Editor's note: This article originally ran on February 12, 2004.
"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)
The city of Chicago was constructed on very low ground barely above Lake Michigan. Drainage in the nineteenth century was very poor. Rain water ponded in the streets, festered and caused living conditions to be unpleasant. Epidemics including typhoid fever and dysentery. In 1854 outbreak of cholera killed six percent of the city’s population. Sanitary conditions were in no small measure blamed for these deadly outbreaks.
The city's engineers and aldermen studied the situation. In 1856, engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough's plan for the installation of a city-wide sewerage system was submitted to and adopted by the Common Council. Drains were laid, roads and sidewalks were covered with several feet of soil and refinished, and much of the rest of the city was put on jacks and raised to the new grade.
Earliest raising of a brick building
In January 1858, the first masonry building in Chicago to be thus raised—a four story, 70 feet (21 m) long, 750 ton brick structure situated at the north-east corner of Randolph Street and Dearborn Street—was lifted on two hundred jackscrews to its new grade, which was 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) higher than 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 contractor was Bostonian engineer James Brown, who went on to partner with longtime Chicago engineer James Hollingsworth; Brown and Hollingsworth became the first and, it seems, the busiest building raising partnership in the city. Before the year was out, they were lifting brick buildings more than 100 feet (30 m) long, and the following spring they took the contract to raise a brick block more than twice that length again.
The Row on Lake Street 
By 1860 confidence was sufficiently high that a consortium of no fewer than six engineers—including Brown, Hollingsworth and George Pullman—took on one of the most impressive locations in the city and hoisted 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, offices, printeries, etc., 320 feet (98 m) long, comprising brick and stone buildings, some four stories high, some five, having a footprint taking up almost 1-acre (4,000 m2) of space, and an estimated all in weight including hanging sidewalks of thirty five thousand tons. Businesses operating out of these premises were not closed down for the lifting; as the buildings were being raised, people came, went, shopped and worked in them as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. In five days the entire assembly was elevated 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 m) clear in the air by a team consisting of six hundred men using six thousand jackscrews, 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.
The Tremont House 
The following year a team led by Ely, Smith and Pullman raised the Tremont House hotel on the south-east corner of Lake Street and Dearborn Street. This building was luxuriously appointed, was of brick construction, was six stories high, and had a footprint taking up over 1-acre (4,000 m2) of space. Once again business as usual was maintained as this vast hotel parted from the ground it was standing on, and indeed some of the guests staying there at the time—among whose number were several VIPsand a US Senator—were 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 several 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 6 feet (1.8 m) without a hitch.
The Robbins Building 
Another notable feat was the raising of the Robbins Building, an iron building 150 feet (46 m) long, 80 feet (24 m) wide and five stories high, located at the corner of South Water Street and Wells Street. This was a very heavy building; its ornate iron frame, its twelve inch (305 mm) thick masonry wall filling, and its “floors filled with heavy goods” made for a weight estimated at 27,000 tons, a large load to raise over a relatively small area. Hollingsworth and Coughlin took the contract and in November 1865 lifted not only the building but also the 230 feet (70 m) of stone sidewalkoutside it. The complete mass of iron and masonry was raised 27.5 inches (0.70 m), “without the slightest crack or damage.”
Hydraulic raising of the Franklin House 
There is evidence in primary document sources that at least one building in Chicago, the Franklin House on Franklin Street, was raised hydraulically by the engineer John C. Lane, of the Lane and Stratton partnership. These gentlemen had apparently been using this method of lifting buildings in San Francisco since 1853.
Buildings relocated 
Many of central Chicago’s hurriedly erected wooden frame buildings were now considered wholly inappropriate to the burgeoning and increasingly wealthy city. Rather than raise them several feet, proprietors often preferred to relocate these old frame buildings, replacing them with new masonry blocks built to the latest grade. Consequently, the practice of putting the old multi-story, intact and furnished wooden buildings—sometimes entire rows of them en bloc—on rollers and moving them to the outskirts of town or to the suburbs 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. Brick buildings also were moved from one location to another, and in 1866, the first of these—a building of two and a half stories—made the short move from Madison Street out to Monroe Street. Later, many other brick buildings were to be rolled much greater distances across Chicago.
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