Wild in the City: Chicagoland's Urban Ecology

Humble Beginnings Lead to Rapid Expansion

None of the coming changes were evident when this tree’s tiny sprout popped up from the sandy soil only a few dozen feet from the shallows of the Lake Michigan shoreline. It was around 1830, and what is now Lincoln Park was still a virgin wind-swept savanna. Like much of Chicagoland, it had been touched by little more than a few trails and portages in the thousands of years since the Ice Age glaciers receded, leaving flat land in their wake. Placid as it may have seemed, big changes were already in store. Just a few years earlier, in 1824, a document was signed that would usher in dramatic changes to the environment of northeastern Illinois; official authorization was given to survey a route for a canal connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. While the chosen canal route would begin 6 miles to the south, along the South Branch of the Chicago River, its impact would be felt across the nation.

Chicago was platted by the Canal Commission and incorporated as a town in 1833, when our now massive oak was just a sapling, rising only a few feet above the sandy soil. Bur oaks are slow growers, averaging only about a foot a year when they are young. Unlike our oak, Chicago’s growth was almost alarmingly rapid. In 1837, only a few months after canal construction began, the town of Chicago was upgraded to a city with 4,000 residents. First the canal, and then the railroads, brought a steady stream of settlers to the city. The year 1848 saw the canal open and the first rail line connect Chicago to the East Coast. By 1860, eleven rail lines met in Chicago and the population topped 100,000. Populations skyrocketed in towns along the routes leading into Chicago. During the 1850s, when the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad built their roundhouse and locomotive shop in Aurora, the town’s population jumped 400%.

As this spider web of rail lines expanded across the prairie, local ecosystems were forever altered as settlers concentrated along the new arteries. For decades, Chicago would remain the fastest growing city on the planet and that growth made a massive impact on the swiftly urbanizing landscape.



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