In the 19th century, the city of Chicago in Illinois was plagued by the problem of improper water drainage. The city, being located close to Lake Michigan and its low elevation, was always flooded with water. The people in the city led miserable lives due to the stale waters always present in the city.

By that time, Chicago had grown to be an industrial center in the United States, which increased the city traffic. As people moved into the city, they soon realized that the commute was rendered impossible due to the swampy landscape of the city. The flow of traffic, be it carriages, horses, or virtually anything else, was hindered. The problem kept worsening due to the frequent floods that destroyed basements and commercial buildings.

However, somehow the agitated residents of Chicago managed to live with these problems. But as time passed, the water became a murky habitat for pathogens. Soon enough, water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever and dysentery wreaked havoc in the city. Due to improper sanitation and drainage, the diseases become epidemic in 19th century Chicago.

These diseases spread rapidly and uncontrollably due to improper water drainage. How could it not? The swampy streets and murky waters meant that people were always exposed to water-borne pathogens.

Later, the outbreak of Cholera made even matters worse. The plague that followed took thousands of lives in the city, effectively wiping out six percent of the city’s total population.

It was after this outbreak that people begin to realize the grave problem of the city’s drainage and overall infrastructure. A board was then created to solve the crisis in Chicago for once and for all. The board consisted of competent engineers and architects alike. They initially tried to solve the drainage problem by installing citywide sewers. The plan was submitted in 1856 by Ellis S. Chelsborg, an esteemed engineer.

However, Chicago is almost level with Lake Michigan, which meant that no matter how much the water was drained, it would soon level back. The board soon realized that this solution would not cure the problem of water drainage. The next plan of action was grading, which is a system of land leveling.

But much to the dismay of the board, even this method failed. One after the other, the engineers proposed a variety of schemes to cope with the drainage problem. However, it soon became apparent that the only solution was to raise the city a little above Lake Michigan. It included the buildings, streets, and alleys.

Back in the 19th century, this quite a tough challenge; our forefathers did not have access to sophisticated machines such as heavy lifters and efficient means of transport. Despite the challenges, the board went forward with this innovative scheme. Surprisingly, the elevation was carried out manually by only employing hydraulic jacks and jackscrews.

Different structures were elevated to different heights ranging from 4 feet to a whopping 14 feet, but on average, most buildings were raised by 10 feet. But this innovative project couldn’t be carried out without adequate funds, so it was decided that private property owners, as well as public funds, would be used to cover the costs.

The first building to be elevated as part of this plan was a four-story masonry building. The 70-foot brick structure was successfully lifted to more than 6 feet 2 inches its original height. Jackscrews were employed during the process.

Unsurprisingly, the crew managed to move the building without damaging it in any way. After the successful elevation of this building, the engineers soon implemented this method on other buildings too. By the next two decades, moving the buildings was so common that it was considered quite normal, almost like traffic jams of our era.

People would witness entire houses and buildings being located to the other side of the city. The entire process was nothing short of a feat, as all transportation was done manually. Today, even After two decades, it seems like a far-fetched idea to move an entire house across a street, much less a four-story building.

As time passed, engineers learned the precise methods of lifting even taller buildings, and eventually, they were able to lift the entire city blocks to elevate them.

So, if we describe the entire ordeal in simple terms, the city of Chicago was quite literally lifted out of the swamp and elevated in the next two decades that followed. It ensured that after the installation of proper drainage and sewage system, the city would no longer be a murky swamp. And that’s how the current city of Chicago became a more habitable region.


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