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Book review: “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by William Cronon

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Chicago exploded onto the world in the mid-19th century, rising in a few decades from a lonely frontier outpost to an economic behemoth that, except for New York, exerted more influence and flexed more power by far than any other American city.

In his classic, ground-breaking work Nature’s Metropolis, published in 1991 and still the best book ever written about Chicago, William Cronon notes:

During the nineteenth century, when Chicago was at the height of its gargantuan growth, its citizens rather prided themselves on the wonder and horror their hometown evoked in visitors. No other city in America had ever grown so large so quickly; none had so rapidly overwhelmed the countryside around it to create so urban a world.

Those who sought to explain its unmatched expansion often saw it as being compelled by deep forces within nature itself, gathering the resources and energies of the Great West — the region stretching from the Appalachians and Great Lakes to the Rockies and the Pacific — and concentrating them in a single favored spot at the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan…a city destined for greatness by nature’s own prophesies: Nature’s Metropolis.

Favored by nature?

For a half century, Chicago played a unique role in vast changes in the food Americans ate, in the ways they shipped and traveled, in the types of goods they bought and sold, in the sorts of homes they built, in the methods they used to communicate and in the systems and schemes they developed to make money.

And not only Americans. The transformation of the U.S. way of life which hinged in so many ways on the city on Lake Michigan has spread and continues to spread across the globe.

Yet, despite the booster conception of Chicago as being extraordinarily favored by nature, the story of the city’s growth and impact is, as Cronon makes clear, much more complex.

Indeed, he writes that the engine behind the transformation of the American landscape and economy didn’t have to be Chicago.

Had Chicago not been so successful in extending its reach toward the Rockies, some other city or cities would surely have done so, for the task of binding together city and country was the preoccupation of the age.

Why Chicago?

So why was it Chicago?

In its nearly 400 pages, Nature’s Metropolis provides literally dozens of reasons, but there are two key factors:

• Chicago’s location at the meeting place of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.
• The decision of capitalists in New York City and elsewhere in the East to invest in Chicago.

And, of the two, the second was most important. Cronon writes:

Despite the booster arguments, Chicago’s location at the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan carried no automatic geographical significance. What gave the site its importance was the emerging commercial and industrial primacy of the American Northeast.

An eastern-oriented economy “naturally” looked across the lakes to Chicago as the westernmost point of cheap water access to the agricultural heartland of the interior. Just as “naturally,” easterners saw Chicago as the logical place in which to invest funds for encouraging the flow of trade in their direction.

New York and Chicago

Chicago rose because New York had risen.

It was New York, rather than New Orleans or Boston or some other place, that had developed into the nation’s chief link with Europe. New York had become the gateway city for North America, the marketplace of marketplaces for the exchange of hundreds of goods and services.

In the West, Cincinnati and St. Louis had served as gateway cities. Both were river towns that focused their trade on waterways to New Orleans. But their only links to New York were overland.

Chicago, by contrast, was connected to the East through Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes. Cronon notes that, in 1834, a quarter of the 865 subscribers to Chicago’s first newspaper, the Democrat, were held by Easterners. Many of these were residents of or traders with Detroit, Buffalo and New York City.

Together, those three cities traced the string of lakes, canals, and rivers that would channel the flow of information and resources between Chicago and the East.

The I&M Canal

These same Eastern investors fueled the first wave of land speculation in Chicago when, in the 1830s, city lots were sold to raise money to pay for the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal.

Completed in 1848, “the canal brought striking changes to the regional economy,” writes Cronon. Suddenly, Chicago was an alternative market for Downstate farmers who, previously, had relied on natural water routes to get to and from the trading center of St. Louis.

By avoiding the risks and frustrations of the muddy roads leading to Chicago, farmers could bring much more of their produce to market, and purchase greater quantities of urban manufactured goods….The canal almost instantly expanded Chicago’s hinterland southward to the Mississippi River just above St. Louis.

Deep potential

The canal points up an element of deep potential implicit in the site at the mouth of the Chicago River.

A sandbar had developed at that point where the river emptied into Lake Michigan, creating one of the lake’s best harbors. Although the river itself was tiny and didn’t go very far inland, its southern branch ended in a boggy marsh later called Mud Lake. At the other end of this wetland was the Des Plaines River.

Indians and, later, French traders learned that, in rainy seasons, the water level in the marsh would be high enough for them to paddle from the one river to the other. In drier times, they had to carry their canoes — portage them — over the six miles of swamp between the waterways. It was a strenuous undertaking, but provided a direct link to and from Lake Michigan.

Mud Lake was on a ridge, just 15 feet above the level of the lake, that was the dividing line between the two greatest watersheds east of the Rocky Mountains. Cronon writes:

East of the ridge, water flowed down to the lake and on to the St. Lawrence River; west of the ridge, water flowed south to the Mississippi…By canoeing [or portaging] across it…one could paddle halfway across the continent, from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico.

Agents of the French government who came through this area — Louis Jolliet in 1673 and Robert Cavelier de La Salle in 1682 — recognized the significance of Mud Lake, as well as the clumsiness of those six miles of portage. Their solution: a canal cut through the marsh to link the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers, and, through them, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

What humans made

The I&M Canal was the fulfillment of that dream. And the result was just what Jolliet and de La Salle had predicted.

It is significant that it wasn’t so much the “natural” location that brought about the success of the city called Chicago, as it was the change that humans made in that location.

Chicago was a boundary in two ways. It was a boundary between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River (not very profitable since the river didn’t go far inland), and it was a boundary between the eastward draining and westward draining watersheds (not very profitable because of the costs of portaging in time and money).

Investors, settlers and boosters took advantage of these boundaries by cutting the canal, linking the Chicago River with the Illinois River (another tributary of the Mississippi) and suddenly turning Chicago into the corridor — or gateway — between the two sides.

Nothing unchanged”

Yet, at the same time, those people were also manipulating nature in an even more momentous way that would bring together East and West at Chicago — the crossroads and the gateway.

In 1848, the year the canal opened, work began on the city’s first railroad, the Galena and Chicago Union.

It never actually reached Chicago, except, in a way, through a later agreement with the Illinois Central. But Cronon notes that, like the canal, the Galena and Chicago and the other railways that followed had an immediate impact on the way people in the city and its trading region lived and how they did business.

The railroad left almost nothing unchanged; that was its magic. To those whose lives it touched, it seemed at once so ordinary and so extraordinary — so second nature — that the landscape became unimaginable without it.

Redefining time and space

Across the flat prairieland of Chicago’s region, railroads — bankrolled by Eastern investors — laid down straight lines of tracks that ignored mud and weather and reduced the seasonal cycles of trade. Together with telegraph lines, the railroads vastly sped up communications and travel. They operated on a schedule that riders and shippers could rely on.

So important were schedules to the railroads that, in 1883, they imposed a redefinition of time on North America — dividing the continent into four time zones.

No longer would each place have its own time. Instead, under the time zone system, 3:22 p.m. in Chicago would also be 3:22 p.m. in Dallas, Texas, and in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Omaha, Nebraska. (But 4:22 p.m. in Toledo, Ohio, and 1:22 in Los Angeles, California.)

Railroads represented a huge investment of capital, and, as Cronon writes, the result was great economic power. Yet, with that power came great risks. To overcome those risks and find profitability, the operation of a railroad required unprecedented coordination, fact-gathering and statistical analysis.

All this, as well as Chicago’s location as a gateway of waterways, would have a direct, determining impact on the city’s future. Cronon writes:

The lake, the harbor, the river, and the canal might by themselves have made Chicago the most important city in northern Illinois, but they would never have made it the interior metropolis of the continent. Water routes would help shape the railroads — by competing with them, by sharing business with them, not least by influencing where they would be built — but the last quarter of the century saw these waterways become ever more marginal to the city’s economy.

The greatest railroad center in the world

Chicago’s position as the link between waterways helped focus the railroads on the city.

It was a convenient and economical place for the managers of western railroads to establish their terminals. This enabled them to take advantage of connections with canal and river boats to the west, as well as to lake transports heading east, a competitive alternative to the eastern railroads. The eastern roads placed their terminals in Chicago because the city provided those water route links as well as an intersection with western railroads.

No railway company operated lines out of Chicago in both directions.

What this meant was that Chicago became the gateway for the eastern and western railroads — and the greatest railroad center in the world. Cronon writes:

[A] deeper reason for the city’s success was its location on the watershed between two quite different systems of corporate competition. East of the city, the railroads were known as “trunk” lines: low-cost, high-volume competitive routes following a tight corridor across the nine hundred miles to New York.

West of the city, the visual metaphor of the railroad map changed from trunk to fan, with lines diverging like rays from a central point to spread hundreds of miles north and south before continuing their westward trend…..

By defining the boundary between two railroad systems that operated within radically different markets — even as both sought to meet the same fundamental problems of fixed costs and minimum income — Chicago became the link that bound the different worlds of east and west into a single system….Chicago became the principal wholesale market for the entire midcontinent.

An over-awing presence

This brought great benefits — and great power — to Chicago.

For a variety of managerial and competitive reasons, railroad shipments to and from Chicago were given lower rates. With the centralization of railroads in Chicago, the city became the center of such industries as grain, lumber, meat-packing and finance. It was the hub of vast networks of supply and demand.

And a major catalyst in the transformation of the American way of life.

No longer was a farmer as isolated as his or her frontier forebears had been. The railroads that took a farmer’s produce to Chicago came back with mass-produced clothing, machinery and hundreds of other items that made life easier.

And no longer were Americans as focused on tilling the land. More and more, the children of farm families made their way to Chicago to find their future.

Chicago seemed an over-awing presence. It seemed a new kind of city, one that had arisen out of nothing — like magic — to wield immense influence across the midcontinent, across the entire nation, even across the oceans.

“Not a thing but a relationship”

Yet, as Cronon makes clear, the story about Chicago isn’t really about the city.

It is about Chicago as the most visible embodiment of a city-country system that, even as it succeeded, hid its connections. It was — and still is — possible, he notes, to buy a piece of lumber in Chicago without considering the forest it came from. To eat a steak without thinking of it as once in the body of a steer.

Chicago has reaped great profit from its location and from the human manipulation of that location. Nonetheless, the city was nothing without its hinterland — the region that Chicago and its railroads and its industries served and were served by.

Referring to boxes and barrels stacked on the sidewalks of Omaha with the word “Chicago” stenciled on them, Cronon writes:

All were about buying and selling, about city and country confronting each other to discover their common ground in the marketplace. All were about capital, which was itself not a thing but a relationship. The geography of capital was about connecting people to make new markets and remake old landscapes.

City and country, Cronon asserts, were not separate entities, but a single intertwined, inseparable unity. A partnership, an organism.

And the same is true today.

“Stored sunshine”

Similarly, the story of Chicago isn’t only about this city-country system for making and spending money.

It’s also about an essential foundation of that wealth — the unexploited natural resources, which, once the Indians were pushed off the scene, were “free” for the taking.

These resources included the vast prairies to the west of Chicago; the dense forests to the east and north of the city in Michigan and Wisconsin; and the oncean-like herds of millions of bison out further west. Cronon notes:

In nature’s economy, all organisms, including human beings, consumed high-grade forms of the sun’s energy — foods — and transformed them into low-grade ones. Although plants might convert the sun’s energy into usable carbohydrates, and animals might then concentrate that stored energy in their flesh, they all finally drew their sustenance from the light of the nearest star.

The abundance that fueled Chicago’s hinterland economy thus consisted largely of stored sunshine; this was the wealth of nature, and no human labor could create the value it contained. Although people might use it, redefine it, or even build a city from it, they did not produce it.

“Fit to be exterminated”

Think of it like a bank.

For eons, the treasure of sunshine invested in the plants and animals of the midcontinent, as well as indirectly in the soils and rains, was relatively stable. No plant took much more than it gave back. No animal either.

Then came American settlers and investors who put this sunshine to use in ways that went far beyond subsistence. They tapped into this wealth not only to live but, even more, to make money. It was this process that settled the Great West and built Chicago.

And why not? As one writer asserted in the 1860s, “[T]he forest is only fit to be exterminated.” And not only the forest, but whatever else in nature that humans want to take advantage of.


Cronon likens this to thievery:

The deaths of the forest trees had indeed built farms on great rolling prairies, and towns and cities had indeed sprung up as a result of the white pines’ sacrifice — but not on the forest soil itself. The wealth that the northern pines had stored as natural capital had been successfully transformed into a more human form of wealth, but the vast bulk of it had been moved to another soil, another landscape, another ecosystem.

The forest had been consumed in pursuit of a vision that would triumph in the grasslands and, even more, in the city of Chicago — but not in the Cutover. The old blackened stumps would continue to serve as reminders, like the gray stones in an abandoned churchyard, that the city and its hinterland had originally been the products of a kind of theft that few now wished to remember.

Further, he notes

Chicago’s explosive growth was purchased at the expense of prairies and forests that had spent centuries accumulating the wealth that now made “free land” so attractive. Much of the capital that made the city was nature’s own.

“Excessively alive…excessively dead”

This is what is routinely overlooked in histories of Chicago as well as histories of the settling of the Great West. This, and the cost that was paid — and is still being paid — in animal lives.

One example, of course, is the slaughter of the buffalo which, over a four-year period (1870-1874), resulted in the virtual extinction of the species that had once been so numerous as to blacken the prairie. They were killed for their hides, and for sport, and to eliminate the means of support of Plains Indians, and to open the land for farming and ranching.

Another is the way that the calculus of profit-and-loss resulted in changes in the life cycles of cattle and pigs, a shortening of that life cycle and an end on the killing floors of the slaughterhouses of Chicago’s Union Stock Yards.

Watching the “slaying” of squealing, jerking pigs there, British writer Rudyard Kipling described how the animals “were so excessively alive…And then they were so excessively dead….”

“A moral act”

This means of death for cattle and pigs, Cronon writes, were filled with pain and terror. He notes:

In the packers’ world, it was easy not to remember that eating was a moral act inextricably bound to killing.

Such was the second nature that a corporate order had imposed on the American landscape. Forgetfulness was among the least noticed and most important of its by-products.

In Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon takes aim at that forgetfulness. He reminds the reader again and again that the growth of Chicago and its hinterland — the growth of the interdependent city-country partnership — didn’t exist in a vacuum. And doesn’t today.

There is a similar partnership between humans and nature. Like the city and country, humans and nature form an interdependent organism.

Nature’s Metropolis is an account of how nature was exploited to create Chicago and its hinterland and the consequences of those actions.

It is a reminder to us today that we are in the same partnership with nature. That our actions have consequences. That our relationship with the natural world is, at heart, a moral one.

Patrick T. Reardon


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