Color lithograph showing the hustle and bustle typical of Chicago before the 1871 fire, published by Jevne and Almini, 1866. (Photo: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

With more than 5.4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or trying to figure out how Chicago is still here so many years after The Night Chicago Died. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,455,790-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Raising of Chicago

What it’s about: People in 19th-century Chicago knew how to raise the roof—and everything underneath it. Over the course of only a few years, the entire city was elevated by 6 feet in order to get ground level significantly higher than the shores of Lake Michigan, and to make room for a new sewer system.

Biggest controversy: In the 1840s, Chicago’s population swelled from 4,400 to nearly 30,000 people. What had been a small lakeshore town was now a bustling city… with the infrastructure of a small lakeshore town. Because the city was built more or less at Lake Michigan’s water level, there was no drainage to speak of. Much like London during the Great Stink, unsanitary conditions abounded and the city was rife with disease. There were outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery for six years in a row, capped with a case of cholera that wiped out 6 percent of the city’s population. Something had to be done. After much discussion, the city government proposed a bold plan that seems unthinkable today: elevate the entire city by 6 feet.

Strangest fact: A few decades later, the move would have been impossible. 1884 saw the construction of the 10-story Home Insurance Building, the first steel-frame skyscraper. While earlier masonry construction was heavy, it was sturdy, and buildings only reached a few stories. As such, remarkably large buildings were able to be raised with hydraulic jacks and screw jacks. Once a building was up on jacks, new foundations were poured underneath, a new street was laid down, and the building was on a new, higher ground level.

Thing we were happiest to learn: It worked! In 1858, the first building was raised—a 750-ton brick building that was raised 6 feet 2 inches with the help of 200 jackscrews, “without the slightest injury to the building.” By year’s end, at least 50 buildings of similar size had been moved. The following spring, workers were lifting buildings twice that size. By 1860, engineers lifted half a city block on Lake Street, 320 feet long and weighing roughly 35,000 tons. It took 600 men and 6,000 screws, and remarkably, businesses on the block stayed open during the lift. The Tremont House hotel was lifted so smoothly many of the guests didn’t notice!


Photo: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Also noteworthy: Some buildings didn’t just move up, they moved out. As recent years had seen large masonry buildings take over the city center, many of the remaining older, wooden buildings were put on rollers and moved across town or out of town entirely. Again, shops remained open even in the midst of relocating—people would hop on as the building was being pushed down the street and hop off further down the road.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Seattle underwent a similar project after most of the city’s wooden buildings were wiped out in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. The city decided not only that new buildings should be built of brick or stone, but that they should be raised a full story, as the city was built on flood-prone tidelands. As rebuilding the streets was a long process, many buildings were rebuilt with entrances at both old and new ground levels, and pedestrians used ladders to get between the old entrance and the new street level while sidewalks were being constructed. Once the city-raising project was done, underground sidewalks remained intact, some with storefront access, and over a century later, the Seattle Underground is still accessible to the public.


Further down the Wormhole: Chicago continued to grow, obviously, and among other things became a big sports town. In recent years, hockey has been the sport to follow, as the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010. The first organized game of ice hockey was played in Montreal in 1875, and the sport’s popularity grew so quickly that within 20 years a game was played at Buckingham Palace, with future monarchs Edward VII and George V both playing for the home team. The palace has been the seat of the British monarchy since it was completed in 1837. Queen Victoria was the first reigning monarch to live there, and she wasn’t alone. Between 1838 and 1841, she had a stalker, who repeatedly snuck into the palace. We’ll hear the curious tale of the boy Jones next week.