Early Chicago Streets
Life Span: 1834-1860
History of Chicago, Volume I, A. T. Andreas, 1884
By March, 1833, the State road leading from Chicago to the left bank of the Wabash River, opposite Vincennes, was completed, and during the spring and summer of that year, various minor roads were laid out. Thus, even at this early period, Chicago was becoming a road center. When, later, plank roads commenced to be built, Chicago also took the lead and drew in the trade of all the country around. In August the town of Chicago was incorporated, and one of the orders of the Trustees was given to the first official orders of the Trustees was given to the Surveyor to “pitch” South Water Street from the United States Reservation to Randolph Street, on or before April, 1834. In these days Benjamin Jones was Street Commissioner, and he and his successors were autocrats in their way. The law empowered them to call out anybody between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, to work upon the streets and bridges for three days per annum. The territory within which this law operated covered the country one mile from the center of the town limits. During July, 1834, the Surveyor was required to graduate South Water Street, so that “water should flow from each cross street into the river.” South Water and Lake streets were the two principal thoroughfares of the village, and therefore were early turnpiked and graded. Plank sluices were also built across Clark Street, to carry the drainage to the South Branch, and that street was somewhat improved in 1836.
In the fall of that year Canal Street was turnpiked and far north as Kinzie ; Lake Street similarly improved as far west as Desplaines, and Randolph Street from the river to the west side of Section 9. As late as July 9, 1836, the American calls attention to a pond of water on Lake Street, corner of La Salle, inhabited by frogs.” It smells strong now, and in a few days will send out a horrible stench.” By the winter of 1836 the leading thoroughfares were turnpiked. The next spring Hiram Pearsons commenced to improve his north addition to Chicago, advertising for proposals for ” clearing, grubbing and grading ” Market, Franklin, Chicago Avenue, La Salle, Clark and Dearborn streets also Union, Desplaines, Peyton, Canal, Webster, Spring, Harmon, Hamilton, George, Maria, Elizabeth, Catharine streets, and one-half of Division Street, in the same addition, making in all, fourteen and one-half miles of streets. Most of this work was accomplished before Mr. Pearsons went into bankruptcy in July, 1842.
For several years the work of grading, grubbing and crudely improving the streets went on, but it was not until 1849 that the authorities commenced to generally plank them. As a rule this work amounted to less than nothing, for when the heavy teams broke up the planks, and wet weather came, the pavement was a dangerous and active weapon, flying up into horses’ faces and dashing foot-passengers with mud. As late as 1868 relics of the broken plank could be seen on Blue Island Avenue, and as late as 1859 West Madison and State streets were laid with this planking. Descriptive of the “pavements” of these early days is the following paragraph taken from Brass’s History:
- I said we had no pavements in 1848. The streets were simply thrown up as country roads. In the spring for weeks, portions of them would be impassable. I have at different times seen empty wagons and drays stuck on Lake and Water streets on even” block between Wabash Avenue and the river. Of course there was little or no business doing, for the people of the city could not get about much, and the people of the country could not get in to doit. As the clerks had nothing to do, they would exercise their wits by putting boards from dry goods boxes in the holes where the last dray was dug out, with significant signs, as No Bottom Here,’ ‘The Shortest Road to China.’ Sometimes one board would be nailed across another, and an old hat and coat fixed on it. with the notice ‘On His Way to the Lower Regions.’ In fact, there was no end to the fun; and jokes of the boys of that were of larger growth—were without number. Our first effort at paving, or one of the first, was to dig down Lake Street to nearly or quite on a level with the lake, and then plank it. It was supposed that the sewage would settle in the gutters and be carried off, but the experiment was a disastrous failure, for the stench at once became intolerable. The street was then filled up, and the Common Council established a grade from two to six or eight feet above the natural level of the soil.
The planking of Lake Street, referred to above, was ordered by the Common Council January 22, 1849, and was from the west side of State to the river, through the center of the street, forty-eight feet wide. Prior to 1849 the attention of the citizens had been called to the fruitlessness of using stone pavements upon the streets of Chicago. It did not seem a profitable investment for the city to lay down a pavement which would sink out of sight in one or two years. The experiment of laying plank roads had proved a success in Canada and New York, and accordingly in 1849 the Common Council determined to plank the principal streets of this city. In 1849-50 Market, State, South and North Clark, LaSalle, Wells, East and West Madison and West Randolph were treated to a coating of this material (nearly three miles of pavements) at a cost of $31,000.
Soon after this was commenced a general numbering of the streets In the spring of 1848, Clark Street was numbered from South Water to Randolph. In July, 1850, the Common Council ordered that North Water, Kinzie and Michigan streets be numbered from their eastern termini to Franklin Street; and that Wolcott, Dearborn, Clark, LaSalle and Wells be numbered from North Water to Ontario also that the names of these streets be posted up in large letters on each of their corners.
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