Raising of Chicago

March 3, 2023
4 min read
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As most of you who will end up reading this know, the team at Howell Engineering takes drainage very seriously. We are always looking for creative solutions using the best materials in the most cost-effective manner. When designing infrastructure today, it is always important to understand the design flaws of the past because, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So today, let’s learn about the Raising of Chicago, the solution to a big problem that ended up causing more problems that we still deal with today.

Chicago was first settled in 1780 and officially became a city in 1837. Built on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago quickly became a major city for trade because of its proximity to the lake and the Del Plaines River to the Mississippi. As the city grew, a big issue started to arise. Built only feet above Lake Michigan on clay soil meant there was virtually no way for water or sewage to drain away from the city. As a result, disease spread in the 1850s, killing 6% of the population. To solve this problem, the city looked to success in Hamburg, Germany and began work on a similar centralized sewer system.

There was one big problem when applying this infrastructure to Chicago. Hamburg is located about 40 miles inland on the banks of a river, while Chicago was only a few feet above Lake Michigan in a marsh. There simply wasn’t enough elevation change and the city was not high enough to allow for the sewer to gravity away from the city. There was only one solution; the streets had to be raised. So, rather than constructing stairs down to all the buildings, engineers and workers raised all the buildings necessary to supply the whole city with public sewer service.

The first building raised was in January of 1858, a four-story, 750-ton brick building located at the corner of Randolph and Dearborn Street. To put that into perspective, that is the equivalent of 375 Howell Surveying Toyota Tacomas. More than 200 jackscrews were used to raise the building 6′ 2″ without any damage to the building. This was done to another 50 buildings in that same year.

By 1860 the city had enough confidence in the Engineers working on the project that the city tasked them with raising half a city block. The block was located on Lake Street between Clark and LaSalle Street. It was 320 feet long, contained multiple 5-story masonry buildings, occupied over an acre of area, and weighed 35,000 tons in total. To put that into perspective, that is the equivalent of 17,500 Howell Survey Toyota Tacomas or the USS Massachusetts. The engineers handled this task the same way I carry groceries in from the car, all in one go or not at all. Over the course of five days, 600 men using 6000 jackscrews were able to lift the entire city block by 4′ 8″. All of which was done while people were still using and occupying the buildings and caused no significant damage. A very impressive feat.

There was one problem with the work that was done all the way back in the 1850’s. Not with raising the buildings but with the sewer. They installed a combined sewer system, where sanitary and storm sewers all flow in the same pipe, which ultimately discharged directly to surface waters. At the time, the engineers didn’t understand the consequences of their actions, but today we do. Today the city of Chicago utilizes large sewage treatment plants to treat both sanitary and storm discharge. However, during large storm events, the plant is unable to keep up, and as a result, raw sewage can flow directly into rivers and streams.

This is a prime example of consequences that are still being paid today because of mistakes that were made in the past. I don’t blame the Engineers of the 1860’s for what they had done; they fixed a major issue with their city. It was not until years later that future Engineers realized that this was an issue and fixed it as best they could. It is impossible to know what the state of the world and our current infrastructure will look like in 100-150 years. All we can do is look to the past to improve on what has been done and plan as best we can, given the information we have.


Magazine, Smithsonian. “How Chicago Transformed from a Midwestern Outpost Town to a Towering City.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Oct. 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-chicago-transformed-from-midwestern-outpost-town-to-towering-city-180970526/.

Raising Chicago Streets out of the Mud in 1858 – Living History of Illinois. https://livinghistoryofillinois.com/pdf_files/Raising%20Chicago%20Streets%20Out%20of%20the%20Mud%20in%201858.pdf.

“Raising of Chicago.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Feb. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_of_Chicago.


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