the lifting of chicago
Sources used for this web page are here
Boomtime in the mid-nineteenth century brought a remarkable population explosion to the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. Chicago—in 1830 a small trading settlement of fifty people—had by 1854 become a raucous crucible of industry, sucking in tens of thousands of immigrants to add to the sixty thousand already there, and becoming the hub city in a burgeoning continental railroad and waterway network. Demand for labour constantly outstripped supply, and it seemed no matter how fast Chicago grew, its future always looked a very great deal bigger.
Now this growth was all very impressive, but there emerged a most unpleasant problem. Where just a few decades before, there was nothing but marshland, there now stood one of the largest cities in the United States, and a little too late its people came to realise they had built Chicago to too low an elevation. Streets and sidewalks scarcely rose above the water table and consequently there could be no naturally occuring drainage, meaning that a gross accumulation of rainwater, sewage and other unlovely civic by-products hung interminably at the city surface, turning much of the place into a dangerous and rat infested swamp. Epidemics including Typhoid fever and Dysentery blighted the city six years in a row culminating in the 1854 outbreak of Cholera that killed six percent of the city’s population.
The crisis led to an exhaustive examination of the problem and to a whatever-it-takes approach to solving it. And while it’s true that ad-hoc exercises in raising sections of road or sidewalk were nothing new in Chicago, these could hardly prepare anybody for the solution that eventually emerged; the entire city was to be physically lifted up an average of six feet! Work quickly began, and the world looked on in amazement as buildings, even whole blocks of buildings at once, together with sidewalks, trees, lamposts, et alia., were plucked out from their seatings and lifted up in the air. In January of 1858, the first masonry building in Chicago to be thus raised—a four storey, seventy feet long, seven hundred and fifty ton brick structure situated at the northeast corner of Randolph Street and Dearborn Street—was lifted on two hundred jackscrews to its new grade, which was more than six feet above the old one, “without the slightest injury to the building.” It was the first of more than fifty comparably large masonry buildings to be raised that year. The engineer in charge was James Brown of Boston, who soon thereafter entered into a partnership with longtime Chicago engineer James Hollingsworth. Brown and Hollingsworth became the first and, it seems, most prolific building-raising business in the city.
the engineers’ confidence grew,
and so did the size of their projects.
The autumn of 1858 saw the first raising of a brick block more than one hundred feet long;
late in the spring of 1859 another one twice as long again went up five feet.
By 1860 confidence was sufficiently high that engineers felt able to take on one of the most impressive locations in the city and hoist it up complete and in one go.
They lifted half a city block on Lake Street,
between Clark Street and LaSalle Street;
a solid masonry row of shops and offices three hundred and twenty feet long,
comprising brick and stone buildings,
some four storeys high,
having a footprint taking up almost an acre of space,
and an estimated all in weight including hanging sidewalks of thirty five thousand tons.
Well consider this:
The business of those shops and offices was not halted for the lifting;
as this great chunk of city was being raised,
shopped and worked in it as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on.
In five days the entire teeming and bustling assembly was elevated four feet and eight inches clear in the air by a team of six hundred men using six thousand jackscrews (image)
ready for new foundation walls to be built underneath.
The spectacle drew crowds of thousands,
who were on the final day permitted to walk at the old ground level,
among the jacks.
1861 was of course the year the American Civil War began in earnest so understandably, the Chicago Tribune which has been my main source provider, devoted columns and columns of its pages to reporting this momentous and terrible war. Building raisings were by now so commonplace in Chicago that they were not considered worthy of a report given that large numbers of Americans were slaughtering each other. Nevertheless during the turbulent few weeks before the war began, the raising of the Tremont House hotel on the southeast corner of Lake Street and Dearborn Street was extensively covered. An old (by Chicago standards) hotel, the Tremont House was one of the city’s proudest buildings, a brick built behemoth six storeys high with a footprint over an acre large. Once again business as usual was maintained as the vast hotel parted from the ground it was standing on, and some of the guests staying there at the time—among whose number were several VIPs and a US Senator—were actually completely oblivious to the feat, as the five hundred men operating their five thousand jackscrews worked under covered trenches. One patron was puzzled to note that the front steps leading from the street into the hotel were becoming steeper every day, and that when he checked out, the windows were three or four feet above his head, whereas before they had been at eye level. This huge hotel, which until just the previous year had been the tallest building in Chicago, was in fact raised fully six feet without a hitch.
Hollingsworth’s ad.,—typos and all—from the Tribune.
Possibly the most difficult lift was that of the Robbins block, an iron building one hundred and fifty feet long, eighty feet wide and five storeys high, located at the southeast corner of South Water Street and Wells Street. Because iron was capable of bearing weight that would cause ordinary masonry to crumble, and because it could so cheaply be cast in all manner of exotic reliefs, it became a fashionable construction material for several decades beginning in the 1850s. But all this progress did make for heavy buildings, and the Robbins block in particular was heavy in every conceivable way. Its (probably very ornate and beautiful) iron frame, its twelve inch thick masonry wall filling, and its “floors filled with heavy goods”—I suspect the building may have contained an iron foundry—made for a weight estimated at twenty seven thousand tons, which was a large load to raise over a relatively small area, not that that was going to stop the engineers tacking on two hundred and thirty feet of stone sidewalk and lifting that up too. Hollingsworth and Coughlin took the contract, and elevated the complete mass of iron and masonry in 1865 just short of two and a half feet, “without the slightest crack or damage.”
There is evidence in the primary sources that in 1860 at least one building in Chicago was raised hydraulically, and that the Lane and Stratton partnership in San Francisco had been using this method of lifting buildings since 1853! It’s true that I have been unable to unearth very much evidence of these mind boggling claims, but what I have seen (it’s all on the source page) is impossible to dismiss lightly. Might there be somebody in Chicago or San Francisco willing to find out more? All it takes is a few hours in the Library Archives…
The practice of putting multistorey wooden frame buildings, complete, intact and furnished, on rollers and moving them to other locations altogether—usually from city to suburb—was so common as to be considered nothing more than routine traffic. Traveller David Macrae wrote incredulously, “Never a day passed during my stay in the city that I did not meet one or more houses shifting their quarters. One day I met nine. Going out Great Madison Street in the horse cars we had to stop twice to let houses get across.” As discussed above, business did not suffer; shop owners would keep their shops open, even as people had to climb in through a moving front door. Entire rows of terraced wooden buildings were also moved en bloc and relocated in order to open up real estate on which to build nice new masonry blocks. And yes, in 1866 a two and a half storey brick building was moved from Madison Street to Monroe Street. This was probably the first masonry building to be relocated, and before long many much larger masonry blocks would be hauled much greater distances across the city.
In 1859 a rising star of American engineering, one George Mortimer Pullman, moved from the Albion, New York of his childhood to Chicago to contract for raising buildings, a pursuit with which he was to find success, while he wasn’t busy chasing goldrushes or designing his shortly-to-become-famous Pullman Carriage. This powerful industrialist’s remarkable life and seat in American history have perhaps led to exaggerated representations of his role in accounts of Chicago’s grade raising story. The evidence I have seen suggests that it is very unlikely either that Pullman was the biggest building raising name in Chicago—it seems James Hollingsworth was at least as capable, busy and well respected as Pullman—, or that he invented a new method of raising buildings, and that it is certainly not true that Pullman single handedly organised and oversaw the the task of raising all these buildings. These claims—and others in a similar vein besides—are popularly held to be true in history books and other secondary sources that deal with the subject, but there is plenty of extant primary document evidence to set the record straight. Such evidence as I have found, I have set out and linked to both above, and just below.
The raising of Chicago went on for well over a decade, but sadly much of the city including the entire central business district wherein these mighty feats were accomplished was consumed and turned into a desert overnight by the absolutely horrific Great Fire of Chicago.
Here’s that link
to the sources again.