Exploring Chicago’s Coast

There are a tremendous amount of ways that our publishers and users utilize Scribd. Today, WBEZ Chicago featured a series of historic maps for an interactive story.

WBEZ’s Curious City sets out to answer questions raised by listeners about the Chicagoland region. This time around, Miriam Reuter wanted to find out how the coastline of Chicago had changed over the decades.

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After months of research and discovery of vintage, never-before-digitized maps were located at the Chicago Newberry Library, producer Robin Amer was able to tell a story that unfolded the fascinating tale of how Chicago’s coast has changed over the course of the past few hundred years, from Native Americans to the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair.

Turns out, the discovery of the beautiful maps at the Newberry presented a unique opportunity to showcase some of the most engaging, visually beautiful maps of the Chicago Coast that very few people had ever seen. Scribd seemed like a natural place to host these images as a complement to the story and can be currently seen on our homepage and in a WBEZ collection.

While many initially look at the sandy shores of Lake Michigan thinking that they were a harbinger to years of geologic evolution, it turns out that much of the landscape is far from natural.

Yes, the lakefront may look natural, but the truth is that it’s taken a lot of work to get this way. Here’s how Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, put it to me: “It’s disguised with trees and shrubs and grass and beaches to make it look like it’s been there from the beginning of time, but in fact, it’s very much a man-made creation.”

Many of the maps that are currently digitized on Scribd show the myriad ways which the coastline has been changed, developed, changed again, and how they are depicted in these beautiful and colorful vintage maps.

Here are a sampling of our favorite maps that were featured on WBEZ’s Scribd page and Curious City’s story today.

Bird’s Eye Chicago
This remarkably precise illustration of downtown Chicago created on behalf of the Illinois Central Railroad Company offers a host of familiar historical details: the elevated trains snaking their way around the Loop; the swing bridges opening to let ships pass in the Chicago River; and a number of buildings still recognizable today, including the Chicago Cultural Center between Randolph and Washington and the former Chicago Athletic Association at 12 S. Michigan Avenue. But for the purposes of considering changes made to the lakefront, perhaps the unfamiliar is most telling: Lake Michigan comes almost up to Michigan Avenue, which is bound only by the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad and a thin strip of manicured green space then known as Lake Park.

A Century of Progress
This illustration commissioned by Rand McNally shows the stunning crop of buildings that sprang up in Burnham Park and on Northerly Island for the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, including a “Hall of Science,” a Mayan temple, a Tunisian Village, Soldier Field and a landing strip for the Goodyear Blimp. Today most of the buildings are gone, but the park, island and harbors remain.

Chicago Harbor & Bar
This map, created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, illustrates how the precise location of the young city’s coastline fluctuated wildly north of the mouth of the Chicago River between the years 1834 and 1858. Over time, silt deposits formed a sandbar that made that portion of the waterway difficult to navigate. The city countered with a set of piers meant to protect the harbor. Businesses — including a blacksmith and a “Store House” — took advantage of the new land and set up shop just north of the pier.

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