Chicago’s port on Lake Michigan was pivotal to the city’s development as a center of trade and shipping, but the mouth of the Chicago River did not provide a reliable natural harbor. A substantial sandbar made the harbor difficult to navigate and too shallow for large craft to enter. Moreover, the lake’s shifting water levels, storms, and wind constantly altered the sandbar’s size and shape. Between 1816 and 1828, soldiers at Fort Dearborn dug channels through the bar, which quickly began filling again with sand. In 1833, Congress appropriated funds to improve the harbor. This resulted in the construction of piers to create a protected channel through the sandbar. The harbor still required constant dredging to remove the ever-accumulating sand. Breakwaters constructed in the lake in the 1870s and 1880s reduced the flow of sand and silt into the harbor, and efforts to improve the Chicago River Harbor, including those laid out by the Plan of Chicago, continued well into the twentieth century. However, the Chicago River’s role in the commercial traffic of the city peaked in the 1880s. By this time industrial interests had begun to locate near the mouths of the Little and Grand Calumet Rivers, to the south of the city, which were uncluttered by existing development. By the early twentieth century, the Calumet region, extending into northwestern Indiana, had become a major focal point for heavy industrial development such as steel production and oil refining.

 

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