Today in 1837, an act to incorporate the city of Chicago passed.

All communities have ups and downs, of course, but for Chicago some of those were literal: the city was once raised fourteen feet, building by building.

Chicago was built on swampland; it was at about the same level as the Chicago River running through the city and Lake Michigan to its east.

That meant when it rained, the water didn’t drain from high ground into the bodies of water; it just hung around and filling the city streets with mud.

Pedestrians, horses and carriages were all getting stuck- and muddy.

And residents were getting sick: all that standing water increased the risk for disease.

So the city decided it needed to build a system to handle wastewater and stormwater.

But the only way to make room for that system’s pipes was to raise the existing structures and build new roads on top.

In the mid 19th century, workers in Chicago started putting jackscrews underneath dozens of buildings; the biggest structures would take thousands of them.

When the head engineer gave the signal, the workers all started very slowly raising the buildings, so slowly that there are stories of people who supposedly went into a building and came out not realizing they would have to take more stairs down than they took up.

Not every building was raised; some people left their original ground floor below the new street level and used stairs or even bridges to get to the new roads.

But still, lifting and moving huge buildings and then rebuilding a city underneath it was a massive job, one Chicago could’ve celebrated for decades and even centuries to come.

Why didn’t that happen?

Because not long after those buildings went up into the air, many of them went up in flames, in the Chicago Fire of 1871.

Today in 1791, Vermont became a state.

Next time you’re there, be sure to drop by a local landmark in Burlington: a 38 drawer tall filing cabinet.

It’s a commentary on bureaucracy, in case you’re wondering.

Chicago’s ‘sunken’ homes are remnants of a bold effort to raise the city out of the mud (WGN)

Tallest Filing Cabinet on Earth (Atlas Obscura)

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Photo by Sean Birmingham via Flickr/Creative Commons