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Book Summary: How We Got to Now

Author: Steven Johnson

Substory: Chesbrough Chicago

In December 1856, a middle-aged Chicago engineer named Ellis Chesbrough traveled across the Atlantic to take in the monuments of the European continent. He visited London, Paris, Hamburg, Amsterdam, and a half dozen other towns—the classic Grand Tour. Only Chesbrough hadn’t made his pilgrimage to study the architecture of the Louvre or Big Ben. He was there, instead, to study the invisible achievements of European engineering. He was there to study the sewers.

Chicago, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was a city in dire need of expertise about waste removal. Thanks to its growing role as a transit hub bringing wheat and preserved pork from the Great Plains to the coastal cities, the city had gone from hamlet to metropolis in a matter of decades. But unlike other cities that had grown at prodigious rates during this period (such as New York and London), Chicago had one crippling attribute, the legacy of a glacier’s crawl thousands of years before the first humans settled there: it was unforgivingly flat. During the Pleistocene era, vast ice fields crept down from Greenland, covering present-day Chicago with glaciers that were more than a mile high. As the ice melted, it formed a massive body of water that geologists now call Lake Chicago. As that lake slowly drained down to form Lake Michigan, it flattened the clay deposits left behind by the glacier. Most cities enjoy a reliable descending grade down to the rivers or harbors they evolved around. Chicago, by comparison, is an ironing board—appropriately enough, for the great city of the American plains.

Building a city on perfectly flat land would seem like a good problem to have; you would think hilly, mountainous terrain like that of San Francisco, Cape Town, or Rio would pose more engineering problems, for buildings and for transportation. But flat topographies don’t drain. And in the middle of the nineteenth century, gravity-based drainage was key to urban sewer systems. Chicago’s terrain also suffered from being unusually nonporous; with nowhere for the water to go, heavy summer rainstorms could turn the topsoil into a murky marshland in a matter of minutes. When William Butler Ogden, who would later become Chicago’s inaugural mayor, first waded through the rain-soaked town, he found himself “sinking knee deep in the mud.” He wrote to his brother-in-law, who had purchased land in the frontier town in a bold bet on its future potential: “You have been guilty of an act of great folly in making [this] purchase.” In the late 1840s, roadways made out of wood planks had been erected over the mud; one contemporary noted that every now and then one of the planks would give way, and “green and black slime [would] gush up between the cracks.” The primary system for sanitation removal was scavenging pigs roaming the streets, devouring the refuse that the humans left behind.

With its rail and shipping network expanding at extraordinary speed, Chicago more than tripled in size during the 1850s. That rate of growth posed challenges for the city’s housing and transportation resources, but the biggest strain of all came from something more scatological: when almost a hundred thousand new residents arrive in your city, they generate a lot of excrement. One local editorial declared: “The gutters are running with filth at which the very swine turn up their noses in supreme disgust.” We rarely think about it, but the growth and vitality of cities have always been dependent on our ability to manage the flow of human waste that emerges when people crowd together. From the very beginnings of human settlements, figuring out where to put all the excrement has been just as important as figuring out how to build shelter or town squares or marketplaces.

The problem is particularly acute in cities experiencing runaway growth, as we see today in the favelas and shantytowns of megacities. Nineteenth-century Chicago, of course, had both human and animal waste to deal with, the horses in the streets, the pigs and cattle awaiting slaughter in the stockyards. (“The river is positively red with blood under the Rush Street Bridge and past down our factory,” one industrialist wrote. “What pestilence may result from it I don’t know.”) The effects of all this filth were not just offensive to the senses; they were deadly. Epidemics of cholera and dysentery erupted regularly in the 1850s. Sixty people died a day during the outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1854. The authorities at the time didn’t fully understand the connection between waste and disease. Many of them subscribed to the then-prevailing “miasma” theory, contending that epidemic disease arose from poisonous vapors, sometimes called “death fogs,” that people inhaled in dense cities. The true transmission route—invisible bacteria carried in fecal matter polluting the water supply—would not become conventional wisdom for another decade.

But while their bacteriology wasn’t well developed, the Chicago authorities were right to make the essential connection between cleaning up the city and fighting disease. On February 14, 1855, a Chicago Board of Sewerage Commissioners was created to address the problem; their first act was to announce a search for “the most competent engineer of the time who was available for the position of chief engineer.” Within a few months, they had found their man, Ellis Chesbrough, the son of a railway officer who had worked on canal and rail projects, and who was currently employed as chief engineer of the Boston Water Works.

It was a wise choice: Chesbrough’s background in railway and canal engineering turned out to be decisive in solving the problem of Chicago’s flat, nonporous terrain. Creating an artificial grade by building sewers deep underground was deemed too expensive: tunneling that far below the surface was difficult work using nineteenth-century equipment, and the whole scheme required pumping the waste back to the surface at the end of the process. But here Chesbrough’s unique history helped him come up with an alternate scenario, reminding him of a tool he had seen as a young man working the railway: the jackscrew, a device used to lift multiton locomotives onto the tracks. If you couldn’t dig down to create a proper grade for drainage, why not use jackscrews to lift the city up?

Aided by the young George Pullman, who would later make a fortune building railway cars, Chesbrough launched one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the nineteenth century. Building by building, Chicago was lifted by an army of men with jackscrews. As the jackscrews raised the buildings inch by inch, workmen would dig holes under the building foundations and install thick timbers to support them, while masons scrambled to build a new footing under the structure. Sewer lines were inserted beneath buildings with main lines running down the center of streets, which were then buried in landfill that had been dredged out of the Chicago River, raising the entire city almost ten feet on average. Tourists walking around downtown Chicago today regularly marvel at the engineering prowess on display in the city’s spectacular skyline; what they don’t realize is that the ground beneath their feet is also the product of brilliant engineering. (Not surprisingly, having participated in such a Herculean undertaking, when George Pullman set out to build his model factory town of Pullman, Illinois, several decades later, his first step was to install sewer and water lines before breaking ground on any of the buildings.)

Amazingly, life went on largely undisturbed as Chesbrough’s team raised the city’s buildings. One British visitor observed a 750-ton hotel being lifted, and described the surreal experience in a letter: “The people were in [the hotel] all the time coming and going, eating and sleeping—the whole business of the hotel proceeding without interruption.” As the project advanced, Chesbrough and his team became ever more daring in the structures they attempted to raise. In 1860, engineers raised half a city block: almost an acre of five-story buildings weighing an estimated thirty-five thousand tons was lifted by more than six thousand jackscrews. Other structures had to be moved as well as lifted to make way for the sewers: “Never a day passed during my stay in the city,” one visitor recalled, “that I did not meet one or more houses shifting their quarters. One day I met nine. Going out on Great Madison Street in the horse cars we had to stop twice to let houses get across.”

The result was the first comprehensive sewer system in any American city. Within three decades, more than twenty cities around the country followed Chicago’s lead, planning and installing their own underground networks of sewer tunnels. These massive underground engineering projects created a template that would come to define the twentieth-century metropolis: the idea of a city as a system supported by an invisible network of subterranean services. The first steam train traveled through underground tunnels beneath London in 1863. The Paris metro opened in 1900 followed shortly by the New York subway. Pedestrian walkways, automobile freeways, electrical and fiber-optic cabling coiled their way beneath city streets. Today, entire parallel worlds exist underground, powering and supporting the cities that rise above them. We think of cities intuitively now in terms of skylines, that epic reach toward the heavens. But the grandeur of those urban cathedrals would be impossible without the hidden world below grade.