The “creative destruction” of the environment that led to Chicago’s importance as an urban center involved the exploitation of natural resources and the development an infrastructure. One crucial, unique feature was the location at the lower edge of Lake Michigan and on the Chicago River, enabling connection from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Despite the harsh winters, the climate overall was suitable for agriculture as well as animal husbandry. The availability of stone for construction and coal for fuel was also significant. The United States's expansion through the Louisiana Purchase increased the strategic importance of the city as a gateway in the East–West direction as well, facilitated by the corresponding expansion of land-based transportation. The coast-to-coast land route was consolidated after the Civil War, with the completion of the nationwide railroad in 1869.
In and around this central Midwestern location, multiple productive tasks could be completed within a short distance. These included the ability to grow crops such as corn, raise animals including cattle and pigs, process these resources into marketable products, store the products, and transport them. The McCormick family, for example, further developed its wealth through investment in downtown Chicago, following the success of the harvesting machine in transforming mechanized agriculture.
With the growth of industries, however, came environmental degradation. Water pollution resulted from agriculture, food processing, and transportation. Near the city, the growth of heavy industry, including steel production, exacerbated these problems. The political-economic atmosphere at the turn of the twentieth century favored unregulated expansion, which supported the control of monopolies, which were not inclined to expend resources on environmental cleanup.