The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

Origins of an Idea: 1830s-1850s

Several years before the City of Chicago officially incorporated in 1837, the small village began to experience a flurry of land speculation. Native Americans had been pushed west of Chicago, and Fort Dearborn, a military outpost, had been installed some years earlier to protect what was then the nation's westernmost boundary. Speculators were particularly attracted by Chicago's strategic location at the juncture of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. For years, American Indians and voyageurs traveled from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan by portaging their canoes through a marshy area between the Des Plaines River and the South Branch of the Chicago River. The federal government sanctioned the construction of a canal to develop this site into a major transportation route. Anticipation of the new canal fostered a surge in the town's population from fewer than 200 in 1832 to 3,265 in 1835.

The Illinois legislature appointed a Board of Canal Commissioners, which began planning for the sale of thousands of acres of land to fund the construction of Illinois and Michigan Canal. Residents of the fledgling city began to fear that the sale of land along Chicago's lakefront would lead to commercial and industrial development. Town leaders met on 2 November 1835 to discuss the need to save some of the federally owned lakefront property as open space. Because of this public forum, when sales maps were drawn, the Canal Commissioners labeled two parcels as "public ground." One was west of Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Washington streets, dedicated in 1839 as Dearborn Park (which no longer exists). The other, located between Madison and Randolph streets on the edge of the lake, was marked with the notation "forever to remain vacant of buildings." 1 This grassy strip was transferred to the city during the 1840s and formally dedicated as Lake Park. Although it developed slowly, it would become the first piece of today's Grant Park, now known as Chicago's front yard.

As Chicago experienced rapid growth during the early 1840s, clever real estate speculators began creating small public squares and parks to boost property values in the neighborhoods they developed. Examples include Washington Square, established by the American Land Company in 1842; Goudy Square, by developer H.O. Stone in 1847; and Union Park, by developers Hayes, Johnson, and Baker in 1853.

In 1849, real estate speculator and city booster John S. Wright imagined a much more ambitious scheme of park development that would benefit all of Chicago:

"I foresee a time, not very distant, when Chicago will need for its fast increasing population a park or parks in each division. Of these parks I have a vision. They are improved and connected with a wide avenue, extending to and along the lake shore on the north and the south, and surrounding the city with a magnificent chain of parks and parkways that have not their equal in the world." 2

Twenty years later, Wright's idea led to the development of one of the nation's first boulevard systems. At the time, however, the concept did not move forward, and the city continued to purchase and accept donations of land on a piecemeal basis.


1. Fort Dearborn lands dedicated as public open space in 1839 from Illinois Central vs. Illinois, 1892, reprinted in J. Theodore Fink, Grant Park Tomorrow: Future of Chicago's Front Yard, 1979, p. 16.
2.Reprinted in "The Public Parks of Chicago, Their Origin, Former Control and Present Government," Chicago City Manual, 1914, p.7.