Early Chicago, 1833–1871
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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March 30, 1849

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In 1832, the federal government began construction of a lighthouse at Chicago and in the following year it appropriated $25,000 to improve the harbor. The major problem was the accumulation of sandbars at the junction of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. By 1835, Chicago was the leading port in the West and in 1842 private funds were used to dredge the harbor entrance. In 1843 and 1844, Congress appropriated a total of $55,000 for harbor improvements. The north pier was extended to a length of 3,900 feet. To help prevent the formation of sandbars, the eastern portion was constructed in an arc extending twenty-five degrees to the north and then back to the original line. A lighthouse of pine timber was placed at the east end. The harbor also was dredged. This work was done under the supervision of Captain George B. McClellan. In 1846, by an act of the United States Congress, Chicago Harbor was made a port of entry to accommodate trade with Canada by way of Lake Ontario. In the same year it again was blocked by sandbars causing larger ships to anchor outside the harbor and to transport their cargoes to the city by smaller vessels. That year President James K. Polk vetoed a bill appropriating funds for Chicago Harbor and other Lake Michigan improvements. The Illinois and Michigan Canal connecting the Illinois River and Lake Michigan at Chicago was nearing completion and it was feared that the canal would be rendered almost useless without a clear harbor for passage through to the lake. Polk's veto outraged many in the West. The Chicago Daily Journal charged him with deliberately neglecting the region in order to promote war with Mexico. In 1847, the city hosted a River and Harbor Convention which attracted 20,000 persons who had economic interests in the Upper Midwest. This was one of the largest assemblages to that time in American history to deliberate an issue. In the end the city itself was forced to make continuous appropriations to dredge the harbor. In 1859, the federal government did make an appropriation of $87,000 for improvements. The city created the position of harbor master in 1848, and in 1861, the Board of Public Works was established with responsibility for the harbor. The city spent $120,500 for dredging in 1871 alone.

Points to Consider

What were soundings?

What was the problem with the harbor and what was the proposed solution?

A River and Harbor Convention was held in Chicago in 1847. Why was it held?

Why did sandbars accumulate in the Chicago Harbor?

See Related Document:

6, 7, 8, 29, and 38

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