Chicago Was Raised Over Four Feet in the 19th Century to Build Its Sewer

Illustration for article titled Chicago Was Raised Over Four Feet in the 19th Century to Build Its Sewer

In the middle of the 19th century, Chicago embarked on a quest to literally lift itself out of the mud. Water couldn’t drain from the low-lying city, so its streets became impassable swamps. The most reasonable solution, Chicago decided, was just to raise the whole goddamn city by 4 to 14 feet.


Unlike most other cities, Chicago sat just a few feet above the water level of Lake Michigan. Water flows down, so building a system that properly drained all of Chicago’s stormwater and sewage would required a whole lot of digging. That was deemed too expensive. The city was naturally lifted up instead.

Following a plan outlined by the Chicago Board of Sewerage Commissioners in 1855, the city passed an ordinance to raise the grade level of streets downtown and along the river. Over the next two decades, the city gradually grew taller. Buildings were jacked up, new foundations laid underneath, and the streets filled in with dirt after the new sewer pipes were installed.

Remarkably, life in the city went on as normal—as normal as life in such a rapidly growing city can be. The Tremont House, Chicago’s most eminent hotel, was raised inch by inch over several days as guests, including a U.S. senator, resided inside. An entire half block of Lake Street was also lifted in one huge engineering feat. The engineer behind it? A young George Pullman, who would go on to amass a fortune with his Pullman sleeping car. WBEZ describes how Pullman pulled it off:

He had 6,000 jackscrews put under the buildings, and hired 600 men to take charge of ten jacks each. On the signal, each man turned the screws on his ten jacks one notch. The buildings went up a fraction of an inch.

This process was repeated again and again over four days. Meanwhile, temporary timbers were placed under the buildings and new foundations constructed. Then the buildings were lowered into place. All this was smoothly done, while business inside the buildings went on as usual.

In other cases, whole buildings were dug up, put on logs, and rolled to a completely new location. A Scotsman visiting Chicago in 1868 observed, “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.”

Thanks to the foresight and determination of mid-19th century Chicagoans, the city had one of the first comprehensive stormwater and wastewater systems in the country. But it came at a price: Sewage soon poured into Lake Michigan, polluting the city’s source of drinking water. That eventually led to the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900, yet another massive infrastructure project designed allow as many humans as possible to cram into the city. [Chicago Tribune, WBEZ, Chicago Magazine]


Top image: The raising of Lake Street. Edward Mendel/Chicago Historical Society

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The raising of the streets and installation of sewers also contributed to another Chicago institution - the garden apartment. While not unheard of in other cities, they are widespread in Chicago.

Garden apartments are apartments that are currently below grade - often with a set of steps that go down from street level to a door on the outside of the building (e.g., you don't go in the building and down, you have stairs leading to the "basement" from the sidewalk). And while some are basement conversions, a lot of them used to be first floor, street level apartments. The sewer lines were then laid on top of the existing streets and the whole street was raised 4-6 feet.

You can tell the old style garden apartments from basement conversions in that they often have normal casement windows (usually surrounded by a window well, but occasionally looking out to dirt) and the plumbing is usually bizarre (I've seen plumbing that goes midway up the wall and then out to the sewer).