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.