Chicago was built on a swamp adjacent to Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. Poor drainage caused flooding and typhoid fever and dysentery were major problems. Streets often became impassable.
In 1856, engineer Ellis Chesbrough wrote an ambitious plan to correct the problem. A new sewerage system was proposed and much of the entire city had to be lifted so that the system would drain by gravity. The plan was adopted by the City. Part of the plan was to raise the elevation of most of the buildings and streets to provide sufficient fall to drain. The illustration above shows the raising of one major building.
Raising a block of buildings on Lake Street
Contractors lifted half a city block on Lake Street, between Clark Street and LaSalle Street. Businesses continued to operate and people came continued to use the buildings went, shopped and worked in them. 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.
Chicago's buildings were jacked up 4 to 14 feet. New foundations were built beneath them. New storm sewers were placed on top of the streets and the streets were filled up to the level of the front doors of the raised buildings.
Many smaller structures were simply moved a new location. "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."
The raising of Chicago showed the energy can can do spirit of the rapidly growing city. "Nothing," noted an early historian, "better illustrates the energy and determination with which the makers of Chicago set about a task when once they had made up their minds, than the speed and thoroughness with which they solved the problem of the city's drainage and sewage."