Tools for Building Chicago: Invention, Innovation, & Industry

Growing up in rural Texas, I never thought about Chicago. It was just a mystical place in the movies. I did not intend to visit such an intimidating, bustling city. I grew up in a small town, in the countryside, and that was enough for me. Flashforward and here I am: attending college on 31st and State near the southside of Chicago, taking classes to learn more about this popular, lakeside center of the Midwest!

What surprises me most is the start of Chicago. Looking at Chicago today, it is hard to believe that the area was a dirty, muddy bog where people did not choose to stay for extended periods of time. In the 17th century, the Native Americans and French trappers in the area only stopped by for trading and brief visits, not knowing the location’s economic and strategic value. Between the end of the 17th century and the early 18th century, the race for expansion westward between France and England in North America was frantic. Be that as it may, the United States of America gained independence from England in the late 1700’s. By now, the industrial revolution was advancing rapidly with the passing of each year. With the industrial boom and founding of our new country, the U.S. knew we needed to continue our race Westward and find the connection between our newly claimed lands and our booming Eastern cities. Recognizing the connection between the East to the Midwest to the Mississippi, we succeeded in marking this new territory in 1803, by building a small military post called Fort Dearborn.

fort dearborn

Early drawing of Chicago in 1831. [5]

After a meager start, wars with many Native Americans, and reconstruction in 1817 of Fort Dearborn, Chicago was on the map. The value of Chicago’s location could not be argued. However, as innovation continued to chase better transportation designs, the small town needed to act quickly in order improve its harbors and route to the Mississippi River before it was left in the dust of the railroads.

This is when the genesis of Chicago becomes a whirlwind of new ideas, fast money, and inexpensive expansion. First thing on the city’s to-do-list was dig the ninety-six mile canal that would link the Illinois River to the Chicago River, giving access from New York to the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. This innovative idea, springing from the construction of the Erie Canal, had the potential to “to make Chicago a commercial center overnight” (Spinney 32). A booming city in the making attracted economically savvy gamblers seeking to make a quick profit on the vastly empty land in Chicago. This speculation and booming land prices, driven by the excitement of the promising new city, led to the invention of the futures market.

Sadly, the expedited growth of the city did not allow for much more than wooden shacks and sidewalks being thrown together board by board. As more and more flocked to the city, the sewage system, muddy streets, and cheap foundation took its toll on Chicago. A sewage system needed to be implemented, but the area’s swampy identity hindered the installation of underground pipes. By truly impressive means, the city took this issue head on and crank by crank lifted each building ten feet, using a fleet of hand-turned jacks. Amazing as it seems, lifting the city was only another symptom of Chicago’s fast cash and inexpensive infrastructure atmosphere that was being developed alongside the city. When the city later realized the sewage was festering in the slow-moving river directly into the lake and water source, the city attempted to alleviate the issue by devising a tunnel system and pump far from the pollution. The solution did not suffice. Once again, Chicago decided to change the natural identity of the area: reverse the river. In another inspiring fight to keep the city on the up-and-up, Chicago changed the direction the lazy river flowed in order to direct the sewage away from the lake, allowing the city to continue pursuit of its Eastern counterparts.

Completion of the canal helped Chicago escape fully addressing another issue: bad roads. The road conditions were so poor to and in the city that farmers often struggled to make it to market. With the implementation of the new canal, farmers could easily navigate to a port closer to them to drop off their crops with the ships that would then transport it to the city. In the 1850s, Chicago was quick to come up with another fast-cash way to enhance profit by perfecting the steam-powered grain elevator and building them high above the barges alongside the river banks.


In 1900, a barge floats in the foreground, while the Chicago sky is clouded with smoke from the growing industries in the city. [3]



In another blink of an eye, the railroad brought the real money to Chicago. The railroad bolstered the connection this midwest center had to all of the merchandise already coming by barge to the city. The rivers extending lazily from Chicago, but the railroad spread aggressively like arteries from the heart. And that’s what Chicago became, the heart of “the grain trade, the lumber industry, the meatpacking business, and the mail-order catalog business” (Spinney 51).



Railroads in the Bridgeport area of Chicago 1880. [2]

Inventions like the McCormick reaper, the grain elevator, the butchers’ wheel, the disassembly line, the refrigerated railroad car, and Ward’s catalogue fostered these industries. These industries funded the city, were products of the dreams of many, and the foundation for the metropolis soon known as the “Gateway to the West” (Spinney 68). Chicago’s foundation is inspiring yet seems almost idiotic. Learning about the upbringing of a place like Chicago makes it hard to tell what the “American Dream” really is. It is exhilarating knowing how powerful we are as a country, that we made a dream into reality in an area otherwise uninhabitable. Still, it is disheartening to think that we are so hard headed as Americans that we gobble up this land, change its natural identity, and make quick fixes along the way until we successfully “fake it ‘til we make it”. I think my thoughts are best summed up by the final sentence of chapter four, “as Garry Wills has written, ‘The city was an act of will … an imposition, a triumph over circumstance’ ” (Spinney 69).


  1. M, Jill, Brandon K, and Lev N. “Urbanization – A.” WCMSUrbanization. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <>.
  2. “Bridgeport Industrial Scene, Ca. 1880.” Bridgeport Industrial Scene, Ca. 1880. © Queens Borough Public Library, 08 Jan. 2002. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <>.
  3. Reporter, Daily Mail. “America Steams Ahead: Incredible Black-and-white Pictures Capture How Railroads and Steamboats Helped Forge Its Future at the Turn of the 20th Century.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 19 July 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <>.
  4. “Chicago.” Travel Channel. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <>.
  5. “Chicago, Illinois, 1831.” Wisconsin Electronic Reader. State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <>.
  6. Spinney, Robert G. City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 2000. Print.

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