NATURE'S METROPOLIS: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon

NATURE'S METROPOLIS: Chicago and the Great West

KIRKUS REVIEW

A meticulous, weighty study of the interrelationship of Chicago and the western frontier during the last half of the 19th century, told in terms of what Cronon (History/ Yale; Changes in the Land, 1983) calls the ""commodity flows"" of grain, lumber, and meat. ""The history of the Great West,"" Cronon writes, ""is a long dialogue between the place we call city and the place we call country."" By following the development and transport needs of the grain, meat, and lumber industries, he shows that the growth of Chicago had as much to do with eastern business interests as it did with any notions of pioneer spirit. Chicago became ""a junction of Eastern means and Western opportunities."" When the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848, it was an attempt to improve on the already marginal waterways of the Chicago River and the Great Lakes. By 1852, more than half the city's wheat arrived by railroad; by the end of the decade, Cronon notes, over 2,500 miles of track had been added in Illinois. The growth and fortunes of the city, he says, depended on climatic and economic conditions of the western lands and settlements--and vice-versa. The organization of the Board of Trade and its institution of a standard grain-grading system in the 1850's, coupled with technological advances such as the telegraph, elevator warehouses, and improving rail systems, assured Chicago's position as Gateway City, despite stiff competition from St. Louis. Cronon shows, however, how Chicago became ""very much a victim of its own success. By combining with the railroads to open so large a market for so vast a region, it had encouraged the human migration, environmental changes, and economic developments that produced other great cities"" whose emergence by the turn of the century diluted Chicago's domination in the handling and transport of huge quantities of raw materials and wholesale products. An abundance of material, adequately presented and copiously footnoted.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1991
ISBN: 0393308731
Publisher: Norton