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The Rise of Capitalism
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The Transportation Revolution Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

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Chicago and the Railroad

In 1847, Chicago didn't have a single mile of railroad. Ten years later, it was the rail center of America, and Ogden was a Railroad King of the West. By the opening of the Civil War, more railroads met at Chicago than at any other spot on earth.

[Picture of steam powered river boats]

St. Louis, Chicago's chief urban rival, had built a thriving commerce with New Orleans, using steam-powered riverboats. But by the time of the Civil War, Chicago had displaced St. Louis, which remained tied to the river, as the region's major trade center. The railroad tied the lower Midwest to the Northeast, and insured that this section didn't split off and become part of the Confederacy in 1861, when the lower Mississippi became a Rebel River.

Chicago rose to regional prominence by becoming not a manufacturing center at first, but a trade center, a giant Exchange Engine. Here's how the system worked for two commodities: lumber and wheat. Chicago sat between two different ecosystems, the timber-rich lands of upper Wisconsin and Michigan, and the treeless prairie. It was built on Lake Michigan, a water corridor that connected them.

Ogden and other Chicago capitalists purchased entire forests in the North and sent lumber by lake boats down to Chicago, where it was processed, and then sent out by canal and rail to prairie farmers. Chicago's lumber mills made cottages, schoolhouses, stores, taverns, and churches. Out on the prairie, it wasn't uncommon for entire groups of homesteaders to gather together at a desolate depot to await the arrival from Chicago of their entire ready-made town.

The wheat trade was a more symbiotic relationship, and the land wasn't the loser. Reapers made at Cyrus McCormick's steam-driven Chicago factory allowed farmers to cut the wheat that Chicago shipped to the rest of the world. Farmers made money; Chicago merchants made money; and the key to it all was the railroad.

[Picture of a train in Chicago]

Railroads were prohibited from entering the congested heart of Manhattan. But in freewheeling Chicago, where money-making was unimpeded by government restraints, the railroads steamed right into the center of town, creating tremendous smoke and noise and killing or mangling two persons a day at unprotected rail crossings. As one foreign visitor said: "It's cheaper to kill people than to elevate the railroads, and human life in Chicago is nothing compared with money."

Chicago was the American Manchester, the place people visited to see the new economic order. While not yet as rich or as wretchedly poor as Manchester, it was a place of even greater economic creativity and chaos. A commercial powerhouse, it was one of the ugliest cities in America, and the most unhealthy, as well.


Cleaning Up Chicago

In the 1850s, cholera, a water-borne disease, hit the city with devastating force, killing in one year almost six percent of its population. In that decade, Chicago had the highest death rate of any American city. The problem was that Chicagoans were drinking their own sewage. Both garbage and raw sewage were dumped into the Chicago River, along with the blood and remains of animals slaughtered at the city's meat packing plants.

On some days, the river was blood red. This river water, in turn, flowed into Lake Michigan, the source of the city's water supply. Even small fish got into the water supply, and would come shooting out of spigots in sinks. "When you turned on the hot water," as one Chicagoan joked, "you got chowder."

There was no joking, though, about cholera, which struck people with terrible suddenness and killed them in a day. Finally, public fear and outrage forced the city to act, to save itself. Ogden and other city officials hired a Boston engineer, Ellis Chesbrough, to build a modern water supply and sewage system.

Intake tunnels were driven far out into Lake Michigan. And the Chicago River was reversed by a process of dredging and pumping. Now it carried Chicago's waste away from the city, into the Illinois and Michigan Canal, past complaining but less powerful canal towns.

Chesbrough also lifted Chicago out of the mud and swampy soil that were breeding places for cholera. He raised up the entire downtown by as much as 10 feet, jacking up entire rows of buildings, with the people right in them, and placing dredged soil from the river bottom under them. The raising of the city and the reversal of the river were two of the most stupendous engineering projects of the age, and they gave Chicago a reputation as a city that could accomplish almost anything.

Raw, wildly growing Chicago illustrated better than any other place America's faith in technology and unfettered capitalism, forces that were conquering the frontier and raising America to greatness. The Chicago story is a cautionary tale. Self-interest doesn't always lead in the benign direction Adam Smith hoped it would. These same forces of capitalism and technology would shape the country even more emphatically after the Civil War, making America -- and Chicago -- great opportunity centers; but also scenes of economic excess, injustice, and unrest.



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