Sunday, February 1, 2009
Why Chicago??: According to American environmental historian William Cronon, Chicago developed as "nature's metropolis." The land upon which Chicago sits today was conducive to the growth of a major urban area. A low-lying ridge (Valparaiso Moraine) exists about ten miles west (and south) of the city. This ridge ultimately determines how water flows to the Atlantic Ocean. East of the ridge, water streams into Lake Michigan and eventually out the St. Lawrence River. West of the ridge, water trickles down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. With respect to shipping, this distinction in water flow patterns is key. Early Chicago entrepreneurs quickly realized that they could ship goods to Europe by way of New York (Erie Canal) and South America by way of New Orleans (Mississippi River). The geographic location of Chicago necessarily enhanced its prospects for trade. Railroad barons saw huge potential for expansion, especially regarding the agricultural development of the Midwestern plains. Texas cattle ranchers would drive their herds as far north as Kansas in order to meet the railroad lines that would take their cattle to Chicago slaughterhouses. And given the heavy demand for railroads to transport everything from farming produce to raw materials, Chicago became the railroad capital of the United States by the late nineteenth century.