William Cronon’s, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is neither a history of Chicago, nor a history of the West. Rather, it is how the growth and change of each of those places happened as a consequence of their relationship with the other during the nineteenth century. Cronon argues that though the ‘city’ and the ‘country’ are often viewed as occupying separate spheres, they “have a common history, so their stories are best told together” (xvi). Much of Nature’s Metropolis is organized around the flow of commodities—grain, lumber, meat—into Chicago from the surrounding countryside, describing how that process changed both city and country. The development of new technologies, particularly the railroad and the telegraph, resulted in new, larger western territories being settled, their landscapes transformed to allow for the production of staple crops and the raising of livestock. As greater and greater amounts of raw materials began to be shipped into Chicago from the West, the city developed new technological and institutional innovations to deal with them. Railroads and telegraphs played a large role in making Chicago the access point to the West for goods from the east coast, and the way to access eastern markets for Western farmers. Further, the growth of western agriculture (and subsequent technological innovations like the grain elevator) resulted in the development of modern financial institutions in Chicago, such as the Board of Trade, grading systems, futures commodity trading, and others. Ultimately, Cronon asserts that farmers, cowboys, and lumberjacks all played primary roles in the growth of Chicago, just as merchants, elevator operators, and traders were essential to the development of the Great West.
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