There are only a limited number of options to deal with SLR and land subsidence. One of the more obvious ones is raising buildings. There is of course limitations as to how many buildings you can possibly raise to save the habitats from inundation. Raising a whole city? Not likely.
Yet in the middle of the 19. Century the city of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan tried just that. The story is so extraordinary that I first assumed it to be an urban folklore from a place that has no shortage of urban legends. By the 1850s, the sanitary and health situation in Chicago had become unacceptable due to large pools of standing and infested water building in the city. Central Chicago is almost at sea level of Lake Michigan, making drainage difficult. In order to install a new sewerage system, the street level of central Chicago as well as most of the buildings had to be elevated between 1 and 2 meters.
The feat was achieved in a piecemeal fashion and over the cause of several years. Many large buildings like the Tremont House hotel (6 stories high and over 1 acre (4,000 m2) of ground space) or the Robbins Building were elevated in one piece by use of jackscrews:
“Business as usual was maintained as this large hotel ascended, and some of the guests staying there at the time—among whose number were several VIPs and a US Senator—were oblivious to the process as five hundred men worked under covered trenches operating their five thousand jackscrews. One patron was puzzled to note that the front steps leading from the street into the hotel were becoming steeper every day and that when he checked out, the windows were several feet above his head, whereas before they had been at eye level. This hotel building, which until just the previous year had been the tallest building in Chicago, was raised 6 feet (1.8 m) without incident.” (from wikipedia)
The Franklin Building was elevated in 1860 not with jackscrews but with hydraulic power. In the local newspapers on April 30th, 1860, citizens were invited to witness the event with the following note on the front page:
“The public are respectfully invited to be present between the hours of 1 and 3 o’clock P. M. on Monday, to witness the process of raising buildings by Hydraulic Pressure, at the four story brick buildings known as the Franklin House, now being raised to grade, and at that hour the machinery will be in operation.”
The images and articles from this period of the city’s history have become emblematic of the spirit of Chicagoans and their entrepreneurial bravery and wit. The Chicago Tribune in 1865 called it a “truly Herculean task”. In a sense, Chicago was really pulling herself up by her boot strings. The story serves as a striking example of how adaptation measures constitute to urban history and identity.
Thanks to Jeff Goodell’s video lecture for the lead.