The I


The I&M Canal Essay, Research Paper

?Didn?t expect no town?

-Early Chicago Settler Mark Beaubien

The I&M Canal is universally considered the driving force behind the huge surge of growth that turned the tiny hamlet on the banks of Lake Michigan named Chicago, in to a huge metropolis and bustling center of trade.

Ever since Joliet first crossed the portage between the Chicago river and the Des Plaines river in 1673, explorers, investors, politicians, and farmers alike all agreed that constructing a canal across the continental divide that separated the two largest water systems in the United States would not only create a continuous waterway between New York and New Orleans but more importantly, place Chicago on perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate in North America and in the position to become an international player almost overnight.

The plans to build the Illinois & Michigan canal began in the newly christened Illinois legislature in 1818. It was driven forward by groundbreaking on work to construct the Erie Canal in New York. Once the Erie Canal was complete only a canal between the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers would be necessary to complete the chain of waterways connecting New York to New Orleans.

In 1822, Congress ceded to Illinois a large portion of land on which to not only build the canal, but to sell to raise funds for its construction. The land contained the portage between the two rivers and about 100 miles of land to the south and west of it. It had just recently been coercively and dishonestly purchased from the local Blackhawk Indians in a treaty that ended the Blackhawk War.

As soon as the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, eastern investors quickly realized Chicago?s huge potential. The land around what would one day be the canal soon became heavily coveted by land speculators. They envisioned a huge city rising around this soon-to-be hub of international trade. Pieces of land offered by the state were bought dirt cheap and sold for many times their original value as investors braced for what they hoped would be a huge windfall after the canal was completed. Many men made fortunes that would last them a lifetime in a matter of months by buying land from the state and then reselling it months and sometimes weeks or days later for up too 5000% profit.

After years of planning, ground was broke for the first time on the Illinois & Michigan canal in 1836. The construction was quickly slowed by both a worker shortage and the paralyzing ?Panic of 1837?. The investment problems stemming from the ?panic? sent the nation into an economic depression for almost eight years. Due to the economic crisis, the mostly immigrant canal workers were severely underpaid and hard to keep on staff. The state of Illinois was almost bankrupt and work on the canal ceased due to lack of funds and workers. Only a huge influx of capital from Eastern and European investors allowed the project to ever finish.

After years of hard work, in 1848 the 60 feet wide, 6 feet deep canal was completed. It contained 15 locks, 4 aqueducts, and a pumping station. The 97 mile canal extended from the Chicago River near Lake Michigan to the Illinois River At Peru, Illinois.

The canal?s effects were soon felt. Chicago almost immediately became the nation?s largest pork, lumber, and grain marketplace. Between 1848 and 1854 Chicago?s imports and more importantly its exports soared to new heights. Also thousands of people traveled back and forth between Chicago and La Salle on canal passenger boats. During that same time period the city?s population exploded from just under 25 thousand to over 75 thousand inhabitants.

The canal remained a profitable enterprise until the year 1866 when the newly completed railroad system proved to be a cheaper and more efficient alternative. Use of the canal did not disappear however until around 1900 when it began to fall into disrepair. The final deathblow to the Illinois & Michigan came when the big, wider, and deeper Illinois Waterway was completed in 1933. However, though no longer in commercial use, the Illinois & Michigan canal remains as a source of recreation and will forever be remembered as the catalyst responsible for Chicago?s leap to prominence.

In 1833 the population of the newly incorporated town of Chicago was 250 people, by 1854, only 20 years later, the population had swelled to over 75 thousand strong. The city of Chicago had ascended from a tiny trading outpost to a thriving metropolis at an unprecedented speed. It was two design innovations of the time that both maximized speed and efficiency in their fields that helped to enable the city to make a healthy transition that quickly. I am going to touch on the one of the two right now and the other later on in the presentation.

In 1830 surveyor James Thompson revived a form of city planning used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans in Chicago. He laid out what would become the city of Chicago in a style known as ?The Grid?. This, the simplest form of city planning is nothing more than laying out straight streets that all intersect at right angles. While not architecturally inspiring it served Chicago?s purpose at the time perfectly. It divided the city up into equal square blocks that could easily be broken up and sold with minimum fuss. The grid was also designed to be virtually boundless. As the city grew, the grid just extended out with it in every direction. That very simplicity in design is what helped to foster along Chicago?s growth spurt, new land could be incorporated and enveloped by the grid in a minimum amount of time allowing for the city to remain organized through out it?s population explosion. The grid also showed no regard for the landscape it was built on. To early Chicago settlers it represented man triumphing over nature and the bringing civilization to this wild and unsettled frontier. As you can see by looking at this map of modern day Chicago you can see that the grid still survives to a great extent in Chicago today and probably will into the foreseeable future.

The second of the two ground breaking innovations I spoke off earlier, is the ?Balloon Frame? home. It became a staple of Chicago architecture after it was first implemented in the 1830s and still today a form of balloon framing is used in virtually every home that is built. Essentially, a balloon frame was erected by nailing together two-by-fours of lumber with the newly available mass produced machine cut nails. Most houses of the time were of stone construction or utilized heavy, hard to manage timber posts. So the relative ease with which a balloon frame home could be built was more than welcome. The inventor of this style of construction remains somewhat a mystery even today. There are several architects who are credited with the balloon frames design. However, the inventor?s name is not the important part, it is the invention that was the huge factor in Chicago?s growth. A balloon frame house could be erected in under a week. And with the huge influx of people Chicago was taking in the new balloon frame design allowed them to keep up with all the housing demands of the people rapidly moving in and prevented many from becoming homeless. The downside of the balloon frame was of course that it was made almost exclusively out of wood. Chicago rapidly made a transition to a city of wood and that fact would come back to the haunt the city on a hot night in 1871.

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