1.15. IMPROVING THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER

William Howard, Proposed improvements to the mouth of the Chicago River, 1830. (Sprague, JSAH, December 1981)

It took another Federal financial commitment, however, before interest in the canal would spark speculation in the new paper town.  The sandbar that had been formed at the river’s mouth by the lake’s current that had deflected the path of the river to the south for the equivalent of five city blocks, was preventing all but vessels of the shallowest draught from entering the river.  Lake vessels, therefore, were forced to anchor a half-mile offshore, quickly transfer their cargoes to lighters to be taken ashore and raise anchor to speedily return to the safety of harbors in the north before a storm blew up.  Major Long, in his 1816 survey report had identified this potential problem and correspondingly, had proposed constructing two piers at the sandbar that would then allow the cutting of a channel through the sandbar.  It would soon become apparent that the construction of the canal would simultaneously require improvements at the mouth of the river if the endeavor was to ultimately succeed.  Schoolcraft was the first to comment on and offer an alternative to clearing the mouth of the river during a visit in 1821:

“We allude to the formation of a harbor on Lake Michigan where vessels may be in safety while they are discharging the commodities destined for Illinois… It is well known that… there is no harbor or shelter for vessels in the southern part of Lake Michigan, and that every vessel which passes into that lake after September, runs an imminent hazard of shipwreck.  Vessels bound for Chicago come to anchor upon a gravelly location in the lake, and discharging with all possible speed, hasten on their return.  The sand which is driven up into the mouth of the Chicago Creek will admit boats only to pass over the bar… It is yet somewhat problematical whether a safe and permanent harbor can be constructed by any effort of human ingenuity, upon the bleak and naked shores of these lakes, exposed, as they are, to the most furious tempests.  And we are inclined to think it would be feasible to construct an artificial island off the mouth of the Chicago Creek, which might be connected by a bridge with the mainland… with less expense than to keep the Chicago clear of sand.”

In 1829, following the passage of the canal landgrant, Illinois’ Congressmen were told to press the harbor issue in Washington to secure Federal funding for the needed improvements.  They succeeded, for in February 1830 William Howard, chief engineer of the Federal Topographical Bureau, developed and submitted a plan for “improving the mouth of the Chicago River” that echoed Long’s fourteen-year-old proposal of straightening the river’s path to the lake by cutting a channel through the sandbar and protecting the new outlet by extending piers into the lake as had just been completed across the lake at Michigan City. 

The Mouth of the Chicago River, 1820. (Upper: Historic Maps and Views; Below: Andreas-1, History of Chicago)

The study was used by the state’s Representatives to bring the harbor issue once again to the attention of Congress that in March 1831 approved a $5000 appropriation toward the erection of a lighthouse at the mouth of the Chicago River.  Unfortunately, just prior to its completion, the fifty-foot tower that employed brick walls nearly three feet thick, collapsed on October 30, 1831.  While the contractor, Samuel Jackson, claimed that it “was built on quicksand, which caused it to settle and fall,” others claimed that the construction was defective.  

Chicago’s geology presented two problems to would-be builders.  The original soil consisted of a foot of black loam followed by a three- to four-foot layer of “quicksand,” that was finally supported by an eight- to twelve-foot depth of impervious blue clay.  Complicating matters further, the elevation of the original topography east of State Street lay from nine to ten feet above the surface of the lake, whereas to the west of State Street, it sloped down to the river in a level plain elevated only two to three feet above the river, hence natural surface drainage was practically nil.  The shallow depth of the ground water so near the lake also prevented most excavation and, subsequently, any subgrade basements. Chicago’s harsh winters only compounded the problems faced by Chicago’s builders: the frostline (the depth of frost penetration) is 42.”  In other words, imagine trying to place a footing that deep while the ground water is filling in the hole you are trying to excavate.  This was an expense few builders were willing to take in the early days, resulting in footings placed with a shallow depth, in ground that tended to freeze in the winter.  Water expands when frozen that results in “frostheave:” the ground raises (with the building on top of it) but typically in an uneven manner.  In the spring the ground thaws, and the buildings settle unequally, with cracks appearing.

The drainage problem was only compounded by the layer of blue clay that prevented surface water from being absorbed any farther into the ground.  Therefore, rain, snowmelt, and sewage had but one mode of dispersal: evaporation.  Except for brief periods in dry summers, Chicago was, for all practical purposes, a city of mud.  John Mills Van Osdel, Chicago’s first architect, described the problem this posed to Chicago’s early builders:

“This sand in wet seasons became saturated with water, which could not pass downward into the clay, nor laterally as there was no inclination of the strata.  There was nothing left but evaporation, which at times was a very slow process in rendering the soil firm and dry.   In digging post-holes or trenches for foundations, the water would fill such excavations full to the surface of the ground…  A majority of the earlier frame buildings rested on posts sunk through the quicksand to the clay.  The greatest difficulty was experienced in the arrangement of the necessary privy-vaults.  They would fill with water to the surface of the ground.  An embankment had to be formed around them to prevent their overflow, and they required constant watchfulness to keep them in a moderately sanitary condition.”

Although Chicago’s first attempt at a tall structure, Jackson’s lighthouse, had been claimed by the town’s fickle soil, he did succeed in erecting a similar but slightly shorter (and, notably, lighter in weight) version the following year.

Mouth of the Chicago River in 1838. Chicago’s first masonry tower, the Federal lighthouse built in 1832 by Samuel Jackson, stands to the right of the deteriorating Fort Dearborn. (Mayer and Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

Further reading:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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