The Growth of Chicago into Metropolis

A bird's eye view of Chicago in 1898

Chicago has had a history of fast growth and the figures from 1868 demonstrate just how quickly the city could grow.

Chicago, Illinois was incorporated on August 12, 1833, with a population of 350. The town had an area of three-eighths of a square mile and was bounded by the streets of Kinzie, Desplaines, Madison and State.

How Quickly People Came to Chicago

Within four years of its incorporation, the town of Chicago had grown into a city of 4,170 people. At that point, it was the ninety-second most-populous city in the United States of America.

By 1860, it was the ninth-largest city and the second-largest city by 1890.

A Strategic Location

The city’s location in the midwest became a strategic transportation hub. The Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848 and allowed shipping from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River to pass through Chicago. The Galena and Chicago Union Railroad connected the city the country’s growing rail network.

Health Issues Caused by Quick Growth

However, despite the city’s strategic transportation location, Chicago’s growth outstripped the ability of its infrastructure to handle the growth.

In the spring, the ground in Chicago became muddy and sucked in horses and wagons making it hard, if not impossible, to travel.

That same bog-like ground also nurtured disease-carrying insects that brought sickness to residents.

Raising Chicago, Literally

With the great growth in population, the need for clean water and effective sewer handling grew. Chicago government recognized this and set out to build a sewer system to handle its growth.

The first attempt at a sewer system was a gravity-fed system that was laid out above the ground, but the city was in a low-lying area prone to flooding.

In 1856, the Chicago City Council decided that the city needed to be raised four to five feet. This was done using a jacking-up process, which helped raise the city out of the flood zone.

A Year of Fast Growth

Newspapers reported on Chicago’s amazing growth in 1868. Chicago added 8,205 buildings worth $25 million, and included:

  • 35 churches worth $1.7 million;
  • 20 schools worth $300,000;
  • 1,000 stores worth $13 million;
  • 6,500 residences worth $9 million.

Thirty miles of water pipe were also laid bringing the total in the city up to 209 miles. Twenty-one miles of Nicolson pavement was also laid throughout the city.

More Growth Spurts

This ability of the city to grow so quickly would serve it well as it worked to rebuild itself after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that destroyed 17,450 buildings in the city.

Then in 1893, the Chicago essentially had to build an entirely new sister city to house the World Columbian Exposition commemorating Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the America in 1492.