / February 12, 2004 12:21 PM

The American Experience documentary Chicago: City of the Century does a good job of conveying this engineering feat (topped only by the reversal of the Chicago River). It features some extraordinary photos of workers collectively turning jacks under loop buildings, and Studs Terkel narrates.

More than once, while walking to school as a kid, I'd see vaulted sidewalks that had caved in due to disrepair or construction. Seeing the remains of what once was a street below, I assumed that Chicago was built on the ruins of some older, long forgotten city.

And in a sense, it was.

jmo / February 13, 2004 8:53 AM

Hi Alice!

Currently reading "Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld" by Herbert Asbury (which has been retitled "Gangs of Chicago"...why do publishers mess with that?)

Asbury did write "Gangs of New York" and "Barbary Coast"...his "Gems" is a fun read of Chicago's seedier side in the 1800's and early 1900's (crime, business, law enforcement and politics). He cites exact addresses a lot and I find that to be completely interesting. Al Capone doesn't show up until the end of the book, which is a refreshing change. There were lots of colorful Chicago characters I never knew about...and many streets are named after them. :) History buffs will enjoy this one.

Cinnamon / February 13, 2004 2:14 PM

Thanks, Alice. I had no idea this had occurred and it sets my curious mind at ease. Excellent stuff you found out. Good feature today, too.

Thanks for the book recommendation JMO, I'll have to add that to my list.


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