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Chicago: The Hydraulic City and - page 3 / 12





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improvements was scanty, the Federal government continued to aid in the improvement of the Chicago Harbor. In 1859 Congress appropriated $87,000 to repair the piers designed to keep the harbor open.8 By that time the big grain elevators were clustered at the mouth of the river, and the slips (called “canals”) for unloading lumber were up river on the South Branch to Bridgeport where the Illinois and Michigan Canal terminated.

The increased activity in the harbor, in the month of June 1879, had more arrivals and departures and gross tonnage than did New York for that month.9 In order to accommodate the increased use, an anchorage basin on the lake was constructed by dredging the area off the present Grant Park and building a breakwater in 1880. In 1889 a breakwater west and north was built by the Federal government to protect vessels coming into the harbor. All of this tended to increase traffic so that by the early 1890s, Chicago’s arrivals and clearances were not exceeded by any other port in the United States. 10

Besides the lake and the Chicago River mouth, the other part of the Chicago harbor was the Chicago River, as was observed by Major W.L. Marshall in 1899.

“The Chicago River and its branches constitute the most active and important non-tidal navigational stream of its length known.” 11

While the harbor had been developed basically by the Federal government – which assumed as a result a proprietary control over it – the river had been controlled by the city. They encouraged the construction of wharves and slips basically for lumber coming in from the north. The river had been periodically dredged so that it was commercially viable and filled with slips six miles up the South Branch to the terminus of the I. and M. Canal. With wooden schooners and other such vessels, the 15-foot depth of the river was sufficient for clearance. But in the late 19th century, the introduction of iron and steel hulls made this depth obsolete so that least 17 feet of depth was necessary. As a result of this difficulty, the Federal government was asked to assist. One of the things that had to be done was to lower the height of the tunnels under the river so its depth could be increased to 21 feet.

Another more obdurate problem affecting navigation was the bridges. As early as 1870 there was established “closed bridge period” when street traffic was at its highest. They originally started as a one-half hour period, but were increased from time to time because of the increased pressure from land-based interests.

The result of these factors plus others was a substantial reduction of harbor and river usage in the late 1890s. This despite the fact that the depth of the river increased as the Ship and Sanitary Canal began pulling more water off Lake Michigan after 1900. As a result of the problems, increased emphasis was placed on the Lake Calumet harbor on the south side of Chicago. Shipping on the Great Lakes also had changed. Steel- hulled vessels were larger, requiring more width and depth in harbors, and the cargoes changed as the principal cargo was now iron ore, not of much use on the Chicago River. The lumber trade had dried up, and grain was shipped by railroad.

The City of Chicago continued to try to develop the harbor. In 1909 it was suggested that the outer harbor created by the Federal breakwaters be developed for pleasure boats on a plan of circles and boulevards similar to Burnham’s plan for Chicago. 12

Conceived at the same time as the harbor by Jolliet in the 17th century was a canal to link the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Agitation for this water link intensified in the early 19th century. It increased more after Illinois became a state in 1818. Illinois’ northern boundary was shifted to insure that both the site of Chicago, the Chicago portage (the low land rise between the South Branch of the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River) and the area to be traversed by a canal were all within the boundaries of the “Sucker State.”


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