Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The Reader’s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every week in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

On July 4, 1836, while the United States was celebrating 60 years of independence, Chicagoans were preparing to dig a ditch that would change the course of the city forever. In 1987, Peter Friederici looked back on that day in his piece “The ditch that made Chicago happen.”

Even the mischievous boys who filled the ceremonial wheelbarrow with mud before the scandalized eyes of their elders knew the significance of the proposed Illinois and Michigan Canal: it would connect Lake Michigan with the Illinois River, almost 100 miles to the west, thereby linking the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for navigation. It would bring forth a crop of thriving towns from the prairie soil. It would make Chicago the greatest city in the west.

But Friederici didn’t just look to the past, he revisited the historic canal’s path through the city and noted the changes along the route since the water first flowed. The biggest change, of course, is the sheer number of people in the area—only 100 people lived in Chicago. The commute must have been a breeze.