Thursday, June 25, 2020

Raising a City

Chicago was originally built along the banks of Lake Michigan. It was a low marshy area and as the size of the city grew the lack of drainage created a sewer problem that resulted in a series of cholera outbreaks. By the 1850s the issue became severe enough that a sewer system was proposed. The problem was that everything had been built right at the water table and there was no drainage below the buildings.

The solution was to raise the city. Wooden homes were often relocated, sold and moved out of the new city center so that new masonry buildings could be built on new foundations at the new grade. But the larger buildings were raised. Teams of hundreds of men with thousands of jacks dug out under the stone and iron buildings and jacked them up to a new level. The streets were then filled in to the new grade.

By 1860, confidence was sufficiently high that a consortium of no fewer than six engineers; including James Brown, James Hollingsworth and George Pullman took on one of the most impressive locations in the city and hoisted it up complete and in one go. They lifted half a city block on Lake Street, between Clark Street and LaSalle Street; a solid masonry row of shops, offices, printer shops, etc., 320 feet long, comprising brick and stone buildings, some four stories high, some five, having a footprint taking up almost one acre of space, and an estimated all in weight including hanging sidewalks of thirty five thousand tons.

Businesses operating out of these premises were not closed down for the lifting; as the buildings were being raised, people came, went, shopped and worked in them as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. In five days the entire assembly was elevated 4 feet 8 inches clear in the air by a team consisting of six hundred men using six thousand jackscrews, 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.
It wasn't impossible because they believed they could.


libertyman said...

Many thanks for this article ASM826, I did not know about this at all.

Another compelling reason to visit this blog! I will have to get some more information on this feat. Was the R.R. Donnelly building raised, I wonder?

Great post!

Greg said...

Fascinating. And I'd never heard of it either. Now why hasn't the same been done for New Orleans--the parts below sea level?

Cederq said...

That couldn't be done today, environmental studies, OSHA having their hand in, mud darter wacko environmental hippies, state agencies and NIMBY loons... That whole city block would be shut down for safety and and maybe the surrounding streets blocked with big construction equipment and lay down yards. They did it with jacks and timbers, not today.

ASM826 said...


The point of the posts precisely. It would not be done today. Because reasons. It does not matter what reasons. I am picking out stories from America's past. Maybe one day someone will read them and remember.


Old NFO said...

Interesting piece of history!

waepnedmann said...

I spent a good portion of younger years in the construction business.
I am constantly in awe when I see the works that our ancestors built without the aid of power tools, hydraulic rams for jacks and cranes, trucks for transportation, and optics and lazers for layout.
The scope and quality of the details of the workmanship is astounding.

Eric Wilner said...

I seem to recall (dimly, from a visit in the mid-1980s) that parts of Seattle are one floor higher than the original level, but I think that was a case of adding on top of the buildings and raising the streets, not lifting up existing buildings from the bottom. (Likewise Ankh-Morpork, of course.)
The development of cities is a topic filled with surprises!

Richard said...

Can we lower it again? No more Chicago. We could just retroactively apply the environment laws.

Ted said...

In the 1850's large sections of Boston Harbor were filled in to create more taxable Land. That process is also the reason for a 4 story limit on the size of buildings. Many foundations in Boston are essentially boats that "float" in the filled land. When they built the John Hancock Tower in 1970 the Pilings went down to bedrock. But as they drove the piles through the filled land the whole area felt the vibrations. I was working 3 blocks away and when I went to the file room in the basement, you could feel the floor move with every stroke,

FredLewers said...

Sounds like redneck engineering. I wish I had a nickel for every time I either made a tool or did some project without the essential tool that EVERYBODY said I HAD TO HAVE to complete the project. Rigging and cargo handling is a really interesting field.

ProudHillbilly said...

Amazing! Thank you!