Urban Quagmire: Law and Chicago's Wetlands, 1820-1920

EPA Grant Number: U914745
Title: Urban Quagmire: Law and Chicago's Wetlands, 1820-1920
Investigators: Mendelsohn, Betsy T.
Institution: University of Chicago
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Project Period: January 1, 1995 through January 1, 1996
Project Amount: $102,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (1995) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Fellowship - Social Sciences , Environmental Justice , Academic Fellowships


The main objectives of this research project are to: (1) find and read primary sources for empirical information relevant to water, wetlands, Chicago law, public health, and industry; (2) identify significant events and actors for an environmental legal chronology of the city’s history; (3) create maps to analyze some of the information; and (4) use secondary sources to create a story that links these events.

I have restricted the study geographically to: (1) the first area of nuisance trades along the Chicago River in the current Loop area; and (2) the last area of extensive industrial development around Lake Calumet on the far south side of the city. It also is restricted by time to the story before 1920, or the period of most rapid industrial and urban growth. Many legal mechanisms that control pollution and land use today were created in this period, shaping succeeding waves of industrialization and pollution regulation.


To date, I have completed much of the research on Chicago's history, the locations of pre-Civil War nuisance trades, and the Progressive era use of law to reform social ills. I also have read through the annual reports of the Bureau of Public Works that supervised water and sewerage systems in the city. In the winter and spring, before the grant period begins, I am surveying repositories of legal documents in Chicago, identifying ordinances, relevant public agencies, and methods of enforcement, as well as significant cases brought to the courts. Much of this information will come from the pre-1871 Common Council records, a cache of documents thought lost to the Chicago Fire in 1871 and rediscovered only a decade ago. I also am examining Army Corps of Engineers maps that show changes to drainage patterns in Chicago, and to river channels and sloughs. Lastly, I am reading the manuscripts of naturalists at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Field Museum, to trace ecological changes near the metropolis. In March, I will present a paper on law and industry in the lake Calumet area at the American Society for Environmental History conference. By June, I will have drafted chapters 1 and 5. The grant will allow me to complete the work I have begun, and give me the freedom to do it thoroughly.

In the research schedule that follows, I have planned two East coast trips, but the bulk of research and writing will use Chicago and Springfield institutions. I have organized the writing process for each chapter into outline, draft, and completion phases, and the first two correspond strongly with research in progress for a given month. I am involved in two dissertation writing groups and two academic workshops, all of which are good venues at which to receive criticism on my chapter drafts, for incorporation into the completed chapters. I also will create external deadlines to keep writing on schedule, such as proposing chapters to present at various professional meetings, including the Urban History Association panels at the Organization of American Historians meeting, the American Society for Legal History meeting, and the 1997 American Society for Environmental History meeting. Lastly, I am writing course proposals for teaching opportunities at the University of Chicago, in the hope of leading a class or seminar related to the dissertation. Hearing challenges to my work will keep the writing process alive for me, and I will seek these presentations as opportunities to give closure to a chapter by finishing a draft, as well as to challenge its argument in order to make a stronger completed product.

Supplemental Keywords:

fellowship, pollution, land use, Chicago, industrialization., RFA, Economic, Social, & Behavioral Science Research Program, Scientific Discipline, Water, ECOSYSTEMS, Water & Watershed, Terrestrial Ecosystems, decision-making, Ecology and Ecosystems, Watersheds, Economics & Decision Making, Environmental Law, policy analysis, urbanization, wetlands, environmental decision making, decision making, legal chronology, environmental policy, culture and social practices, changing environmental conditions, environmental protection, Chicago, public policy, ecological research, land use, wetlands planning

Progress and Final Reports:

  • Final