Raising Chicago – how the City of Chicago defeated flooding in the 1850s

Raising a block of buildings on Lake Street. Public domain image,  Edward Mendel - Chicago Historical Society
Raising a block of buildings on Lake Street. Public domain image,
Edward Mendel – Chicago Historical Society

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

In the 1800s the City of Chicago had a problem. The city rests on low lying marshlands, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Floods were frequent, mud was everywhere, and poor sanitation created ideal conditions for frequent lethal cholera epidemics.

According to the Chicago Tribune;

As Chicago boomed in the 1850s, growing into a major lake port and industrial center, mud became a major problem. The lakeshore marsh on which the city was being built seemed bottomless. A popular story of the time had it that a passerby came upon a man whose head and shoulders protruded from the muck in the middle of the street. “Can I help?” asked the passerby. “No, thank you,” replied the man. “I have a fine horse under me.”

Read more: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-raisingstreets-story-story.html

The situation was deadly. The muddy, waterlogged conditions were a perfect breeding ground for cholera. The Chicago Tribune reports that in 1854, a cholera epidemic killed 5% of the population.

A solution had to be found. A sanitation system would mitigate the cholera problem – but much of the city was within 3-4 ft of the waterline of Lake Michigan. The sanitation pipes would not have enough of a downhill gradient to carry the waste away.

So the city fathers embarked on a project of breathtaking engineering ambition. They decided to lift the low lying areas of the city up to 14ft out of the mud, to give the sanitation pipes the downhill gradient they needed to function, and to protect the city from flooding.

Over a period of almost two decades, Chicago’s buildings were jacked up 4 to 14 feet, higher foundations were built beneath them, the storm sewers were placed on top of the streets, and the streets were then filled up to the level of the front doors of the raised buildings. To raise larger buildings, an enterprising newcomer to the city named George Pullman perfected a method involving hundreds of men turning thousands of large jackscrews at the same time. Many smaller structures, especially houses, were simply moved to new locations. “Never a day passed,” noted a visitor at the time, “that I did not meet one or more houses shifting their quarters. One day I met nine.”

Read more: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-raisingstreets-story-story.html

Many of the buildings which were raised were large – according to Wikipedia, one of the larger buildings which was elevated, the Robbins Building, weighed an estimated 27,000 tons.

Next time someone tells you that a sea level rise of a few ft might force us to abandon coastal cities, tell them about the raising of Chicago. Even if the worst fears of climate alarmists were realised, which seems a deeply unlikely prospect, it is inconceivable that we couldn’t do today, what the American people using 1850s technology achieved, while working on a foundation of muddy marshland.

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April 25, 2015 1:06 am

I watched a TV show about this some time back. Remarkable achievement at the time considering. And talking of coastal cities, property and sea level rises, we have the likes of Gore, Gillard, Rudd, Flannery etc etc all have very large, very expensive sea side properties.

Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 9:00 am

“I watched a TV show about this some time back” –
This TV show was probably Steven Johnson’s Technology and Innovation series – How we got to Now.
The “Clean” episode – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keKPrLYxYgA
… discusses this wonderful Chicago innovation of cleaning up the city’s sewerage.
I have shown this episode in my Science classes here in Sweden to all my 12-15 year old students.
A wonderful positive viewpoint about human ingenuity 🙂
Implications for technology and culture of this Clean up Chicago innovation can also be seen on Vimeo here –

Reply to  Brady
April 25, 2015 12:02 pm

No, no, I am not sure. It may have been Stephen Fry…dunno! May have been James May…dunno. Simply don’t recall that level of detail.
PS. I don’t believe everything I see and hear on a TV show, I like to look up and backup their [references], but there are some hosts that are more worthy than others, Stephen Fry and James May fall in to the category of “more worthy”. The others I am sure you can work out for yourself are, not [worthy].

Reply to  Brady
April 25, 2015 12:03 pm

Wrothy???! Oh ‘com on mods…make my wrothy worthy!
[Why? Do you need to re-write rightly wrongly written worthy words wrung so wrongly from earlier wrought written words that they knead righting of their wrongly written but worthy prior words first written wrongly yet still worthy of being un-wrongly written rightly should they be suddenly re-written rightly worthy words of right repute? .mod]

Reply to  Brady
April 25, 2015 12:51 pm

Smart adz!

Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 10:05 am

And look at Chicago today… it is an example of how human though and effort can raise grandiose things from dust. Honestly, I’m just thankful that they decided to ‘keep’ Chicago back then!

Reply to  Ayesha
April 25, 2015 1:17 pm

Or Obama.

Phil Cartier
Reply to  Ayesha
April 25, 2015 5:37 pm

There is something similar in Atlanta- not quite sure why, but “Underground Atlanta” is a 12 acre 5 block area where the original streets/railroad tracks were decked over in the 1920’s with the old first floors turned into basements. In the 1960’s it was “discovered” and gradually turned into an underground playground of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other music venues.

Reply to  Ayesha
April 26, 2015 5:38 am

Now I know about the raising of Chicago, can someone tell me about the lowering of Detroit.

Alan the Brit
April 25, 2015 1:50 am

I never knew that! Oh how the ingenuity of Humanity amazes me constantly. That the greenalists want to stifle & destroy it is incredible! What a shame we are threatened constantly by such wickedness.

Reply to  Alan the Brit
April 25, 2015 6:01 am

The city of Galveston was raised 16 feet following the 1900 hurricane. 105 years later, following hurricane Katrina, that average elevation of New Orleans remains 1-2 feet below sea level.
Why is it that 100+ years ago, using horses and manual labor, two cities were rebuilt higher. But in modern times, using advanced technology, such a thing is impossible?

Reply to  ferdberple
April 25, 2015 6:39 am

Why is that? ….. Political stagnation.
Politics is now all about chasing the popularist vote with stupid hairbrained schemes of no consequence. The UK Labour government managed to bankrupt the nation while not producing a single infrastructure project of national import. No airports, roads, rails, ports, pipeline or city was built. Not one.
And then when it rained and we had floods, or when it snowed and could not clear it, they said ‘how did that happen’ ?? The answer is simple, modern politicians and senior civil servants are numskull slaves to culture and correctness (which is where most of the money went), but don’t have a clue about creating or running a nation. We need a new broom…

Bubba Cow
Reply to  ferdberple
April 25, 2015 8:20 am

1. invite disaster
2. lay blame
3. presume heroics
US has a wannabe claiming she will be our hero … have read (consider source) she can’t make coffee

Reply to  ferdberple
April 25, 2015 12:04 pm

One teeny tiny correction: it’s not ‘hairbrained’, but ‘harebrained.’

Reply to  ferdberple
April 25, 2015 2:34 pm

Brain of a rabbit, eh?
Ok, thanks, noted.
[The mods are debating the terms: Is it a hare-brained scheme to pull a stupid rabbit out of one’s hat, or a smart rabbit from a stupid hat? Or a smart-alek back from a hair-brained scheme? .mod]

John F. Hultquist
Reply to  ferdberple
April 25, 2015 7:54 pm

“. . .using horses and manual labor . . .
… and a railroad. … and self-loading hopper dredges. … and . . .
Just so there is historical accuracy.

Reply to  ferdberple
April 26, 2015 5:59 am

Why is it that 100+ years ago, using horses and manual labor, two cities were rebuilt higher. But in modern times, using advanced technology, such a thing is impossible?

I have my Grandfather’s “Cycopedia of Engineering”, quite amazing seeing the level of ingenuity, used by our Grandfather’s to overcome the limitations of the available technologies. Additionally what we have now is often a refinement of what we had a century or more ago, the limitations of the available technologies isn’t as great as our hubris would have us believe.

Reply to  Alan the Brit
April 25, 2015 10:02 am

Exactly! and look at Chicago today.. such a blooming country. It would have been a disgrace if the city would have been destroyed! Even today, potential gold mines of places are being dismantled without thought. An immensely thought provoking article!

Hot under the collar
Reply to  Ayesha
April 25, 2015 2:03 pm

Max Photon,
I believe ‘harebrained’ and ‘hairbrained’ are still in use due to ‘hair’ being an historical variant spelling of ‘hare’.

Reply to  Ayesha
April 25, 2015 4:23 pm

I just checked my 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition — 1.2 meters of raw word power — and it agrees with you.
However, the OED hints that ‘hair-brained’ may have a different origin for the compound.
So Ralfellis is correct … or perhaps better, not incorrect 🙂
I suspect you’d agree that ‘hare-brained’ — having the brain of a hare — makes a bit more sense than ‘hair-brained’, which sounds like a brain sporting the latest ‘do.
At the moment I have a cold and I took an antihistamine, and it has made me feel very fuzzy, so in this instance ‘hair-brained’ might be the perfect term.

Reply to  Ayesha
April 26, 2015 11:10 pm

“I just checked my 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition”
As one should. It is the One True Dictionary.

Reply to  Ayesha
April 27, 2015 6:34 pm

It’s fun owning the 20 volume set.
Everyone thinks its an encyclopedia. It’s really interesting to see a guest’s expression when he or she begins to realize it’s actually a dictionary.
Plus, it makes me look smart … (or, at least, less stupid).

Reply to  Ayesha
April 27, 2015 6:38 pm

it’s an encyclopedia …
(See what I mean?)
Pamela, will you be my proof-rudder?

April 25, 2015 2:02 am

An uplifting story indeed. Thanks.

April 25, 2015 2:17 am

Didn’t Seattle do something similar.Tthey didn’t raise the buidlings but raised the street levels so that the first floor became the ground floor. There are now tours that go underground along the interconnecting original ground floors. Maybe locals can give a more accurate & detailed account of this achievement

Reply to  Harrowsceptic
April 25, 2015 3:52 am

They didn’t raise the buildings but they did raise the street.

Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 6:54 am

Fascinating! Thanks for posting!

Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 7:26 am

Yep. And they now run tours through those old abandoned levels that were once at street level. Not the most delightful tour I’ve ever been on.

Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 7:39 am

Those old abandoned levels, many decades back, were where opium addicts hung out.

Two Labs
Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 7:52 am

I rather enjoyed my tour od the Seattle underground.

Two Labs
Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 7:54 am

Sacramento had the same idea, though I think they abandoned their underground at the time.

Jerry Howard
Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 8:00 am

That is right. Several years ago, while waiting in the bar of a downtown Chicago restaurant for a table to become available, I realized there was something odd about several old photographs on the wall. After a couple of trips to the front door and back to the photographs, I realized that the street level outside, was the second story of all the buildings in the photos. The major difference was that doorways had replaced some of the second floor windows.

Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 11:35 am

On the Seattle Underground tour is one of the original ground floor toilets that had to sit on a platform raised four feet off the floor. Otherwise, the (one hundred fifty years ago) storm drain/sewer line would back flow when the tide came in.

Reply to  commieBob
April 25, 2015 12:00 pm

Sacramento did the same, though the city was much smaller then.

Reply to  commieBob
April 26, 2015 3:50 pm

Sacramento had a slightly different problem, so a slightly different solution. IIRC, Sacto didn’t have marshy ground or drainage problems, but rather yearly floods due to the river beds being raised 10 feet by hydraulic gold mining. So they just started using the second story as the new downtown ground level, and raised the ground outside the buildings, often leaving a tunnel under the new ground level. This led to lots of rumors of opium dens in those tunnels. But the point is that they did what had to be done themselves, without expecting the feds to do it for them, or even to organize it.

Mike McMillan
Reply to  Harrowsceptic
April 25, 2015 8:03 am

That’s what Venice had been doing for the past centuries, just moving everything upstairs. Worked just fine until they became more enlightened and quit doing it.

Just an engineer
Reply to  Mike McMillan
April 27, 2015 10:47 am
Joe Crawford
Reply to  Harrowsceptic
April 25, 2015 11:39 am

So did Atlanta. I didn’t live there so I’m not sure why they did it, but what was once street level became Underground Atlanta, full of neat bars and great restaurants (at least back in the late 60’s and early 70’s).

April 25, 2015 2:36 am

OT..several hours ago there was a 7.9 quake in Nepal. There have been a total of 14 quakes in the last 2.75 hours. Before I signed off around 3 hours ago, I was almost going to say something about the likelihood of a large quake striking. I watch the daily quake maps. I slept for a few and then awoke, and realized I should get up for a few hours and retry sleep later. What a surprise to see Nepal ringing like a bell. This looks like it was strong enough to shut down the normal quakes elsewhere around the globe. All of the aftershocks are over 4.5 magnitude. This is still ongoing.

Reply to  goldminor
April 25, 2015 2:56 am

There are reports of heavy damage and over a hundred dead so far.

Reply to  goldminor
April 25, 2015 4:06 am

The death toll is now close to 500, with no news from towns near the epicenter. This is all from Kathmandu at this point…http://earthquake-report.com/2015/04/25/massive-earthquake-nepal-on-april-25-2015/

Reply to  goldminor
April 25, 2015 11:06 am

7.9, Thats a big one and given the region, quite severe for locals. I hope all my Nepalese friends are OK. I was once looked after by a Nepalese nurse in hospital here in Sydney by the name of “Monna”. She was tiny and had to deal with me when I was about 105kgs (230lbs in old money) in weight.

D.J. Hawkins
Reply to  Patrick
April 27, 2015 2:38 pm

Or about 16.5 stone…

Reply to  goldminor
April 25, 2015 11:57 am

When is Nepal going to stop fracking?

Bloke down the pub
April 25, 2015 2:55 am

Not the last time Chicago was screwed up.

Reply to  Bloke down the pub
April 25, 2015 7:37 am

Good one Bloke.

April 25, 2015 3:13 am

At this time I believe the largest “skyscraper” in the US was in Chicago. I don’t recall all of the details but it was brick built, walls a couple of feet wider at the base compared to the top. And it too was lifted.

Keith Willshaw
Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 3:53 am

The largest building in the USA in 1850 was the 130ft Jayne building in Philadelphia. It took the invention of the safety elevator by Elisha Otis in 1852 to make the skyscraper a practical proposition for office or residential use,

Reply to  Keith Willshaw
April 25, 2015 4:01 am

You maybe correct, but this is the building I was thinking of (And if I recall correctly was featured in the program. Seems logical as the program was about rasing of the city);
As I said I don’t (Didn’t) recall all the details, it had a steel structure with brick cladding as per, credible, link.

Coach Springer
Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 7:46 am

You might be mixing two Chicago buildings together. The brick one with walls much thicker at the bottom, the Monadnock Building , still stands.

Reply to  Coach Springer
April 25, 2015 8:24 am

Could well be, as I say in my post, I don’t recall of the details and may well have been two documentaries on Chicago and how it was raised and the birth of modern skyscrapers. I did said “skyscraper”. It was some time ago now. However, in the link I post suggests that the first “skyscraper” was built in Chicago, the “father” of “skyscrapers”, but don’t tell sialors that eh! The Guinness Book of Records is a credible source IMO. The Monadnock Building was at the limits of brick only construction for tall buildings at the time, which is why I mention the dimentions bottom and top. Just memory of the programs a little foggy these days!
In fact I think there is a building in Manchester, England (Again I vaguely recall), that predates these Chicago steel framed, stone/brick clad buildings. Don’t ask me to name it! In fact there is a construction that predates that, in terms of steel frame/stone cladding, it’s called Tower Bridge, in London. That I do know!
And yes, believe it or not, there are plans to raise various buildings in London (The London Barrier for one) due to…you guessed it…sea level rise and climate change. Let’s not worry about the south east of England sinking and has been since Roman times!

Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 8:24 am

The raising of Chicago was done in the 1850s and 1860s. The skyscraper was erected in 1885.

Reply to  Taphonomic
April 25, 2015 2:46 pm

Tapho old chap – many thanks.
And – Tower Bridge was built 1886–1894, so certainly post-dating at least the earliest sky-scrapers, even if it is more recognisable.

Reply to  Taphonomic
April 27, 2015 1:29 pm

Leaning tower of Pisa at 183 feet is interesting to look at.

Evan Jones
April 25, 2015 3:21 am

A very interesting perspective. It also touches on the “consequence” end of things — they are never a tenth as bad as portrayed even in the unlikely case that a crisis even occurs.

April 25, 2015 3:25 am

Another day with a new fact. Thanks a lot.
What a screw jack did then hydraulics can do now, with fewer men.

Reply to  johnmarshall
April 25, 2015 9:54 am

Maybe. I have used what I know as “acro props” (Same thing). If you want something to stay propped up for a long while, years even, you use a solid mecanical device like a screw jack.

April 25, 2015 3:30 am

The city of Galveston undertook a similar project after the 1900 hurricane. The grade of the island was raised 10 – 17 feet and a seawall built.

Ed Zuiderwijk
April 25, 2015 4:26 am

An alternative would have been to put in the foundations before starting to build. That’s what they did several hundred years ago and still do in Amsterdam.
Now I remove my tongue from my cheek.

April 25, 2015 5:25 am

Great achievement, but why did they build in a marsh at the beginning?

Reply to  Chris4692
April 25, 2015 5:54 am

“why did they build in a marsh?”
Chicago politics. Some things never change.

Reply to  TonyL
April 25, 2015 6:09 am

“why did they build in a marsh?”
hey buddy, I’ve got some land I’ll sell you at a good price.

Reply to  Chris4692
April 25, 2015 6:57 am

Natural harbor, natural crossing of trade routes? I don’t know, but those are frequent reasons. My hometown Braunschweig in Germany started in a swap about 1200 years ago; the swamp around the settlement being natural protection against marauding hordes of the time.

Reply to  DirkH
April 25, 2015 6:57 am

..in a swamp, not in a swap. typo.

Reply to  Chris4692
April 25, 2015 8:09 am

Louisiana springs to mind.

Reply to  Chris4692
April 25, 2015 12:50 pm

The site was chosen for Ft. Dearborn & later the City of Chicago because of the Chicago Portage, so basically because of transportation.

Steve from Rockwood
April 25, 2015 5:29 am

Great story, especially the last paragraph. Now why can’t New Orleans get screwed up?

Reply to  Steve from Rockwood
April 25, 2015 5:51 am

My poor old memory does not work as well as it used to, but. I remember, back in the day, New Orleans had a subsistence rate of 10 ft./century. When the levees and dikes were built, the extra weight caused the subsistence rate to double to 20 ft./century. That sort of thing just does not help the cause.
The city used to be called “Crescent City”, after the crescent dune the old city was built on. Built high up on the sand bar, the buildings were safe from the storms and flooding which the city currently endures. That old section of the city up on the crescent is now known as the “French Quarter”. Perhaps people knew what they were doing, back in the day.

Steve from Rockwood
Reply to  TonyL
April 25, 2015 7:57 am

TonyL. Google tells me New Orleans is sinking at a rate that varies between 5mm and 25mm per year – it’s greatest under the levees. That works out to about 1.5 – 8 feet per century. I think it has more to do with money. Chicago has a lot of it. New Orleans not so much. Erosion and subsidence are supposed to turn New Orleans into an island within 80-100 years.
In theory New Orleans could jack most of the buildings up 4 to 14 ft like Chicago and build a bridge to the mainland. But I suspect after the next major hurricane they’ll just pack it in or turn it into a diver’s paradise.

Reply to  Steve from Rockwood
April 25, 2015 3:40 pm

They are already.

G. Karst
April 25, 2015 5:59 am

We cannot engineer climate yet, but we are very good at engineering buildings, drainage, transportation and food production. We should stick to what we are good at. GK

Coach Springer
Reply to  G. Karst
April 25, 2015 7:48 am

Chicago also reversed the flow of a river.

Bohdan Burban
Reply to  Coach Springer
April 25, 2015 8:44 am

Thereby sending their poo down the Mississippi to New Orleans …

April 25, 2015 6:45 am

Being a lateral thinker, I would ask ‘why did they bother’? Sounds like a lot of work to me.
Why not close off all the ground stories of each building, raise the road-level, and make the second-floor into the first-floor (or in UK terms, make the first-floor into the ground-floor).

Pierre DM
Reply to  ralfellis
April 25, 2015 9:27 am

Chicago and the supporting infrastructures at that time were largely made of wood.

April 25, 2015 6:54 am

@ G. Karst: Precisely

Bill Illis
April 25, 2015 7:52 am

Chicago was built right where Lake Michigan used to drain south into the Mississippi River during the ice ages and until about 9,000 years ago when outflow to the ocean became possible through the St. Lawrence River or through Hudson Bay.
In fact, all the Great Lakes drained south through the Mississippi until this time.
One can see this in a large version of a shaded relief map. Lake Michigan was much larger at one time and Lake Erie was many times larger. Lake Huron, Lake Superior and Lake Ontario all flowed south as well.
Now a high-res Zoom-in of the Chicago area. One can see the little white bump where the city was built up and even the Illinois and Michigan Canal built in 1848 that used to allow shipping down the Mississippi drainage system and allowed Chicago to become a major centre. It didn’t take much to build the canal since the water flowed here all by itself not long ago.

Coach Springer
Reply to  Bill Illis
April 25, 2015 8:02 am

Cool relief map. Midwest Waterworld?

Reply to  Bill Illis
April 25, 2015 8:49 am

It’s more complicated than that. During the ice ages the area was covered in ice. During glacial retreats, Pleistocene Lake Chicago filled the current Lake Michigan basin. Both lakes drained to the Mississippi until isostatic rebound caused the river flow to reverse back into Lake Michigan. Engineering in 1900 reversed the flow back into the Mississippi watershed.

Reply to  Bill Illis
April 26, 2015 5:42 am

Global warming strikes again.

Coach Springer
April 25, 2015 7:57 am

One other thing has changed. A project today would have to be run by a number of governments in combination with a number of environmentalist and political interest groups increasing the ineffectiveness by the hundreds and the costs by the thousands. Also, the degree of graft and ineptitude is inversely proportional to the degree of necessity. We aren’t at that tipping point.
On a different note, how would the world react to raising Venice?

Reply to  Coach Springer
April 25, 2015 9:34 am

Isn’t Venice “known” as the “floating city”?

Tom J
April 25, 2015 8:00 am

‘…it is inconceivable that we couldn’t do today, what the American people using 1850s technology achieved, while working on a foundation of muddy marshland.’
Um, in all due respect I think it would be utterly impossible to do today. I’ll explain:
(Yes, the DOA. See below)
• US Dept. of Commerce
• Bureau of Economic Analysis
• Economic Development
• Minority Business Development
• Office of Community Planning and
• Office of Healthy Homes
• Office of Sustainable Communities
• Bureau of Land Management
• Bureau of Safety and Environmenta
Oh, and of course…THE EPA
And then there’s the Wetlands Act. WWF. Greenpeace. EDC. Earth First. NIMBY.
And I have little doubt that I’ve only captured 1/4 of the Federal Agencies, Local Zoning Boards, NGOs, political
corruption, cronyism, kickbacks, etc., etc. that will stop the process.
Just kidding. Well, … maybe not.

Reply to  Tom J
April 25, 2015 8:09 am

Not to mention the fact that the population is 100x what it was in 1850, infrastructure is more sophisticated, and that it be cheaper to avoid (mitigate) than adapt?

Reply to  Kit Carruthers
April 25, 2015 1:11 pm

You want to avoid the predictions of unreliable computer models come true? How’d you wanna do that? It’s impossible. A warmunist scientist has just shown that the models that replicate the current pause in warming agree 100% with the models that fail at that in their prediction that 2100 will be catastrophically warm. So we can conclude that no matter what happens, 2100 will be catastrophic (because that’s what their programmed to predict). No chance. Make your will.

Steve P
April 25, 2015 8:06 am

I‘m glad to see the seemingly Indefatigable Eric Worrall report on this story, but I wish he had gone a lot further with it, as the story is replete with unintended consequences. Chicago has prospered, but the cost downstate is difficult to know.
The main connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River is a humble body of water known as the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi, above St. Louis, and drains a large portion of Illinois, but if you read the popular press, such as
you’ll find the the Illinois River is not even mentioned.
Here I will attempt to rectify some of these oversights.

In 1838, Captain Howard Stansbury described the Illinois River Valley as “one to five miles wide, deeply overflowed in every freshet, filled with bayous, ponds, and swamps, and infested with wild beasts.” (Mulvill and Cornish, 1929:27)
The Illinois River stretches from northeast Illinois, where the Kankakee and Des Plaines Rivers come together, to Alton in southwest Illinois, where it empties into the Mississippi River. The Illinois River basin covers more than 32,000 square miles. The river itself is 272.4 miles long, with such a gradual slope that the river moves quite slowly, too slowly to remove much of the silt entering it from the higher-sloping headwaters. The silt builds up along the shores, forming barriers after the annual flooding. Human interactions with the river have taxed the resources and physical makeup of the river.

By the time of Captain Stansbury’s report, the original inhabitants of the valley had been vanquished. The survivors “sold” their lands to Uncle Sam, and shuffled off to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma. Illinois became a state in 1818.
The tale of the native people of Illinois is fascinating, but heartbreaking. They were a fleet-footed people who called themselves the Inoka, but are more commonly known as the Illini, and consisted of several associated but independent tribes which made seasonal moves from valley to prairie of waterways stretching from the Ohio to the Mississippi and on into Iowa. Wiki lists these tribes as:

… the Kaskaskia, the Cahokia, the Peoria, the Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Albiui, Amonokoa, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, Matchinkoa, Michibousa, Negawichi, and Tapouara

These are the Lost Tribes of Illinois, and although European accounts of these people are sparse. we may at least be sure that they are factual.
Today the Illinois is filled with silt, including some of the best topsoil on Earth, now being processed by bullheads and Asian Carp. Only constant dredging keeps the barge channels open.
Silt slowly burying river town
Army Corps of Engineers’ project has stolen Beardstown’s riverfront and closed its marina
The combined Lake Michigan-Chicago-Des Plaines-Illinois rivers waterway also provides cooling water for one of the largest concentrations of nuclear power anywhere.
The geology of this part of the world is also quite interesting:

South of Hennepin, the Illinois River is following the ancient channel of the Mississippi River. The Illinoian Stage, about 300,000 to 132,000 years ago, blocked the Mississippi near Rock Island, diverting it into its present channel. After the glacier melted, the Illinois River flowed into the ancient channel. The Hennepin Canal roughly follows the ancient channel of the Mississippi upstream of Rock Island.
The modern channel of the Illinois River was shaped in a matter of days by the Kankakee Torrent. During the melting of the Wisconsin Glacier about 10,000 years ago, a lake formed in present-day Indiana, comparable to one of the modern Great Lakes. The lake formed behind the terminal moraine of a substage of that glacier.[5] Melting ice to the north eventually raised the level of the lake so that it overflowed the moraine. The dam burst, and the entire volume of the lake was released in a very short time, perhaps a few days.
Because of the manner of its formation, the Illinois River runs through a deep canyon with many rock formations. It has an “underutilized channel”, one far larger than would be needed to contain any conceivable flow in modern times.

Illinois is also the state where former Gov. Rod Blagojevich rots in prison for having had the audacity to take on the big bankers.

Reply to  Steve P
April 25, 2015 9:30 am

Steve, I live close to the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in a bluff area where >200 ft. bluffs are carved out with sheer cliffs that afford a panorama of the river valleys below. We find plenty of evidence of Indigenous populations on the well-defendable high ground. The Piasa bird fable originated in this area:
It is hard to imagine the Illinois river valley full of water and brings a sense of awe to boat on it and see the bluffs so distant from the rivers edge, thinking of 200 ft. deep raging water cutting the path.

Steve P
Reply to  Dawtgtomis
April 26, 2015 4:19 pm

Dawtgtomis, Thanks for that link & images. Many of the tribes were at war, but there was peace between tribes too, symbolized by the calumet, which allowed a brave to pass through enemy territory.
I thought I was going to be able to drop a good link here, but the Inoka Project pages at Parkland College seem to have gone offline. Included therein was the DeGannes Memoir, which took a little digging around to find:

In 1691, nine years after LaSalle and Tonti had constructed Fort St. Louis, the French moved
their post from Le Rocher (Starved Rock) to Lake Pimiteoui. The evidence for this beginning of
the development of a French presence at the lake and the eventual outpost of Peoria, is a
document known as the “De Gannes Memoir”. Based on the content of the document, it is
known to have been written in the year 1702. The only surviving copy of the document,
however, is dated October 20, 1721 in Montreal, Canada, and is signed by “De Gannes”. While
this signature has caused some confusion over the document, the actual author is believed to
have been Pierre de Liette.

For your rainy day enjoyment.
Being so wide, it’s difficult to get a good photographic impression of the Illinois River valley, but I tried here:
Ice River
photo: Steve P

Steve P
Reply to  Eric Worrall
April 25, 2015 3:20 pm

Eric, thank you. I will certainly consider it if my recent step change in bandwidth & energy continues.

Craig Loehle
April 25, 2015 8:10 am

Part of old Atlanta was elevated about 12-15 ft by building a new set of streets in order to get over all the railroad tracks. The lower level was not filled in but forgotten for decades and then revived in the 1960’s IIRC as a tourist attraction. This idea that a foot or two of sea level rise is the end of the world is just chicken little stuff.

Reply to  Craig Loehle
April 25, 2015 9:06 am

You have it, Craig. It was called “Underground Atlanta.” I ate at a restaurant down there back in the ’60’s. From what I understand it has been locked up for decades, but occasionally someone will float the idea to revive it.

Stevan Makarevich
Reply to  oeman50
April 25, 2015 9:28 am

I remember visiting there in 1992 – is this different from the one you mentioned? http://www.underground-atlanta.com/

Brandon Gates
April 25, 2015 9:06 am

To shamelessly pilfer a question from Stealey: where’s the CBA?

Reply to  Brandon Gates
April 25, 2015 9:31 am

Commonwealth Bank of Australia?

Brandon Gates
Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 10:33 am

Canadian Basketball Association.
(That is a cryptic as a Mosher comment. -mod)

Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 11:23 am

Ahhhh….basketball the solution to all probems, as well as the cause!

Bubba Cow
Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 11:28 am

didn’t know that db was into b’ball
thanks for the info

Brandon Gates
Reply to  Patrick
April 25, 2015 4:29 pm


That is a cryptic as a Mosher comment. -mod

Must be something in the water then.
All: CBA = Cost Benefit Analysis. DB can explain when he’s back from Hiatus.

Jim Butts
April 25, 2015 10:24 am

Another solution would be to build dikes and pump the water out as was done in Holland hundreds of years ago.

April 25, 2015 10:36 am

Thanks for the interesting history! I am always amazed that people choose to build in flood plains and are then surprised to see it flood. Blame climate change or poor planning?

Brandon Gates
Reply to  jim Steele
April 25, 2015 11:10 am

jim Steele,

Blame climate change or poor planning?


Reply to  Brandon Gates
April 25, 2015 11:20 am

Poor (Urban, my insert) planning, you can answer a definite yes. Climate change…the jury is still out, unless you like looking at computer models. So no. There just is not enough “detail” in a computer model.

Brandon Gates
Reply to  Brandon Gates
April 25, 2015 4:34 pm

There just is not enough “detail” in a computer model.

Reply to  Brandon Gates
April 26, 2015 1:50 am

You then agree the current batch of climate models are simply NOT good enough for any useful outcome and should be considered simply as GIGO.

Brandon Gates
Reply to  Brandon Gates
April 26, 2015 10:03 pm

I’m saying if you think that, poor planning would be relying on them to tell you anything good or bad about the future.

April 25, 2015 10:42 am

Forget it in the modern USA. Nobody could afford the engineering, environmental, cultural reports necessary to apply for the permits undergo the public hearings so they can re-engineer; fend off a court case involving the EPA and the endangered species act; and get to work on the funding since they are now 34.8% over budget and haven’t turned a shovel yet! If Native Americans where ever in the vicinity of the project there will be a new round of hearings involving the Army Corps of Engineers and the tribal council causing yet another round court cases and a revisit to the budget and funding because we are now at 57.4% of budget. In the meantime the world moves on and Chicago has now become a wetlands migratory bird refuge!

Steve P
Reply to  fossilsage
April 25, 2015 11:39 am

fossilsage April 25, 2015 at 10:42 am

If Native Americans where ever in the vicinity of the project […]Chicago has now become a wetlands migratory bird refuge!

Yes, there were numerous native American people living in the region. Please see my post upstream, Steve P April 25, 2015 at 8:06 am, where I noted the presence of the Kaskaskia, the Cahokia, the Peoria, the Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Albiui, Amonokoa, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, Matchinkoa, Michibousa, Negawichi, and Tapouara, from Wiki.
Chicago has become a major world metropolis, but the great Mississippi Flyway has been there a little longer than the city I’d suggest to you. Chicago has cleaned up its act some, and the birds appreciate it.

Typically birds use this route because no mountains or ridges of hills block the path over its entire extent. Good sources of water, food, and cover exist over its entire length. About 40% of all North American migrating waterfowl and shorebirds use this route.


Reply to  Steve P
April 25, 2015 3:29 pm

thanks for the historical, cultural, and natural history update on Chicago but at least grin at the crazy amount of expense incurring bureaucracy that stands in the way of getting anything done these days.

Steve P
Reply to  Steve P
April 25, 2015 5:56 pm

fossilsage April 25, 2015 at 3:29 pm
No doubt about it, and Illinois probably as bad as anywhere. Bureaucracies create comfy niches for well-placed cronies to feather their own nests, while creating buffer zones of redundant departments around them to insulate from outside interference, populate with various hacks, family, favorites, and functionaries, mostly inept, who reliably succeed in driving up costs, and slowing everything down.
Unless somebody is getting paid off, and then all the red tape sublimates into green cash, and everything may run smoothly for awhile.
One trick is to call in outside contractors to fix some mess, or detangle some snarl created by the bureaucracy’s rapid growth. Of course, this just slows things down more, but reveals that additional studies are required, and so more funds are allocated to hire experts, create a committee, and study the problem.

Joel O’Bryan
April 25, 2015 11:01 am

Seattle’s waterfront streets and buildings underwent similar transformations. If you visit Seattle, the Underground tour is quite interesting.
God help them though when The Big One hits and sends it all sliding into the Sound.

April 25, 2015 11:16 am

Coincidence: Was just remarking to my spouse how so many of my Illinois genealogy families seemed to get sick and die, the latest one I was looking at this morning was 1854.

April 25, 2015 12:42 pm

Chicago’s work..on drainage, is never ending! See this: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/367.html
But, it’s good. However, back about 10 years ago, there was a phenomenal rain storm. Having CONTROL over drainage, the sewer district opted to allow homes to flood (basements), rather than flood O’hare. This is an interesting study. The damages to the homes was about $500,000,000 (Five Hundred Million!) My Brother had about $20K of work to be done. However, the conservative estimates were that flooding Ohare would cost 10 BILLION plus! So we have a 20:1 exchange. The decision was made…(my Brother’s basement flooded! But he actually AGREES it was the right decision overall.) Ergo, there are always trade offs, but in the long run “we” always survive. NOTHING IS COMPLETELY DEVASTATING!

Reply to  Max Hugoson
April 25, 2015 1:29 pm

London, which I thought had it’s sewage problem “licked” is now building a super sewer that follows the river Thames. This super sewer connects all London sewers and “transports” the “product” to a massive sewer treatment plant. Looking at some of the images recently I can see there is a real sewage problem in London (Again) now as it was in the 50’s and before. I guess building 2500 80+ storey buildings with at least two dunnies (Toilets) and only one place to flush. It’s a shame as there was so much work done to improve water quality on the Thames. Look at any wharf or pier these days, see that “green sea weed”. It’s there for a reason, now.

April 25, 2015 2:46 pm

I guess that explains why Chicago originally had the ‘L’ (elevated train) and not a subway transit system although subways have come downtown in later years.

April 25, 2015 5:16 pm

Where did all the fill come from? Boston filled in the south end with the earth
From a razed hill in boston.

Philip Arlington
April 25, 2015 5:21 pm

This is only viable with the right ground conditions and the right architecture. It couldn’t possibly be done here in London. Dykes and flood barriers could protect many cities though.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
April 26, 2015 1:59 am

Not quite mudflats for London, but very dense clay that compresses very well and ideal for tunneling. The South East and London area was covered in a sea. Over time the deposits were compressed (And possibly why oil has been found underneath Gatwick airport). The Romans found their ideal material for foundations right under their feet. It is still used today and is called Felton, or London Brick.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
April 26, 2015 6:17 pm

Chicago’s largest and latest buildings are dug down to the limestone bedrock, it really ain’t that deep.
In fact it is nearly at the surface in some of the suburbs.

April 26, 2015 12:30 am

they would have trouble jacking up the new skyscrapers now , but I don,t think it will worry us for eons

April 26, 2015 4:47 am

Seriously, the real disaster for Chicago is a return of the old normal: Ice Ages.
This event will crush the entire city and all of Canada under a mile of ice.

Barbara Skolaut
Reply to  emsnews
April 26, 2015 10:10 am

Too bad about Canada. ;-p

April 26, 2015 9:42 pm

Sea Levels have been rising for the past 20,000 years and man adapted just fine.
Recent global tide data shows that for the past 200+ years, sea levels have only been rising at a constant rate of 6 INCHES per CENTURY, with absolutely NO empirical evidence showing an increasing trend.
Moreover, sea level rise has actually been FLAT for the past decade, despite record amounts of manmade CO2 emissions…
BTW, flat sea levels over the past decade doesn’t help alarmists’ claims that the “missing heat” is being buried in the oceans, because if this were true, oceans would have risen through hydro-thermal expansion.
Things are certainly not looking good for the alarmists. All their dire predictions are simply not supported by observations…

April 27, 2015 5:34 am

If B. Obama has been alive in Chicago in the 19th century, as a community organiser & then Senator, he would have worked to stop the elevation of the city, because he would claim the development could warm the globe.
In the realms of literature, early Chicago was trumped by Ankh Morpork. Ankh-Morpork is built on black loam, broadly, but is mostly built on itself; pragmatic citizens simply built on top of the existing buildings when the sediment grew too high as the river flooded, rather than excavate them out.
There are many unknown basements, including an entire “cave network” below Ankh-Morpork made up of old streets and abandoned sewers (it has been continuously stated that anyone with a pickaxe and a good sense of direction could reach anywhere in Ankh-Morpork by knocking walls down in a straight line). Recently, the underground regions have been extended by the city’s dwarf population to get around unimpeded. It has recently been made municipal property.

Gary Pearse
April 27, 2015 6:24 pm

Bill Illis
April 25, 2015 at 7:52 am
“Chicago was built right where Lake Michigan used to drain south into the Mississippi River during the ice ages and until about 9,000 years ago when outflow to the ocean became possible through the St. Lawrence River or through Hudson Bay”.
Nice post Bill. Now we are talking about real climate change!!! I’m sure much of this is totally unknown to the confident stewards of Climate Change.
In the early 60s as a fresh new engineer, I was doing a hydrology study of south west Manitoba near the North Dakota border for town water supply to Souris and other small towns and for stock watering in this dry country. The holes we drilled went down 30 to 40 feet and we had to seal off a salt water aquifer that was well known in the district. Actually most of the area’s well water was significantly above the maximum allowable for salt and one of the objectives was to replace this with sweet water.
While drilling across this flat land, we began to find bedrock considerably deeper than expected and at one point, at about 100 feet depth, we lost the drill string while adding in a drill rod section. The bit had hit good gravel and without turning had washed itself down deeper. We sent for the drilling company’s expert with “fishing tools” for recovering the string and moved to a new site nearby. This new hole washed down through coarse gravel to a depth of about 300feet. The gravel turned out to be Tertiary aged (a term not used now) (age after extinction of the Dinosaurs) and contained opalized wood (fossil wood pebbles replaced with opal) and yellow rounded quartz pebbles. I had heard of such aquifers in Saskatchewan having been found only a few years before, but this was the first one discovered in Manitoba. This was a channel of the former Missouri River when it flowed north. The Pleistocene Ice Age blocked this river off and caused it to reverse its flow. Another river with headwaters to the south ‘captured’ this reversed river and cut a channel to join the Mississippit as the modern Missouri. Just now, I found a paper on it with everybody’s name but mine on it. Like I said, I was a fresh new engineer!

April 28, 2015 8:49 pm

Sacramento, California was also raised. About 14 ft IIRC, after frequent floods during heavy rains in the 1800s.

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