Against this backdrop, drastic times called for drastic measures.  On February 14, 1855, the state legislature incorporated a municipal Board of Sewerage to address the issue.  It was to be comprised of three commissioners, one elected from each of the city’s three divisions.  Former Mayor Ogden (having returned reinvigorated from his recent European sabbatical where he had studied how the Europeans had addressed the problems Chicago was facing) represented the North Division and characteristically took control over the new Board’s actions.  In the following month, the March municipal election saw Dr. Levi D. Boone elected mayor, further attesting to the overall level of concern of the general public.  One of the first acts of the new board was to encourage Common Council to pass an ordinance that established an official elevation of street grade.  Such a survey of the elevations of the city’s streets had been conducted in 1854, probably in anticipation of some future attempt to address the sewer problem.  This utilized as its point of reference the official elevation of the low water level of the river that the Canal commissioners had set back in 1847.  In March 1855, Council passed an ordinance that finally established a legal elevation for the existing grades of the city’s streets.  Then at the urging of Dr. (now mayor) Boone, Ogden’s Board of Sewage appointed Ellis S. Chesbrough in December 1855, as the city’s chief engineer, charged with the responsibility to develop a plan to address the city’s sewage crisis. Chesbrough had been the Chief engineer for Boston and was known for his design of the Boston water system, only one of the two municipal systems then in existence in the U. S. (the other being New York’s that had been designed by John Jervis prior to his start with the Michigan Southern).  

Chesbrough immediately perceived the solution to Chicago’s situation to be the raising of the city’s streets to an elevation that would permit sufficient slope in the sewers to utilize gravity to provide drainage to the river; hence, he became an advocate of “high grade” from the start of his employment.  On December 31, 1855, he presented his report and plans to the Board for its action.  The two important proposals of his report were:

1. to design a system of sewers that had a sufficient slope toward the river for gravity drainage.  This would obviously necessitate the raising of some of the city streets in concert with the slope of the sewers in order that the sewers remained underground.  Chesbrough wanted to establish the crown of the South Division, the intersection of State and Madison, at an elevation of 14′ above datum, with the streets sloping toward the river at 6″ per block.

2. a recommendation to drain the main interceptor sewers of the system into the closest outlet, be it the river or the lake, rather than design the system so that the main sewers carried all the city’s sewage directly to the lake.  This was a straightforward recognition that the latter plan had a higher total cost than the former.  To minimize the effect of the sewers on the city’s drinking water, however, Chesbrough proposed to route all the North Division’s sewers to the river; none emptied directly into the lake where the current would pull the effluent past the new Water Works’ inlet.

The Board of Sewerage had two reservations regarding Chesbrough’s “high grade” proposal: first, they feared that not enough fill was available to raise all of the city’s streets to the level that Chesbrough specified.  Second, there was general concern about the impact of such a scheme on the city’s buildings, for undoubtedly, many buildings would need to have their front doors raised because the sidewalks at the new street level would intersect the existing ground floors at midheight or higher.  The cost to their owners of retrofitting these buildings to the new grade was viewed as politically unacceptable, so the Board forwarded to Council a compromise lower elevation that not only required less fill, but whose impact on most of the existing buildings could be ameliorated within the run of the stairs that led to their first floors.  This lower elevation was adopted by Council in the Spring of 1856, and sustained by Judge Caton on May 26, when he refused to grant an injunction to a group of effected landowners who were demanding to be reimbursed by the city for the damage that their property would sustain from the planned raising of the streets.

Chesbrough wasted little time in starting construction of the plan, and by the end of 1856, over six miles of sewers had been built before the onset of winter. In order to study the best that European cities had to offer at the time, Council sent Chesbrough to Europe during the winter of 1856-57. Upon his return, he again sought approval of the “high grade” elevation, citing two new factors: first, experience with the new sewers was revealing that the bottom of the basements of new buildings designed to meet the new street elevations could be dug below existing grade as much as one and a half to two feet deeper than had ever been thought possible.  This unexpected new source of fill dirt could provide some reassurance to those who worried that there was not sufficient fill to build the streets to the “high grade.”  Second, the 1856 compromise height brought the elevation of the streets immediately adjacent to the river to a height that permitted the construction of basements only from five and a half to six feet high, which obviously was not of much commercial value to their owners.The campaign during the spring of 1857 to raise the elevation of the streets above the level of the 1856 compromise pitted many of the city’s various special interests against one another.  The mayoral election in March 1857, saw “Anti-Nebraska” Republican “Long John” Wentworth victorious and his first official act was to appoint a Board of Engineers to address the street grade issue.  On April 9, 1857, the Chicago Tribune came out against the “High Grade” proposal with an editorial that summed up the opposition’s arguments: 

“What effect is this new grade going to have on buildings already erected in this city?  The streets and sidewalks must be raised some seven feet above the natural surface level.  In other words, every house now built must be raised about the height of the Mayor (Long John) above its present foundation, or be entered through doors cut in its second story… We should say that $2,000,000 would be a low estimate of the damage that would be done to present structures!… It will be a costly job to raise all the streets and sidewalks of Chicago six to eight feet within the space to be drained by sewers–a space of more than 1,200 acres.  Where are the millions of cubic yards of earth to come from to fill them up to the second stories of the present buildings?  And how many millions of dollars is it going to cost the tax payers?  What sort of ‘up and down’ sidewalk will the establishment of the ‘new thirteen or fourteen feet grade’ create during the next twenty years?  Because it is all bosh to say that a uniform system of level sidewalks, corresponding with the proposed grade can be established short of many years.”

Owners who had just completed new buildings during the past year were also crying foul, because, in good faith, they had set their buildings at the 1856 level, yet they, too, would have to incur the cost of this new increase.  Even the owners of Lake Street’s businesses, who had supported the previous year’s rise in the level of the streets, were now protesting the idea of any further increase of height.  The change in grade the year before had had little impact on their area because it was, for all practical purposes, already at that elevation.  The proposed increase in 1857, however, was going to have an effect even on their buildings.

Against the obvious cost of the construction of the new streets and the corresponding price of making the existing building stock respond to the rise in street level, Council had to weigh the advantages of a viable sewer system, space to run water and gas mains, and the as-of-yet appreciated commercial value of usable basements in all buildings in the business district.  In truth, however, there was no other choice for Council but to put the future health of all of Chicago’s citizens ahead of the short-term concerns of the property owners who were going to be impacted by Chesbrough’s “High Grade.”  On May 4, 1857, Common Council, encouraged by Mayor Wentworth, reluctantly approved a plan that was to wreak havoc on the downtown’s streets and sidewalks for the next decade, but eventually would prove to be Chicago’s saving grace.  Literally, the entire city was about to be “pulled up by its own bootstraps.”Chesbrough’s plan was quite straightforward: new buildings would start construction with the erection of a stone retaining wall (at the time called curbwalls) at the outer edge of the sidewalk to hold back the extra dirt needed to bring the street up to the new elevation. The city was willing to let owners build beyond their lotline, the inside edge of the sidewalks, in order to reduce the amount of fill it needed to pay for to raise the street levels.  The owner of the building would then be permitted to use the space under the sidewalk between the curbwall and the building’s foundation as an extension of his basement.  Temporary sidewalks would be placed over this space until the street was brought up to the new level.  This design also helped to clean up the city’s streets as it eliminated the area under the old wooden sidewalks that tended to avoid any clean-up and had, consequently, harbored a build-up of offending pollutants.


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

Ericsson, Henry L. Sixty Years a Builder: The Autobiography of Henry Ericsson. Chicago: A. Kroch, 1942.

Harpster, Jack. A Biography of William B. Ogden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2009.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago-v. I/II. New York: Knopf.  1940.

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

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