Abstract: The Creative Destruction of the Chicago River Harbor, 1889–1906

Joshua Salzmann


This paper examines some of the spatial and political implications of the shift from wooden sailboats to steel steamships for the world's fourth largest port, Chicago. From the city's founding in the 1830s to the 1890s, the Chicago River, which encircled the central business district, had been the city's single most important commercial artery. In 1889 the Chicago River reached its commercial peak, handling 10,994,036 tons of freight. By 1906 the river carried only 5,011,786 tons. The rapid decline of commerce on the Chicago was the result of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called a "gale of creative destruction," or a sweeping technological or market transformation. In the 1880s and 1890s, lake lines purged sailboats from their fleets and replaced them with iron and steel ships. These larger ships strained the physical capacity of the harbor and exacerbated competition between overland and river travelers for rights of way. Due to the political geography of the city, Chicago's elected officials often ignored navigation problems on the Chicago River as industry fled to more commodious ports. This paper examines how two physical barriers—center-pier bridges and river tunnels—blocked the passage of large ships, contributing to the demise of the Chicago River port.