Liquid Capital: Making the Chicago Waterfront

Liquid Capital: Making the Chicago Waterfront

Liquid Capital: Making the Chicago Waterfront

Liquid Capital: Making the Chicago Waterfront


In the nineteenth century, politicians transformed a disease-infested bog on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan into an intensively managed waterscape supporting the life and economy of Chicago, now America's third-most populous city. In Liquid Capital, Joshua A. T. Salzmann shows how, through a combination of entrepreneurship, civic spirit, and bareknuckle politics, the Chicago waterfront became a hub of economic and cultural activity while also the site of many of the nation's precendent-setting decisions about public land use and environmental protection. Through the political saga of waterfront development, Salzmann illuminates Chicago's seemingly paradoxical position as both a paragon of buccaneering capitalism and assertive state power.

The list of actions undertaken by local politicians and boosters to facilitate the waterfront's success is long: officials reversed a river, built a canal to fuse the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds, decorated the lakeshore with parks and monuments, and enacted regulations governing the use of air, land, and water. With these feats of engineering and statecraft, they created a waterscape conducive to commodity exchange, leisure tourism, and class harmony--in sum, an invaluable resource for profit making. Their actions made the city's growth and the development of its western hinterlands possible. Liquid Capital sheds light on these precedent-making policies, their effect on Chicago's development as a major economic and cultural force, and the ways in which they continue to shape legislation regarding the use of air and water.


In 1818, an employee of the American Fur Company, Gurdon S. Hubbard, described a journey that traders had been making for centuries via a land route, or portage, between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. It spanned a patch of marshland that remains a crucial crossroads today—the site of Chicago’s Midway Airport. the men in Hubbard’s party paddled their barks from the open waters of Lake Michigan into the shallow, sand-clogged mouth of the Chicago River. From there, they ascended the main stem and south branch of the Chicago until reaching the river’s source in a bog at the base of a very low ridge about half a dozen miles from Lake Michigan.

That unassuming ridge was a continental divide, formed more than thirteen thousand years ago when melting glaciers deposited heaps of debris onto the landscape. East of the ridge, water flowed into the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. West of the ridge, water flowed into Mud Lake, a murky appendage of the Des Plaines River whose waters ran southwest toward the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. When Hubbard’s party got to the divide, the river ran dry, and their boats had to be “placed on short rollers … until the [Mud] lake was reached.” For three days, the men slogged through Mud Lake. Hubbard recalled the grueling trek: “Four men only remained in a boat and pushed with … poles, while six or eight others waded in the mud alongside … [and still] others busied themselves in transporting our goods on their backs to the [Des Plaines] [R]iver.” All the while, the men were beset by leeches that “stuck so tight to the skin that they broke in pieces if force was used to remove them.”

The area surrounding that vital and miserable passageway between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds soon became the site of phenomenal urban growth. That growth was the product of collaboration between public policymakers and private businessmen. Over the course of a . . .

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