A little more than a century ago, in one of the world’s largest cities, Chicagoans lived a lot closer to nature than we do today — as in closer to animals and their smells and their manure and urine.

Consider that, in 1918, some 2,000 dairy cows were being milked each morning in the city. A bit earlier, in 1900, you could wander around the city’s neighborhoods and find 5,000. 

And it wasn’t only cows, but Chicagoans also kept pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, geese and rabbits, as Katherine Macica reports in “Animals at Work in Industrial Chicago,” one of 19 essays in City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History, edited by Kathleen A. Brosnan, Ann Durkin Keating and William C. Barnett.

At least those creatures weren’t ambling up and down the streets, like the city’s horses, the “living machines” that pulled wagons, carts, omnibuses and streetcars.

Macica, a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, reports that 100,000 horses lived in the city in 1890, and, every day, each one produced anywhere from 15 to 35 pounds of manure.  Much of this was deposited on Chicago streets where it dried and became part of the dust that filled the air, but a lot also piled up wherever a horse was stabled.  In one barn, investigators found the floor covered with two feet of manure in addition to a tower of manure seven feet high.

Such grungy facts, for all their disorderliness, are part of the environmental history of Chicago, a story that’s being told comprehensively for the first time in City of Lake and Prairie, a remarkably eye-opening, thought-provoking book.

The Indians reshaping the landscape

This scholarly collection examines the interactions of humans and the natural world at this spot on the planet over a period of some 5,000 years — or from the time when Indian tribes began reshaping the landscape they found here.

That, for me, is one of the most startling insights of City of Lake and Prairie since it flies in the face of the story of Chicago as it has always been told — i.e., that Europeans and American arrived at the junction of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan to find a virgin natural land which they immediately began slicing, dicing and fashioning for their own needs.

Instead, as Robert Morrissey, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign historian, reports in “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois,” the Indians were “prairie creators” who “burned huge swaths of the uplands each year, usually in the fall.”  The grasslands were here but under environmental threat when the Indians arrived five millenniums ago, but, without their help, those prairies would have all but disappeared. Morrissey writes:

“The primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age, ere people, the architects of the prairie,” and the world they created was a hybrid, the natural world shaped and maintained by them.”

Many revelations

City of Lake and Prairie is filled with such revelations about Chicago and its environment, revelations such as these:

  • Epidemics: It took three deadly epidemics of cholera in 1832, 1849 and 1866 before Chicago officials started to take action to address the city’s water quality.  Even so, it wasn’t until the 1920s that fewer people died of outbreaks of contagion — cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid and dysentery — than chronic illnesses, a key measure of a fully modern city.  (“Cholera and the Evolution of Early Chicago,” Keating and Brosnan)
  • Flooding: Chicago is built on a flat landscape close to the water table, leading to a tendency to flood.  Between 1945 and 1965, that flooding grew to epic proportions for two reasons — the beginning of a wetter period of climate and two decades of suburban sprawl which put buildings, highways and other structures in a newly developed space of 450 square miles.  That was as much space as had been developed in this location over the previous 150 years.  “In fulfilling the American Dream, suburban sprawl has the unintended consequence of turning a prairie wetland into a disaster zone on a regional scale.”  (“Too Much Water,” Harold L. Platt)
  • Hidden risks: A spot along the Chicago and Sanitary Ship Canal at Romeoville, 35 miles southwest of Chicago, is the disguised and hidden intersection of three environmental risks to the quality of Lake Michigan water — a binational crude oil pipeline that rises out of the soil to soar over the canal, an electric fish barrier system to protect the lake from two fish species known as Asian carp (“a school of aquatic bullies”) and the canal itself through which, in a controversial way, still disputed by Canada, diverts water away from the lake.  Together, they form a disguised infrastructure that “hides intentional environmental and economic risk-taking.”  (“Water, Oil, and Fish,” Daniel MacFarlane and Lynne Heasley)
  • Forest-shapers: The Chicago region’s majestic Cook County Forest Preserve District was built and shaped during the Depression by low-paid workers under a variety of federal and state programs.  “In the decade just before World War II, thousands of poor and working-class men materially changed land on the outskirts of Chicago, and in the process realized local leaders’ plans for an urban retreat capable of absorbing visits from the city’s 4 million residents….These city dwellers made the Forest Preserves…”  (“Work Relief Labor in the Cook County Forest Preserves, 1931-1942,” Natalie Bump Vena)
  • Pollution: “In stark contrast to the present, smoky skies and dirty water dominated much of Chicago’s physical environment from the 1940s to 1970s.”  In other words, just half a century ago, the city’s air was bad to breathe, and its waters were routinely poisoned.  (“Air and Water Pollution in the Urban-Industrial Nexus,” Steven H. Corey)

Those are just a taste of what’s in City of Lake and Prairie.  Other subjects include the reversal of the Chicago River, the late 19th-century anarchists as green crusaders, the food of newly arrived African Americans from the South and the environmental degradation that Mexican families endured near the South Chicago steel mills

Still others look at the story that historic maps tell and don’t tell about the environment, “accidental” death, garbage dumps, block-beautifying efforts of Chicago Blacks, the woman who inspired the Illinois Prairie Path, the industrial and natural texture of the Calumet Region and the professionals who fought to clean up the city’s environment, starting in the 1970s.

“Child of the great inland seas”

Certainly, one of the most striking essays in City of Lake and Prairie is “An Inland Sea? Coming to Terms with Lake Michigan in Nineteenth-Century Chicago” by Theodore J. Karamanski, a Loyola University Chicago historian.

He points out what much of Chicago history has missed or overlooked or underplayed:

“Chicago was the child of the great inland seas of North America, and Lake Michigan in particular….Lake Michigan shipping became a way to send grain belt harvests east and forest resources south and west; Chicago was the key transshipment point.

“The lake is a structural element in Chicago history…”

Karamanski explains that his goal is to reorient Chicago’s environmental history toward the lake, and his essay, as he writes, “explores how Chicagoans managed and manipulated their inland sea and how that broad restless basin influenced economic production and social constructions.”

In our day, we have come to see Lake Michigan as a playground and as spectacular scenery for city life.  But, in the 19th century, it was an essential commercial aspect for Chicago, “a white-capped wilderness” that was, according to a Herman Melville character in Moby Dick, as dangerous as the oceans.

Nonetheless, the treacherous lake was essential to Chicago’s economic health.  “In 1871, more ships entered and left Chicago than other great ports such as New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia or Baltimore,” writes Karamanski.  Three decades later, it was the fourth busiest port in the world, trailing just London, New York and Hamburg.

Yet, a constant problem was that the action of the lake water piled up sand to clog up the mouth of the Chicago River, and the federal government often turned a blind eye to city requests for help.

One of those times was in 1854. The city petitioned U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis for permission to borrow the army’s steam-powered dredge.  Davis refused.

So, Kamanski writes,

“Disgusted Chicagoans seized the equipment in an act of rebellion and cleared the river mouth.”

Sure, back in the 19th century, the lake was beautiful if you weren’t trying to ride out a storm.  But it was even more an engine of commerce — and that commerce had to be protected.

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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