Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Tale of Two Cities

New York City and Chicago are like two siblings born several years apart. The younger sibling, Chicago, is always in its big sibling's shadow, every day trying to prove itself. Meanwhile, the bigger, more successful sibling lives its life as if its pesky younger sibling didn't matter, or even exist. But the two are still family and the fact is, neither would be what they are today without the other.

Civic boosters love to brag about their city's beauty, its architectural gems, great institutions of higher learning, vast cultural amenities, engaging entertainment venues and splendid restaurants. But those things are the fringe benefits of what creates a successful city. Like the snooty character Maris Crane from the sitcom Frazier, who learns that the source of her family fortune is actually the manufacture of urinal cakes, it comes as a bit of a let down for some to learn that what really put their town on the map, are the more mundane items of life, things like fur pelts, metal ingots, bushels of wheat and corn, lumber and pig meat. It's not necessarily the production of these things that makes for a great city, as they are often harvested or manufactured elsewhere; more important are the resources to market and ship those commodities far and wide. The facility to create and nurture industry and commerce, and the transportation conduits to serve them, are the engines that throughout history, have created and sustained great cities.

They say the three most important factors regarding real estate are location, location and location. Perhaps never in the history of human beings creating cities, has there been a natural spot more ideally located to build a great metropolis than the thirteen mile long, hilly, wooded island at the mouth of the Hudson River called Manhattan. The body of water the Hudson empties into, New York Harbor, is one of the great natural harbors of the world, which itself empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Upstream, the Hudson River was a major gateway to the American interior. But that was not all. The port cities of Boston and Baltimore also had great natural harbors that emptied into the Atlantic. Philadelphia, another major port of the Eastern Seaboard, was built upon the banks of the Delaware River, about 50 miles upstream from its mouth, and the great ocean.

The real gold mine that wasn't immediately apparent to the early settlers of New York City, was a gap in the Appalachian Mountains called the Mohawk Pass. That geographic feature, formed by glaciers during the last ice age near the confluence of today's Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, meant there was no mountain barrier between New York City (via Albany, 150 miles upstream on the Hudson), and the midwest. No other major East Coast port could make such a claim. The only break in the great chain of mountains between Canada and the South, provided the opportunity for a canal to be dug in upstate New York between the Hudson River at Albany, and Buffalo, on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. If such a canal could be built, it would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, and open up a continent.

Erie Canal locks at Lockport, NY.
The difference in elevation between the Hudson River at Albany and Lake Erie
at Buffalo is 565 ft, requiring 35 sets of locks along the course of the canal. 
Two hundred years ago this week, politicians and other muckety mucks stuck their gold plated shovels into the dirt of Rome, New York, marking the beginning of construction of the Erie Canal, the 350 mile long ditch that at the time of its completion in 1825, would forever change the landscape of this country, and the destinies of two of its largest cities, New York and Chicago.

According to the 1830 Census, the six largest American cities all were major salt water ports, five of them on the Eastern Seaboard. In descending order they were New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, and Charleston, SC. That same year, with a population of about 100, Chicago, not yet a city, was a trading post, populated by a mix of French trappers and Potawatomie Indians. The natural geography of Chicago was not as advantageous as New York's as far as building a city. It too was at the mouth of a river that emptied into a major waterway. But unlike the Hudson, the Chicago River was a sluggish stream that was incapable of properly draining the flat topography on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. Unlike Manhattan which rises several feet above the water level and seldom floods, the natural Chicago was a swamp much of the year. Even its name, taken from the Potawatomie word for the wild onions that grew there, (which you can still smell along the banks of the river on the outskirts of town), evokes the soggy character of the place. By 1830, New York already had an influence on Chicago as its richest man, John Jacob Astor laid claim to part of the fur trade in the distant outpost of the midwest. After the opening of the Erie Canal, New York money would float into Chicago by the boatload, both figuratively and literally.

While Chicago's pool table flat topography didn't make for a pleasant experience underfoot, it did provide the future city with a tremendous advantage over its competing Great Lakes settlements. It turns out there is an ever so slight continental divide, all of about 15 feet, that runs through Chicago, a few miles west of the lake. All the water east of the divide, drains into Lake Michigan, via the Chicago River, while the water west of the divide, slowly finds its way to the Des Plaines River west of the city. That river in turn, flows into the Illinois River, then the Mississippi, and ultimately into the gulf of Mexico. This very small divide meant that in 1830, if you wanted to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi by canoe, from Lake Michigan you could enter the Chicago River and paddle upstream to its source, then portage, depending on the season, for about seven miles to the Des Plaines. During rainy season in spring, the portage distance was minimal or even non-existent. For centuries, Native Americans knew of the Chicago Portage as the most direct connection between the Great Lakes and the Great River. The first Europeans to cross the portage were French explorers Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette in 1673. The Chicago Portage would prove to be a geological godsend for Chicago, just as the Mohawk Gap was for New York City.

As the first half of the nineteenth century was the era of the great canals, New York investors became interested in building a canal that would connect the Chicago River with the navigable Illinois River which, together with the Erie Canal. would complete a transportation network bisecting the northeastern portion of the United States, spanning from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River.

Wild speculation due to the rumors of the imminent building of the western canal attracted investors from the east who hired surveyors to parcel up Chicago's land, then paid exorbitant prices for it. One of the first tangible results of the opening up of the Erie Canal as far as Chicago was concerned, was the ending of the peaceable existence between settlers of European origin, and the Native American residents of the region. For a century and a half, the Potawatomie could understand the ways of the white man as far as trading for goods and services were concerned. They could even accept European capitalism at its most basic level. The Native American people and the French trappers lived peacefully together in Chicago, intermarried, and respected each other's property, so long as the owner occupied his land. But cultural differences prevented the Potawatomie, as most Native American people, from accepting the European practice of buying and selling land as a commodity. To the Potawatomie, it made no sense that you could claim land you did not occupy, anymore than you could lay claim to the air or to water.

As the land of Chicago was subdivided and the easterners bought it sight unseen, the Potawatomie kept living upon land that was bought out from under them. Something had to give and as was the case one hundred percent of the time in conflicts between the Native American people and the settlers of European descent, the white man won. Land swaps (swindles if you prefer) were arranged, treaties were forged, and the Potawatomie, along with those of mixed Native American and European heritage who once called Chicago home, were displaced to reservations in the hinterland. Almost overnight, Chicago went from being a French (Catholic)/Indian outpost, to an Anglo (Protestant) city.

The first mover and shaker from New York to move here and call Chicago home, was real estate man, William Butler Ogden. Ogden was hardly impressed with the muddy, free-for-all backwater trading post when he first set foot in Chicago in 1835 . But along with the wild onions, Ogden could smell money. He made a tidy sum selling off some of the by then, over-inflated property his family had purchased before his arrival. Ogden stayed on in Chicago buying and selling real estate and making a fortune. The City of Chicago was formally incorporated on March 4, 1837 and William Butler Ogden was elected its first mayor. When the city became broke during a national panic, Ogden paid off the city's bills by issuing an IOU backed up by his own funds.

Both as mayor, which only lasted eight months, and thereafter, Ogden was instrumental in turning Chicago into a dynamic city. Ogden connected Chicago to its outlying farms by means of plank roads. He built bridges, including the first swing bridge spanning the Chicago River, and encouraged the growth of commerce and industry. With help from his New York investment friends, Ogden turned a backwater settlement into a major city that would be connected to the east, and the rest of the world, by means of the Erie Canal.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal flowing through Utica, Illinois
Ogden was a principal supporter and investor in the Illinois and Michigan Canal which upon its completion in 1848, would span 96 miles between the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport, to the towns of La Salle and Peru, Illinois, thereby completing the last link of the waterway system that would connect the Atlantic and the Mississippi, and all points in between.

By the 1850 Census, Chicago's population rose in twenty years from 100 to nearly 30,000. That was only the beginning. By greatly reducing the time it took to ship goods and transport people to and from the East Coast, the new system of waterways began the process of Chicago supplanting the great port city on the Mississippi, St. Louis, as the transportation hub of the midwest. But almost as soon as the I&M Canal was built, a new and far quicker (if not necessarily more efficient) means of transportation came along. St. Louis probably could have stemmed the tide of losing its role as a transportation hub, had it only accepted change and moved along with the times. But that city was in the grips of the steamboat industry who exerted its control over blocking the construction of a railway bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis.  Instead, a bridge was built about 200 miles upstream at Rock Island, Illinois meaning all trains coming from the west headed directly to Chicago. In contrast to the single-minded investors and city fathers of St. Louis, William Ogden, who was already heavily invested in the I&M Canal, made an about face and turned his interests, and those of his city, to the railroad, thereby leaving St. Louis and its moribund economic engine, in the dust.

This image illustrates the motive power of the Erie Canal in the 19th century,
horses, or in this case mules pulling a boat along their towpath.
By the 1850s, railroads had also taken away much of the business from the Erie Canal, yet the impact of that magnificent public works project, had already changed the nation in countless ways. The canal opened up the Midwest to the rest of the country, making places like Chicago possible. It provided a vast network of westward immigration, changing the primary axis of movement of the country from North-South, up the Mississippi River, to East-West, via the canal. Historians believe this had many profound implications for the development of the country, not the least of which being the exacerbation of the division between North and South which led to the American Civil War. The theory goes something like this: Southerners, who were for the most part sympathetic to slavery, moved up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers into southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. That move was countered by the western movement of New Englanders, most of whom were abolitionists, to the upper Midwest via the Erie Canal. Had it not been for the canal, the Union might very well have had to fight the war without the help of the key states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Nowhere was the objection to build the Erie Canal greater than in New York City. Believing the project to be a boondoggle, pork barrel that would only benefit Upstate New York, the city's politicians dubbed the project, "Clinton's Ditch" and "Clinton's folly", after its chief sponsor, New York governor DeWitt Clinton. The canal opponents were wrong. While the completed waterway did greatly benefit both the agricultural and urban areas of Upstate New York,  the canal also made New York City successful beyond its wildest dreams. Because of the Canal, of all the nation's great Atlantic sea ports, only New York had direct access to the Midwest. Lumber harvested in the great forests of Wisconsin and Michigan could be floated down rivers to be rough milled, then sailed down Lake Michigan to Chicago, where it would be cut to size and finished, then sent on to New York, from where it could be sent anywhere in the world. Crops shipped to Chicago via the I&M Canal would be stored in that city's enormous grain elevators, then sent east when it was needed. Pigs rendered into salt-pork in Chicago's packing plants, steel and all other manner of manufactured goods, made in Chicago, found their way east to New York and beyond. This movement of products, commodities, and people only intensified after the railroads were built between the two cities which followed the same route as the Erie Canal, taking advantage of the Mohawk Pass. Consequently New York became unquestionably the most important ocean port in the United States, and Chicago, the most important inland port. New York also became this nation's banking capital, thanks in part to the financing of the massively complicated and expensive construction of the Canal.

The tremendous opposition to the building of the Erie Canal begs the question, what if the Erie Canal had not been built? It's inconceivable that the westward expansion of the United States would not have taken place without the canal, it just would have been delayed a decade or two as railroads would have taken on the role that the canal served. But those decades were pivotal. Had the western migration of New Englanders been delayed for a couple of decades, they would not have tempered the migration of Southerners into the Midwest. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois may have remained slave states with their sympathies pointing in the direction of the Confederacy. It's hard to imagine such an Illinois electing Abraham Lincoln to Congress, let alone to the presidency of the United States. How Lincoln not being on the scene would have played out insofar as the Civil War and the issue of slavery in the United States is anybody's guess.

It's highly likely that had the Erie Canal not been built, Chicago would not exist, at least not as a major city. Without the influx of major investment from the east, a direct result of the Erie Canal, there would have been no capital to convert it from a swampy backwater marsh into a reasonable facsimile of a city. Much less would there have been the funds to build the Illinois and Michigan Canal which put the city on the map as far as being a transportation hub. With no canals and no Chicago money to build railroads that would go through here, it's very unlikely that the outpost swamp that Chicago would have certainly remained had it not been for the canals, would have been more than a whistlestop on the trunk line between Galena and Toledo, two towns that could very easily have been in contention for being the transportation hub of the Midwest.

When the Erie Canal was completed, New York was already a thriving city, the most populous in the United States . While the populations of most of the major U.S. cities increased incrementally during the 19th Century, New York's exploded after the construction of the Canal. The 1860 census showed that in the thirty years since the Canal's opening, the population of New York City (not including Brooklyn which at the time was a separate city) more than quadrupled. By 1880, New York became the first American city whose population topped one million. No other big American city grew as quickly, except that is, Chicago. In those same thirty years since the opening of the canal, Chicago's population went from 100, to 112,000, breaking into the top ten list of American cities. Ten years after New York broke the million mark, Chicago did the same, finishing for the first time as the second largest city in the United States, in the 1890 census.

The Erie Canal carried over the Genesee River in Rochester, NY by means of an aqueduct.
Unlike Chicago, Upstate New York municipalities such as Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse, to name a few,
already existed as cities before the canal, but their fortunes greatly improved when the canal opened.
It is absolutely certain that Chicago's astounding growth was a direct result of the Erie Canal, and almost certain that New York's was as well. It's all conjecture but without the canal, the first railroads headed east may have decided not to turn right at Albany, but head straight for Boston, where the entry of trains was not quite as prohibitive as on the isle of Manhattan. Had it not been for the canal system that went all the way to the Mississippi, the steamboat companies might not have felt as threatened by the competition and consented to the railroads crossing through their town. If that were the case, the trains originating in St. Louis (which certainly would have been the transportation hub of the midwest), might have made the more direct trip to Baltimore or Philadelphia, greatly increasing the profitability of those citys' ports.

No matter how you slice it, The United States would be a vastly different place had the state of New York chosen not to think big and build that 350 mile ditch. To those of us in Chicago who love this city, the next time we have dinner after we take in a game at Wrigley Field, visit the Art Institute, go to the theater, spend an evening at the Symphony, or just walk along the lakefront, let's all make sure to raise a glass to DeWitt Clinton and to all the workers who gave their blood sweat, tears, and some of them their lives, digging the Erie Canal.

Because without them, we'd be nothing.

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