Raising of Chicago

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During the 1850s and 1860s, engineers carried out a piecemeal raising of the grade of central Chicago to lift the city out of its low-lying swampy ground. Buildings and sidewalks were physically raised on jackscrews. The work was funded by private property owners and public funds.


Advertisement in the Chicago Daily Tribune, 1858.[1]

During the 19th century, the elevation of the Chicago area was little higher than the shoreline of Lake Michigan. For two decades following the city's incorporation, drainage from the city surface was inadequate, resulting in large bodies of standing and pathogenic water. These conditions caused numerous epidemics, including typhoid fever and dysentery, which blighted Chicago six years in a row culminating in the 1854 outbreak of cholera that killed six percent of the city’s population.[2][3][4][5]

The crisis forced the city's engineers and aldermen to take the drainage problem seriously and after many heated discussions[6][7]—and following at least one false start—a solution eventually materialized. In 1856, engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough drafted a plan for the installation of a citywide sewerage system and submitted it to the Common Council, which adopted the plan. Workers then laid drains, covered and refinished roads and sidewalks with several feet of soil, and raised most buildings on screwjacks to the new grade.

Many of the city's old wooden buildings were considered not worth raising, so instead the owners of these wooden buildings had them either demolished or else placed on rollers and moved to the outskirts of Chicago. Business activities in such buildings continued, as they were being moved.[8]

Raisings of buildings[edit]

Earliest raising of a brick building[edit]

In January 1858, the first masonry building in Chicago to be thus raised—a four-story, 70-foot-long (21 m), 750-ton (680 metric tons) 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.”[9] It was the first of more than fifty comparably large masonry buildings to be raised that year.[10] The contractor was an engineer from Boston, James Brown, who went on to partner with Chicago engineer James Hollingsworth; Brown and Hollingsworth became the first and, it seems, the busiest building raising partnership in the city. By the year-end, they were lifting brick buildings more than 100 feet (30 m) long,[11] and the following spring they took the contract to raise a brick block of more than twice that length.[12]

The Row on Lake Street[edit]

Raising a block of buildings on Lake Street

In 1860, a consortium of no fewer than six engineers—including Brown, Hollingsworth and George Pullman—co-managed a project to raise half a city block on Lake Street, between Clark Street and LaSalle Street completely and in one go. This was 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.[13] It had a footprint taking up almost one acre (4,000 m2) of space, and an estimated total weight—including hanging sidewalks—of 35,000 tons.[14] Businesses operating in these premises were not closed down during the operation; as the buildings were being raised, people came, went, shopped and worked in them as they would ordinarily do. In five days the entire assembly was elevated 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 m), by a team consisting of six hundred men using six thousand jackscrews,[15] which made it 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.[16]

The Tremont House[edit]

The following year the consortium of engineers Ely, Smith and Pullman led a team that raised the Tremont House hotel on the south-east corner of Lake Street and Dearborn Street.[17] This six-story brick building was luxuriously appointed, and had an area of over 1 acre (4,000 m2). Once again business as usual was maintained as this large hotel ascended.[18][19] Some of the guests staying there at the time—among whose number were several VIPs and a US Senator[20] were oblivious to the process as five hundred men worked under covered trenches operating their five thousand jackscrews.[21] 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.[22] This hotel building, which until just the previous year had been the tallest building in Chicago, was raised 6 feet (1.8 m) without incident.[23][24][25]

The Robbins Building[edit]

On the corner of South Water Street and Wells Street stood the Robbins Building, an iron building 150 feet (46 m) long, 80 feet (24 m) wide and five stories high. 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 (24,000 metric 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 sidewalk outside it. The complete mass of iron and masonry was raised 27.5 inches (0.70 m), “without the slightest crack or damage.”[26][27][28][29][30]

Hydraulic raising of the Franklin House[edit]

In 1860 the Franklin House, a four story brick building on Franklin Street, was raised with hydraulic apparatus by the engineer John C. Lane,[31][32] of the Lane and Stratton partnership of San Francisco. Californian engineers had been using hydraulic jacks to raise brick buildings in and around San Francisco as early as 1853.[33][34][35]

Relocated buildings[edit]

Raising the Briggs House, a brick hotel, in 1866.[36][37][38]

Many of central Chicago’s hurriedly-erected wooden frame buildings were now considered 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, “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.” The function for which such a building had been constructed would often be maintained during the move, with people dining, shopping and working in these buildings as they were rollered down the street.[39][40][41][42] Brick buildings also were moved from one location to another, and in 1866, the first of these—a brick building of two and a half stories—made the short move from Madison Street out to Monroe Street.[43] Later, many other much larger brick buildings were rolled much greater distances across Chicago.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, January 29, 1858". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  2. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, July 12, 1854". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  3. ^ "Putnam's Monthly Magazine, volume seven. (June 1856), page 610". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  4. ^ "George Healy. Reminiscences of a Portrait Painter. A.C. McClurg and Company, Chicago. 1894. Pages 58 and 59". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  5. ^ "John Lewis Peyton. Over the Alleghanies and across the Prairies. Simpkin, Marshall & Co., Stationers' Hall Court, London. 1869. Pages 326-327". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  6. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, May 31, 1855". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  7. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, April 9, 1857". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  8. ^ The Time They Lifted Chicago Fourteen Feet enjoyillinois website,. December 3, 2018.
  9. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, January 26, 1858". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  10. ^ "Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, January 1, 1859". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  11. ^ "Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, October 4, 1858". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  12. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), May 5, 1859". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  13. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), March 9, 1860". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  14. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), April 2, 1860". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  15. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), March 26, 1860". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  16. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), March 29, 1860". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  17. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, January 22, 1861". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  18. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, January 24, 1861". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  19. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, February 12, 1861". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  20. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, February 26, 1861 (01)". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  21. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, February 26, 1861 (02)". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  22. ^ "David Macrae, The Americans at Home: Pen-and-Ink Sketches of American Men, Manners and Institutions, Volume Two (of two), Edmonston & Douglas, 1870, pages 190-193, and reprinted by Lost Cause Press, Louisville, 1964". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  23. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, February 27, 1861". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  24. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, March 15, 1861". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  25. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, July 26, 1861". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  26. ^ "Chicago Tribune, October 31, 1865". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  27. ^ "Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1865". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  28. ^ "Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1865". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  29. ^ "Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1865". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  30. ^ "The Times (London), December 12, 1865". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  31. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), April 30, 1860". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  32. ^ "Cedar Falls Gazette, Cedar Falls, Iowa. May 11, 1860".
  33. ^ "Daily Alta California. January 18, 1854".
  34. ^ "The Weekly Placer Herald. Placer County, California. March 25th, 1854". Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  35. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), July 14, 1859". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  36. ^ "Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1866". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  37. ^ "Chicago Post, February 7, 1866".
  38. ^ "Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1866".
  39. ^ "David Macrae, The Americans at Home: Pen-and-Ink Sketches of American Men, Manners and Institutions, Volume Two (of two), Edmonston & Douglas, 1870, pages 190-193, and reprinted by Lost Cause Press, Louisville, 1964". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  40. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1856". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  41. ^ "Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, December 20, 1858". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  42. ^ "The Press and Tribune (Chicago), April 12, 1860". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  43. ^ "Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1866". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  44. ^ "Sturgis' Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture and Building, columns 495-505. Published in 1901-2, and reprinted in 1989 by Dover Publications, Inc., 31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, New York 11501". Retrieved July 21, 2019.

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