Chicago’s commercial bustle was a common theme in late nineteenth-century depictions of the city. Although Chicago is better known for processing and distributing grain and meat, lumber was likewise at the core of the city’s phenomenal growth into the nation’s center for transforming natural products into commodities. Lake Michigan connected Chicago to the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan, where white pines and hardwoods such as maple, hemlock, and yellow birch were plentiful. Lumbermen shipped milled woods to Chicago’s “cargo market” by Franklin Street, near where the Chicago River divides into two branches. Here lumber commission merchants and buyers gathered every morning during the warmer months on wholesale docks stretching a few hundred feet.
High volume and stiff competition kept prices low, but mill owners preferred Chicago to other Midwestern lumber markets because they knew that there they could make sales quickly and in cash. After the transactions were complete, the new owners towed their shipments to the lumber district, a mile of frontage along the South Branch of the river that was divided into more than a dozen short canals. Wholesalers maintained huge stockpiles in the district, including new shipments of green lumber that needed to dry out, as well as wood ready to be shipped as orders came in. Before the goods could be sold, lumber workers had to sort and grade it.
Chicago’s lumber market emerged in tandem with the city’s railroad network, developing in the 1850s and flourishing in the decades that followed. A Chicago, Burlington and Quincy rail connection at the back of each canal linked the district to the city’s larger rail network. From there, the wood was distributed throughout the Great West, providing the raw material for railroad ties, houses, barns, fences, and other structures. The rail cars that carried grains from farmlands to Chicago often returned west loaded with lumber.
In the years leading up to the publication of this view of the city’s bustling lumberyards, Chicago’s lumber industry grew almost 15% annually. But by the early 1880s, when this image appeared, the business was in decline, Contributing factors included the depletion of the white pine forests in the surrounding region, the rise of traveling middlemen within the industry who drove down profits for the producers, and the shift by railroads to charging for shipments by weight rather volume (making it less profitable to send the heavier green lumber to Chicago). In the article accompanying the illustration, James J. Wait makes no mention of the decline. He instead is intent upon retaining the boundless confidence characteristic of Chicago’s booster tradition. According to Wait, Chicago “is destined to become a larger dealer in lumber every year.”
Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Hotchkiss, George W. History of the Lumber and Forest Industry of the Northwest. Chicago: G.W. Hotchkiss & Co., 1906.
Charles Graham, “The Lumber District of Chicago—View from the West Side Waterworks,” from Harper’s Weekly (New York: Harper’s Magazine Co., 1883), p. 665. The Newberry Library, A5 .392 vol. 27