In A Nutshell
Chicago was founded on an area of land that was nearly level with Lake Michigan, making drainage problems a major issue. Cholera, typhoid, and dysentery were rampant, and by the mid-1850s (long before the photo above was taken, obviously) it was decided that a sewer system needed to be built. The only way to get the system to work properly was to build it on a higher level than the city was situated at. What followed was a massive project that built drains and sewers above the roads, the raising of road surfaces, and finally the manual lifting of the majority of Chicago’s biggest buildings. It was all overseen by a group of about six engineers and done with thousands and thousands of hand jacks.
The Whole Bushel
Countless cities across the world were founded with no idea of what problems would await them in the future. London’s streets were laid out with no regard for the cars and trucks that would eventually clog them, for example. The advancements of technology and civilization have forced many to make some extreme modifications to their infrastructure to keep them safe and functioning on an acceptable basis.
The US city of Chicago might take first place when it comes to those modifications. Circumstances in the 1850s necessitated the building of a sewer system and the lifting of each individual building by several feet.
Chicago sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, and while that strategic location has allowed it to grow into the city we know today, it also caused some major problems. Officially incorporated in 1837, Chicago’s problems were already approaching the point of no return by the 1850s.
With most of the city sitting on the same level as the lake, there was little to no drainage. In 1854, a cholera outbreak killed 6 percent of the people who called the young city home. Dysentery was rampant, typhoid fever was common, and living conditions were rather waterlogged. The city was a breeding ground for epidemics and water-borne diseases, and the powers that be knew that they needed to do something if they wanted to save their city.
There were a couple of false starts and failed attempts at fixing the problem, including re-grading all the streets to channel water into the Chicago River. It didn’t work: Wooden infrastructure rotted, warped, and fell to pieces.
In 1856, they were faced with an audacious plan. Ellis S. Chesbrough, an engineer, had laid out the plans for a sewer system that would solve all their problems. It wasn’t that easy, though, and because the city was so close to lake level, it wasn’t going to drain unless there was more of a gradient between the city streets and the lake.
So, they decided to lift the city, building by building. And as this was the 1850s, it was done without any of the modern construction equipment that might have made the project slightly less daunting.
They started by laying all the drains and sewers over the Chicago streets, then covering them and re-building the roads several feet higher than they had been. That left all the buildings in the city several feet below the new ground level. The first masonry building was hefted into its new place in January 1858.
That was a four-story, 750-ton building on the corner of Randolph and Dearborn, raised about 2 meters (6 ft) with around 200 screw jacks, the 1850s version of the jack you’d use to change a tire on your car.
Over the next few years, a group of six engineers oversaw the raising of the rest of the city (save for some homes that were simply relocated). Most impressively, a group of shops along Lake Street were raised in one go. The space, about half a city block, was filled with offices and shops.
Safety “concerns” and sheer determination being what they were at the time, all the stores and offices remained open for business as city crews labored to manually hoist around 35,000 tons of buildings into their new location.
The process was a spectacle, and crowds were allowed into the construction area to walk beneath the buildings before the new foundations were built.
Other buildings that presented a particular challenge included the brick, six-story Tremont House hotel—it sprawled over an entire acre and was raised on 5,000 jacks. There was also the Robbins Building, a 27,000-ton, iron-framed building hoisted about 70 centimeters (27 in).
Some of Chicago’s buildings were raised as much as 4 meters (14 ft). Over the course of two decades, the Chicago buildings were raised an average of 3 meters (10 ft).
Show Me The Proof
City of Chicago: Chicago History
Living History of Illinois and Chicago: Raising Chicago Streets Out of the Mud in 1858
Chicago Tribune: Raising the Chicago streets out of the mud