The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

Cemetery Conversion and the Early Parks Movement: 1850s-1860s

cemetery-conversionDuring the 1850s and 1860s, fears about health and sanitary conditions in Chicago spurred a city-wide parks movement. Alarmed by the high mortality rate in their area, Northsiders worried about the health threat posed by a public cemetery located on the edge of Lake Michigan. Dr. John H. Rauch, a physician who served on the Chicago branch of the National Sanitary Commission, determined that standing water accumulating in newly dug graves flowed into Lake Michigan.

Although the city's drinking supply was also contaminated by raw sewage, the cemetery's contamination of the water contributed to the spread of cholera, smallpox, and other diseases. This public health threat soon captured the attention of the entire city. Rauch crusaded to transform the lakefront cemetery into parkland by preparing detailed studies, making presentations to influential organizations, and encouraging prominent citizens to petition Chicago's Common Council.

Rauch's campaign met with success in 1860, when the city set aside a 60-acre unused section as Lake Park. Renaming the site shortly after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, the city hired landscape gardener Swain Nelson to design and improve Lincoln Park.

As citizens throughout Chicago demanded the complete removal of the cemetery, the issue brought attention to the need for a whole system of new parks. A 15 September 1866 Chicago Times article promoted Wright's earlier concept of a network of parks and boulevards to extend along the boundaries of Chicago. Groups of prominent citizens on the north, south, and west sides drafted legislation to realize this ambitious idea.

In 1869, the State of Illinois approved three separate acts of legislation establishing the Lincoln, South, and West Park Commissions. Although the three park commissions operated independently, the overall goal was to create a unified park and boulevards system that would encircle Chicago.