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Chicago: The Hydraulic City and - page 2 / 12





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90 miles to the great village of the Illinois [near Utica]. Canoes cannot traverse it in the summer.”2

La Salle was accurate in his observations that the only natural advantage to the Chicago site was the small continental divide that separated the Des Plaines from the Chicago River, a separation that was breached every spring when the Des Plaines flooded into Chicago, sending a large quantity of water into Lake Michigan rather than into the Illinois River.

The value of the site was apparent to the United States government, and in 1805 the army built Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River. Because of the sand bar at the mouth of the river, it was proposed to cut a ditch through it that could possibly allow canoes and batteaux to enter the river, but lake vessels had to unload their cargo on the lake.3 The problem at the mouth of the river was that the current in Lake Michigan flowed along the shore, depositing sand and gravel so any channel cut through the sand bar would quickly fill up again. In 1830 William Howard of the United States Corps of Engineers, proposed to change the mouth of the river so it would not flow south before entering the lake, and to construct piers to the north of the mouth to control the sand deposited by the lake current.4 As the proposal for the construction of a canal to connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois River began to take shape, so, too, did the demand for a harbor to support it. However, the work on the harbor was almost entirely done by the Federal government.5 In 1839 Thomas Jefferson Cram of the United States Topographical Corps, suggested building piers much farther into the lake and at the end extending them on the north side of this channel. On the south side of the channel, the piers would be extended eastward into the lake. He recommended that they be constructed of stone with pilings. Also, he noted a lighthouse should be built at the end of the channel. The cost of this would be from $90,000 to $215,000, but Cram argued this money would be well spent as:

“The commercial interests of all the States that border upon the lakes is intimately connected with Chicago as a place of transshipment and deposit; and the agricultural prospects of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, are to become greatly dependent upon facilities of business upon a large scale at some point on the southwest part of the shore of Lake Michigan, which lake is a part of the great channel by which the surplus staples of those states shall best reach the Eastern markets. The continuity of a never failing communication for so many miles, and the more favorable temperature for the preservation of produce, are advantages peculiar to the lake route.

“The commerce of the lake will very naturally center more at Chicago, than at any other place of deposit and transshipment upon either side of the lake.... Its position on the west shore of Lake Michigan (the only lake exclusively within the limits of the United States) the two natural channels of water communication extending some miles into the interior by means of navigable branches of the Chicago River; the excellent site for a capacious ship basin in the very heart of the town, at the junction of the said branches; it being one of the termini of the Illinois and Michigan Canal...are advantages, which when collectively or severally considered, forcibly impress upon the mind that the present City of Chicago is but the nucleus about which there will grow up, at no remote period, one of the most important commercial towns on the lake." 6

Needless to say, the large expenditures recommended by Captain Cram were not forthcoming. However, sufficient improvements were made so that lake boats would get into the river. Between 1842 and 1847 wheat exports doubled. Most of the traffic was agricultural products. A growing import item was lumber, which would, of course, continue to expand.7 The effort to induce more government assistance is indicated by the calling of the 1847 River and Harbor Convention in Chicago. While federal assistance to other internal 256

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