Coincidentally, this same piece of property, the lakefront south of the river, was generating discussion in Common Council on a seemingly unrelated issue: erosion of the lakefront and the corresponding problem of the lake’s waters flooding Michigan Avenue during storms and periods of high waves.  Between 1848, when Ogden had started construction of the G&CU and 1852, when the first MS train had pulled into town four years later, the city had nearly doubled in size from 20,023 to 38,733.  Despite two cholera outbreaks, Chicago’s population, now being fed by direct railroad links from the East, continued to grow at its breakneck pace, so that by 1855 Chicago’s size had exploded to 80,023.  With three of every four of the city’s residents having arrived during the past seven years, the population explosion fueled by the railroads was causing a massive reconfiguration of Chicago’s residential pattern.  Providing housing for 60,000 new people in a seven-year period naturally forced a town that could barely accommodate its base of 20,000, to grow outwards if only to provide sufficient horizontal area on which to build the new housing required.  The railroads had also brought a parallel increase in commercial activity to the center of town that also vied for new space to locate and build upon.  As the business district had continued to expand, those who could afford to do so had moved their residences farther away from the center of town.  Demand for properties in the business district and their corresponding values soared, while the increased hustle and bustle of business, with its accompanying noise, filth, and crime, in addition to the new smoke pollution brought on by the introduction of steam-powered tugboats, locomotives, and grain elevators, had had a considerably negative impact on the quiet atmosphere of Chicago’s original residential neighborhoods in the South District, especially those adjacent to the Public Square.  Those who could afford to move farther away from the original heart of the city along the riverfront to quieter areas did so, initiating Chicago’s first wave of urban flight.

The lakefront along S. Michigan Avenue prior to the construction of the IC trestle. (Lake Shore Drive)

A favorite location farther to the south along Michigan Avenue with its unobstructed view of the lake and the local government’s covenant that Lake Park, across the street, would remain “forever free,” had become the choice residential location in the South Division for many of the city’s elite (including Mayor Gurnee, J. Young Scammon, Norman B. Judd, Bishop Duggan, Lt. Gov. Bross, Judge H.T. Dickey, and Philip F.W. Peck), especially those who had a business in the south and did not cherish the inconvenience of waiting to cross one of the city’s bridges. Those who either were not quick enough to snap up a lakefront property, or could not afford the price of one, settled for being close to the lake and its elite residents by settling one block inland on Wabash Street.  The erosion problem that had developed along this stretch of the lakefront that Council was currently debating seems to have been a result of the construction of the north pier at the river’s mouth.  As the pier was being built ever farther into the lake in the ongoing effort to keep the mouth of the river from silting up, there was a corresponding loss of land along the lakefront south of the river, due to the effect that the lengthening of the pier had on the lake’s current.  The increased flooding of Michigan Avenue and the fear that one day they would wake up to find their homes floating in Lake Michigan as the erosion of the lakefront had finally claimed their lot, had the wealthy residents of South Michigan Avenue clamoring for the city government to do something to physically stop the problem and protect their investments.

Map Showing the Accretion of Silt at the river’s north bank between 1833 and 1855. (Holland, Maps in Chicago)


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– 2. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s