Trust Me, I’m An Engineer: Lifting the City Two Metres Above Ground Improves Your Health

You’re in an open concert for music you don’t like. Three hundred people, nothing too big. With nothing pleasant to focus to, you just start feeling all the people cramped around you, almost taste the metallic reek of sweat floating around, maybe step on random dirt by someone’s spilled drink. Now, take that situation, multiply the number of people by a hundred and add a time frame of a couple of centuries, in contrast to the four hours a concert might take. Boom: you’ve landed in Chicago, 1850. 

The waste problem in Chicago was so bad, it had been blighted from epidemics including dysentery and typhoid fever, and peaked at the cholera outbreak of 1854, which killed about 1,800 people. Finally, the number of people dying on the streets alerted the city council, which started frantically searching for a solution. Which, for today’s standards, would be practically obvious: install a drainage pipe system, in order to at least get rid of human waste, which would the main public health issue. The only problem: Chicago is as flat as a pancake.

(Still is.)

As such, there’s no natural inclination of the ground, in order for the waste to be effortlessly disposed of in the sea. The next solution would be to start digging for the pipes deeper and deeper, but that was prohibitively expensive. So, what to do? In 1856, possibly drunk cause there’s no other way someone would suggest this, Ellis Chesbrough (civic engineer, poor soul) came up with The Solution™: if I can’t dig the pipes down, then can I lift the city up?

And he actually went with it.

And it actually worked.

The basic principle was using hydraulic jacks in order to lift whole buildings about two metres off the ground, build the pipe substructure in the inclination that he liked and then creating new foundations to stabilise the building again, while filling up the streets too to match the new height. His engineers and he managed to lift an entire block at once upon said jacks, sometimes rotating or even moving entire buildings around when they were interfering with their plans.


Talk about determination.

If this feat seems almost impossibly cool, that’s because it is,and not only because of its ‘ridiculousness’: because of this Mr Chesbrough, every city utilises another underground city for business including not only sewage but electrical wires and even optic fibers, just like the crew in every single movie: not perceived of most of the time, but impossible to produce a single picture without.


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