All was not as serene down below along the streets of Chicago as depicted in this bird’s eye view, however, as construction on the cathedral drew to a close during the autumn of 1854. The city had just finished burying the last of the 1424 victims of Chicago’s worst cholera epidemic, and finally, it seemed, that city leaders were going to launch a serious campaign to address the root causes of Chicago’s unsanitary environment. Not that the reasons were very hard to discern, for even with the scientific knowledge of 1854, the average resident of Chicago knew ‘that something was rotten’ in Chicago:
“To any intelligent person going about our city, who understands the physical conditions of health, and the causes which, with mathematical certainty generate disease, the wonder is not that we have had cholera in our midst for two seasons in succession, and that the common diseases of the country are fatally prevalent during the summer months, but that a worse plague does not take up a permanent residence with us. Many of the populous localities are noisesome quagmires, the gutters running with filth at which the very swine turn up their noses in supreme disgust. Even some portions of the planked streets, say, for instance, Lake between Clark and La Salle, are scarcely in better sanitary condition than those which are not planked. The gutters at the crossings are clogged up, leaving standing pools of an indescribable liquid, there to salute the noses of passers by. There being no chance to drain them properly, the water accumulates underneath the planking, into which flows all manner of filth, and during the hot weather of the last few weeks, the whole reeking mass of abominations has steamed up through every opening, and the miasma thus elaborated has been wafted into the neighboring shops and dwellings, to poison their inmates…. The evil, though great and increasing, is yet susceptible of a remedy. The only condition of health and decency, is a regular, thorough system of drainage. Such a system is feasible, and must be adopted if the “Garden City” is to be habitable… “
In 1849, an earlier cholera epidemic had claimed over 300 victims. Since the city’s founding water had been obtained from the lake, the river, backyard wells, or watercart vendors. House drains still emptied onto the streets that, in all honesty, were nothing more than open surface sewers. The few street gutters that actually were in place tried to slope to the river in an attempt to utilize gravity to empty them. Most streets were not paved, however, so the accumulated sewage and animal waste, imperceptibly but inevitably disappeared into the mud of the street. In addition, many of the city’s streets were not even lit until construction began in October 1849, following the subsidence of the cholera plague, on a gas lighting system by the Chicago Gas Light and Coke Company, whose Board of Directors included George Smith, Mark Skinner, and Thomas Dyer. The gasworks were located on the south side of Monroe near Market Street, ostensibly to have a wharf on the South Branch to unload the great quantities of coal it would require. Night illumination began on September 4, 1850, with the Gem of the Prairie reporting that “the City Hall with its thirty-six burners, is the brightest of all, night being transformed into mimic day.”
At the height of the cholera outbreak in 1849, Chicago’s population was 23,047. During the five intervening years the population had almost tripled to 65,872, but nothing had fundamentally changed either in Chicago’s system of supplying drinking water or in its method of removing human and animal waste (if the population had tripled, surely the number of horses on the city’s streets had also correspondingly increased). As the city continued to grow, the physical reality of the flatness of Chicago’s geography, at first an embarrassing nuisance, was quickly becoming a existential threat to the town’s survival. Meanwhile, the city’s factories and packing houses, that had located adjacent to the river for easy access to water, were also using the river to drain their refuse.
“In the spring and early summer it was impossible to keep the young fish out of the reservoir, and it was no uncommon thing to find the unwelcome fry sporting in one’s washbowl, or dead and stuck in the faucets. And besides they would find their way into the hot-water reservoir, where they would get stewed up into a very nauseous fish chowder.”
Therefore, the core environmental problem facing Chicago’s leaders was two-fold:
1. the condition of Chicago’s streets, sidewalks, and ‘sewers’ was abominable, and
2. the river, the city’s main sewer, flowed directly into the lake, the source of the city’s drinkable water, where the southerly current of the lake carried the contamination the short distance of two blocks from the mouth of the river to the inlet of the city’s only water company located at the foot of Lake Street. Chicago, bounded by Lake Michigan and defined by the Chicago River and its branches, was caught in a vicious circle that had to be broken, for, indeed, there was “water, water, everywhere, but not a [decent] drop to drink.”
Chicago’s primary problem was its geography. The South Division, west of State Street was, for all practical purposes flat, being only 3-4 feet above the surface of the river. There was no natural drainage of the land because there was little slope toward the river. The indigenous soil structure had only compounded this problem. With no surface slope, any liquid, be it rain, snow melt, or human or animal waste, had no place to go but down, that is, until it reached the hardpan, that prevented any further absorption. The end result was that Chicago’s unpaved streets and sidewalks had but one method of drainage: evaporation; with the result that the city’s streets and walks were virtual swamps during the spring thaw and rainy season or following a prolonged rainfall, having the same effect on all who tried to negotiate them, be they human or animal:
“I said we had no pavements in 1848. The streets were simply thrown up as country roads. In the spring for weeks, portions of them would be unpassable. I have at different times seen empty wagons and drays stuck on Lake and Water Streets on every block between Wabash and the river. Of course there was little or no business doing, for the people of the city could not get about much, and the people of the country could not get in to do it. As the clerks had nothing to do, they would exercise their wits by putting boards from dry goods boxes in the holes where the last dray was dug out, with significant signs, as ‘No Bottom Here,’ ‘The Shortest Road to China.’ Sometimes one board would be nailed across another, and an old hat and coat be fixed on it, with the notice ‘On His Way to the Lower Regions.'”
The first serious attempt to improve the drainage of the streets had occurred in 1846 when Common Council voted to dig Lake and Randolph Streets deeper in an attempt to remove some of the offending muck, as well as to impart an encouraging slope towards the river. Rudimentary sluices were formed at the sides of the streets into which it was hoped the houses could empty their sewage. To permit pedestrian passage above these canals of filth, wooden sidewalks over the ditches were constructed, that, unfortunately, only began to compound the problem:
“Under sagging wooden sidewalks lived “millions of rats” which at night regarded the streets as “their domain”; and “old boots, shoes, spoiled meat and fish, the garbage of the kitchens, dead dogs, cats, and rats” befouled the places where man must walk. Even when attempts to clean the streets were made, the refuse was not always carried away but simply pushed aside. And not always were sidewalks cleared, although from the ‘thirties hindrances to a traveler’s progress were forbidden… Nature’s obstructions to free and safe movement seemed bad enough, but to encounter overenthusiastic merchants hawking their goods in the manner of “Chatham street” on some of the main avenues was more than some citizens could bear. And the wandering cow perpetuated a rural atmosphere striking incongruous amidst the signs of urban sophistication. To wade ankle deep in mud and water so that he felt as if he were crossing “a Rubicon” was the lot of the pedestrian during wet weather in parts of the town where streets were unpaved. And where sidewalks were laid, teamsters frequently monopolized them to avoid “the sticky and Styx-like” roadways.”
This “attempt to make a second Venice” of Chicago’s streets, fortunately, was wisely stopped by an injunction filed by those who saw the folly inherent in digging Chicago deeper into its morass; the channelized streets were quickly refilled.
During the winter of 1848-49, cholera had been making its way up the Mississippi River valley from New Orleans, its spread thought to have been initiated by the arrival of recent immigrants. Under the threat of the inevitable arrival of the disease in Chicago, municipal leaders tried to clean up the city to minimize the odds of an epidemic by experimenting with a new paving technique purported to have been successful in New York City and Canada: the plank road. In essence, the wooden sidewalks would be increased in scale to cover the entire street. On January 22, 1849, Common Council ordered that Lake Street, the town’s central shopping district, be planked from State Street west to the river. With the high point of State Street running north-south and Madison Street running east-west, a series of graded elevations was set so that the streets would drain into the lake towards the east, into the river on the north and west, and to an undetermined location in the south. In addition to Lake Street, the other major east/west roads in the business district, S. Water and Randolph Streets, were planked that year in the following manner: the streets were cut to a level 18″ below the adjoining lots so that the houses could easily empty their sewage into the road, then timber rails were placed on the ground with 3″ thick planks laid on top of these.
The end result was that these streets were still open sewers, and as such, were nothing more than a larger version of the city’s infamous wood sidewalks, that only worsened the septic character of Chicago’s streets:
“Under these planks the water was standing on the surface over three-fourths of the city, and as the sewers from the houses were emptied under them, a frightful odor was emitted in summer, causing fevers and other diseases, foreign to the climate…“
Unfortunately, the planking did not prevent the onset of cholera in 1849, which arrived on April 29, when the John Drew, a boat carrying immigrants from New Orleans, docked in town. During the height of the epidemic, July 25-August 28, the disease infected over 1000 people, of which 314 eventually succumbed. The following year someone pointed out the problem in making the streets act as sewers so that the north/south streets were planked in a different manner. Rather than excavate the streets so that adjacent lots would naturally drain onto the street, sewers with a triangular cross-section made of oak planks were laid in the middle of Wells, La Salle, Clark, and State Streets that ran from Randolph to the river. The planking was placed on the street surface without any major change in the existing elevation.
At first, the technique appeared to work, so during the next two years over ten miles of streets in the South Division had the wooden boards applied to their surface. But exposed to the yearly cyclical nature of Chicago’s climate, the wood began to rot while at the same time it was being worn down by the constant contact of heavily loaded wagon wheels and teams of horses. Before long, the planked streets became waiting booby-traps as the rotting boards would snap without warning with a resulting one-two punch: first, the broken plank would rise into the air, often slapping a horse in the face; then on the way down, the falling missile would crash into the muck below, splashing any innocent bystander with the ungodly effluent.
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, Norton, New York, 1991.
Ericsson, Henry L. Sixty Years a Builder: The Autobiography of Henry Ericsson. Chicago: A. Kroch, 1942.
Heise, Kenan and Michael Edgerton, Chicago: Center for Enterprise. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982.
Lewis, Lloyd and Henry Justin Smith. Chicago: The History of its Reputation. New York: Blue Ribbon, 1929.
Mayer, Harold M., and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– II. New York: Knopf. 1940.
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