By the start of regular canal operations in the summer of 1848, Chicago had developed in a pattern typical for a river town of its size.  Chicago’s initial urban pattern had been established by the street grid laid down in 1830 by surveyor James Thompson in anticipation of its eventual settlement.   This pattern is quite obvious when one views a map from 1848, in which all of the major east-west streets, upon which he had fronted the lots to be sold, have been constructed continuously from the lakeshore to the south branch of the river, while every other of the north-south streets (Dearborn, La Salle, and Franklin) were constructed only from the river south to Madison. The new canal brought harvested wheat from the surrounding farms to Chicago to be shipped to eastern and European markets.  

View along S. Water Street, looking east from State Street, ca. 1856. Note the Sturgis & Buckingham grain elevator in the distance. Wade and Mayer date this image c. 1848, but the elevators weren’t built then. (Wade and Mayer, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

To store the grain until it could be transferred to lakeboats, wharves had sprouted up along both of the river’s banks, between which were wedged their warehouses that fronted onto South Water Street (now Wacker Drive), making the street the city’s grain dealers’ district.  Starved for space, the warehouses had continued along the banks of the South Branch.  

Lake Street’s proximity to the wharves of S. Water Street, 1857. (Holland, Chicago in Maps)

Conveniently only a block south from the river and its warehouses, Lake Street had quickly become Chicago’s commercial strip.   Two blocks south of the river, Randolph Street had become the location of hotels, that prior to 1850 also functioned as office buildings, in which many of the city’s lawyers and other professionals rented space, as it was anchored by the Courthouse located on the northwest corner of the Public Square that James Thompson had fixed in his 1830 survey.  (Therefore, we can also give some credit to his decision to locate the Public Square in the South Division as having reinforced the initial dominance of the South Division in Chicago’s early settlement.)  

The “Church Row” along Washington Street, across from the Courthouse Square. Starting from the top spire at the SE corner of Washington and La Salle: 1.1st Baptist; 2. 1st Presbyterian. Next block down, 3. 1st Methodist, 1st Universalist; and across the street is 1st Unitarian. (Online)

Lining the southern edge of the Courthouse Square, along Washington Street, were the city’s major churches that were some of Chicago’s best-designed buildings at the time (most, if not all of these are believed to have been designed by Van Osdel).  Anchoring “Church Row” was the 163’ tall steeple of the First Presbyterian Church that Van Osdel had designed in 1847, the tallest structure in the city.  By the end of 1847, the steeples of Chicago’s new churches had finally drawn even with the skyscraping masts of the ships that were tied up to the wharves along the river.  

“Chicago may be emphatically pronounced the city of churches… To a traveler viewing it from a distance it presents the appearance of a congregation of spires.”

Chicago in 1845, As Seen from the Southwest. The four spires of the “Church Row” around the Courthouse Square: B.) First Baptist Church; C.) First Unitarian Church; D.) First Methodist Church; E.) First Universalist Church; The 163′ spire of the First Presbyterian Church will not join this crowd until 1847. A.) St. James Episcopal Church; F.) St. Mary’s Cathedral. (Mayer and Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

The east-west axis of Chicago, however, was as short-lived as the importance of the canal.  By 1853, the $1.6 million canal loan had been repaid to its creditors, represented by Barings and Ogden, and the operation of the canal and its tolls were finally turned over to the state.  Charles Butler had sold his lots for a handsome profit, and Ogden had benefited from his construction contracts as well as from his real estate agent fees.  However, the return of the canal operations to state control in 1853 was anticlimactic and greeted with little celebration.  The canal suffered from many problems, not the least of which was an inconsistent supply of water due to the cheaper, “shallow-cut” plan.  More importantly, however, by this date the young canal was quickly becoming obsolete because the real reason for the completion of the canal had not been to improve regional transportation, but to realize a quick return from land speculation to repay the original holders of the canal bonds as well as to profit from construction contracts.  Those who had profited most from the construction of the canal would be responsible for abandoning the canal in favor of an idea whose profit potential was far greater than that of the canal, the railroad, for money was to be made in the mid-nineteenth century not in the operation of transportation systems, but in their construction and in the corresponding giveaways of Tribal lands by the Federal government used to finance them.  And of course, the biggest railroad would be the transcontinetal railroad and that would determine many fortunes, including Chicago’s. 

Ogden was not one to waste time.  Only six weeks after the Grand Opening of the canal, he had a work crew preparing the land at the corner of Kinzie and Halsted to lay the first rail in Chicago’s (the Northern) transcontinental railroad to the Pacific.  It would be completed some twenty-one years later.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago. 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf, 1940.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


From the first shipment of seventy-eight bushels of surplus wheat that Charles Walker had shipped to Buffalo in 1838 (see chap. 4.3), the harvest ten years later saw an increase to a total of 1.97 million bushels appear along the wharves of Chicago in the fall of 1847.  Business was becoming so large that even Walker in 1845 decided to relocate from New York State to Chicago, partnering with his brother-in-law Cyrus Clark to form Walker & Clark, one of the city’s larger grain forwarding companies.  Chicago’s leading grain broker at the time, however, was William L. Whiting, who met with Thomas Richmond, a grain warehouse owner, in Whiting’s office in early 1848, in anticipation of an even larger surplus that the completion of the canal, slated for April, would bring, as well as the corresponding chaos between the “warehousers” and the “brokers” that would result during the coming fall from the selling, trading, storing, and shipping this bulging cornucopia, agreeing that a voluntary Board of Trade was needed to attempt to bring a resemblance of order to Chicago’s grain trade.  A further impetus that encouraged these businessmen was the coming of the telegraph. Although Chicago had been in communication with Milwaukee via the telegraph since Jan. 15, 1848, the telegraph from the East was quickly making its way westward. These men inherently understood what instantaneous communication with the New York markets meant, and it behooved their business interests to anticipate this coming change to their business before it arrived.

They invited the city’s leading businessmen to a meeting in Whiting’s office on March 13, 1848:

“…to maintain a Commercial Exchange; to promote uniformity and equity in trade; to facilitate the speedy adjustment of business suits, to acquire and to disseminate valuable economic information; and generally to secure to its members the benfit of cooperation in the furtherance of their legitimate pursuits.”

The meeting produced a resolution demading the formation of a Board of Trade and a committee was appointed to draw up a constitution and bylaws, that were adopted at a meeting on Monday, April 3, 1848.  George Smith, reflecting the high degree of trust in which his bank was held, was elected to be its first president, but he declined the honor and subsequently, Thomas Dyer, of the firm Wadsworth, Dyer & Chapin was duly elected to lead the new organization and Charles Walker was chosen as its Vice-President.  Dyer had come to Chicago in 1835 from Canton, CT, in search of his fortune.  The following year he had befriended Elisha Strong Wadsworth, a dry goods merchant from Charleston, SC, who together with his brother Julius, had moved their business to Chicago with the hope of improved prospects.  The three became partners in a firm that ran the gamut of early Chicago interests that included drygoods, real estate, grain warehousing, and meat packing.  Julius became ill in 1843 and was forced to retire from the business, being replaced by John Putnam Chapin.  By the time of the organization of the Board of Trade in 1848, Wadsworth, Dyer, and Chapin had become one of Chicago’s larger firms.  The first telegraphic communication from the East arrived three days later on April 6, 1848.  Although, the Board of Trade had a slow start, it would eventually become the leading mouthpiece of the city’s business interests.


Grand Opening of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, April 16, 1848. (Online)

The export of grain became extremely profitable in 1847 with the concurrent crop failures that had occurred in Ireland and Scotland in 1845 and 1846.  The price of grain had also begun to increase as a result of the corresponding repeal of the British Corn Laws on June 25, 1846, Parliament’s attempt to increase the importation of food in light of these crop failures.  In fact, the ensuing famine also helped Ogden complete the canal.  While many Irish workers who had initially dug the Erie Canal had simply moved West to work on the Chicago canal, the demand for laborers had aided the Irish escape from the disaster of the crop failures by immigrating to Chicago where they found work with Ogden on the canal and shelter in the housing Bronson had erected in Bridgeport.  By April 1848, the ninety-six miles of canal from Bridgeport on the Chicago River to La Salle on the Illinois River were completed, and the first canal boat from La Salle, the General Fry, arrived in Chicago on April 10, the event being celebrated appropriately with a grand oration by Charles Walker, who only the week before had been elected as the Vice-President of the city’s new Board of Trade.  The formal opening occurred on April 16, with boats starting from both terminals of the canal at the same time.  On April 24, the General Thornton from La Salle dropped anchor in the Chicago River, loaded with sugar from New Orleans destined for Buffalo.  Her cargo was transferred to the lake steamer Louisiana for the ten-day trip.  The isthmus in the NorthWest had finally been breached and Chicago was in business.

Having accomplished the first half of their task, the canal’s Board of Trustees representing the canal’s investors now turned their attention to repaying the $1.6 million loan and interest.  In control of 224,965 acres and 5,927 town lots with an appraised value of $2,126,355, and aided by the 2% state tax, the Trustees took less than five years to discharge the loan.  The first large sale of canal lots occurred in Chicago during the fall of 1848.  Many of these were purchased by canal laborers who were now starting to till the land they had helped to make accessible.  During the first season of navigation, the canal tolls at Chicago amounted to over $50,000 and lot sales totaled over $400,000.  This money, in addition to the newly generated business, finally restored financial prosperity to Chicago after an eleven-year drought.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Currey, Josiah Seymour. Chicago: its History and Its Builders, a Century of Marvelous Growth

Ferris, William G. The Grain Traders: The Story of the Chicago Board of Trade. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988.

Heise, Kenan and Michael Edgerton, Chicago: Center for Enterprise. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982.

Howe, Daniel Walker.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hutchinson, William T. Cyrus Hall McCormick- Harvest: 1856-1884, New York: The Century Co., 1930.

Mayer, Harold  M., and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University   of Chicago Press, 1969.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf, 1940.

Taylor, Charles H.  History of the Board of Trade of the City of Chicago– vol. 1. Chicago: Robert O. Law, 1917.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


What was thought to be needed to change the minds of Pres. Polk and his supporters was a public event to expose the entire country to the needs and the commerce of the western interior, in order to convince the skeptics of the area’s importance.  Such a plan was first suggested by William Mosley Hall in St. Louis, only weeks after Polk’s veto.  Hall, who resided in Buffalo during the off-season, was the St. Louis agent responsible for the western and southern business of the Lake Steamboat Association, that ran a line of Great Lakes steamers between Buffalo and Chicago.  Hall had planned a promotional dinner in St. Louis just prior to his annual return to Buffalo at the end of the shipping season.  Prior to Polk’s veto, St. Louis had been in anticipation of great things with both the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, once again underway, and Sen. Calhoun’s plans to deepen the Mississippi up to Memphis.  St. Louis was, therefore, very receptive to Hall’s suggestion made during the dinner, that a convention be held in the West to break the legislative logjam.  Naturally, St. Louis believed that the convention should be held in St. Louis.

The pre-railroad routes to the West. The Oregon and Santa Fe Trails converge at Independence, MO, and then on to St. Louis. Calhoun’s proposed deepening of the Mississippi would allow ocean vessels to dock in Memphis. (Online)

The following day, Hall started his long journey back to Buffalo, promoting his idea at every town along the canal’s route. In Chicago he discussed the convention with R.L. Wilson, Dr. W.B. Egan, and S. Lyle Smith, the City Attorney who was a young lawyer in Justin Butterfield’s firm.[i]  Hall eventually made it back to Buffalo, from where he then continued farther along the Erie Canal and the railroads to Boston to enlist as broad a base of public support as possible.  Finally, he traveled to New York City where, on September 28, 1846, he held a meeting with various assembled leaders from cities on the Great Lakes to prepare initial plans for the North-West River and Harbor Convention.

Much to the surprise of St. Louis, Hall recommended and succeeded in having Chicago named as the site for the convention.  This was highly logical, for Chicago was the only major city in the region that was not only located both on a Great Lake and having a river link to the Mississippi, but also had sufficient hotel rooms needed to house the expected number of visitors (while Milwaukee had the same geographic advantages, it could not have provided the number of hotel rooms required at this moment).  Also, the intention of the majority of the convention’s supporters was to promote the NorthWest, and St. Louis was too far south for that purpose.  Probably the most influential factor in Hall’s final decision, however, was that during his visit to Chicago, the city’s representatives with whom he met had evidently offered to pay all of his expenses for promoting the scheme.

The time for the convention was set for the coming summer of 1847, and a committee of nine was chosen to make the final arrangements.  Three of these were Chicago men: Ogden, George Dole, and S. Lyle Smith.  Ogden, the city’s “First Citizen,” called and opened a planning meeting in Chicago on November 13, 1846.  His brother, Mahlon, was appointed one of its two secretaries.  Three committees were formed to finalize the arrangements for the convention that was set to open on July 5, 1847.  To write the theme address, a committee of seven was appointed, including three of Ogden’s associates: Wentworth, Arnold, and J. Young Scammon. Ogden himself was placed not only on the seven-man Committee of Correspondence, but more significantly, was also listed at the top of the (non-alphabetically listed) 110-member Committee on Arrangements.

By the morning of July 5, 1847, an estimated 10,000 people had descended upon Chicago.  What they found was the old boom-town atmosphere of pre-Panic Chicago, for which the town had been notorious, because by 1847 another 4000 residents had settled in so that there were now over 17,000 residents in Chicago to greet the River and Harbor convention, the largest deliberative convention ever assembled in America up to that time.   Among the 2300 officially-listed convention delegates were Democrat Erastus Corning, Albany’s leading iron manufacturer and the soon-to-be President of the New York Central Railroad (to be formed in 1853), Whig Thurlow Weed, the Editor of the Albany Evening Journal and the leader of Albany’s Whig political machine formed in opposition to Van Buren’s Democratic Albany Regency, Whig Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune and one of New York’s more illustrious journalists, and Whig presidential hopeful Senator Thomas Corwin from Ohio.  The festivities began as planned on July 5 with a parade through Chicago’s streets that ended at Dearborn Park, where a huge center pole tent 100 feet square made by sailmaker George F. Foster had been erected to shade the estimated 4,000 seated delegates.  Probably the least biased accounts of the parade came from New Yorker Greeley, who wrote in the July 17, 1847 New York Semi-Weekly Tribune :

“The grand parade took place this morning, and, though the route traversed was short, in deference to the heat of the weather, the spectacle was truly magnificent.  The citizens of Chicago, of course, furnished the most imposing part of it–the music, the military, the ships on wheels, ornamented Fire Engines, etc.  I never witnessed anything so superb as the appearance of some of the Fire Companies with their Engines drawn by led [sic] horses, tastefully comparisoned.  Our New-York Firemen must try again: they have certainly been outdone.”

Once all the delegates were gathered under the large awning, Ogden, representing the original committee of nine formally opened the proceedings.  The major issues debated during the Convention’s three days were best summarized in a speech delivered by Ohio’s Sen. Corwin:

Congress has the power to regulate commerce between the several States.  If you send a cargo of wheat from Chicago to Buffalo, a distance of 1000 miles, crossing lake after lake, stretching away in their magnificent length, would not one naturally think that this might be called commerce?  But no, that is a mistake, we are told.  What is it then, my brother?  Why that is trade (a laugh).  But if you send the same cargo from New York to New Orleans, what is it then?  Well, then it is commerce.  Why is it not in the first instance as well as in the last?  Oh!  It is not on salt water (a laugh).

He begged gentlemen would notice this nice distinction between commerce and trade.  If we are engaged in business upon salt water it is commerce.  If upon fresh water, then it is trade (a laugh).

Such is the beautiful construction of that clause in the Constitution, as given to it in various parts of the Union.  If you are desirous of knowing the construction of that clause, recollect!  You are not to ask the opinion of some able lawyer or erudite statesman, but you must seek some distinguished chemist and have the water carefully analysed to discover whether it is salt or fresh (a laugh).”

Although there was almost complete unanimity among the delegates in the passage of the convention’s numerous resolutions, the convention had no immediate effect on the stalled harbor improvements in Congress.  Besides the immediate influx of money into Chicago from the city’s first convention, however, it had also given the city a chance to promote its regional economic potential at the expense of its rival, St. Louis.  For all practical purposes, the convention can be considered to be William Ogden’s first move in his batle against St. Louis to build the transcontinental railroad to the west not from St. Louis, but from Chicago, for as we will see in the next chapter, by the time he stood in front of the first planning meeting for the convention held the previous November (1846), Ogden was already planning to build the first leg of his “NorthWestern” railroad.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Fergus Historical Series, No, 18. Chicago: Fergus, 1882.

Heise, Kenan and Michael Edgerton, Chicago: Center for Enterprise. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982.

Mayer, Harold  M., and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University   of Chicago Press, 1969.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf, 1940.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


This situation was about to change, however, and with a Southerner in the White House, to the South’s distinct advantage.  Pres. Polk was never more effective in his duplicitous dealings with Congress than he was in inducing Congress to declare war on Mexico on May 12, 1846.  While his predecessor John Tyler had signed the bill annexing Texas with only three days left in his term in office, there was not agreement between Mexico and the U.S. on where the border of Texas actually was located.  Polk used this to his advantage to gain his real objective of conquering as much territory in Northern Mexico as possible for a variety of reasons, including: to connect the southern portion of the country with the Pacific Ocean, to gain new territory to expand the number of southern slave states to offset the population growth in the north, and to gain control over a southern route for a transcontinental railroad.  Knowing he faced stiff opposition from Whigs and Northern Democrats to this expansion, he needed to create a diversion as well as casus belli.  While he falsely let Northern Democrats believe that he supported the 1844 Platform plank that explicitly stated that the U.S. should settle only for all of the Oregon Country (“54° 40’ or Fight” – with more northern land, there would be more northern states and business), Polk had no intention of going to war with Great Britain and would eventually settle on the 49° parallel when the timing suited his overall strategy.  Meanwhile, he secretly instituted military plans and forces in Texas and California that, for the lack of immediate communications of the age, went off, aided by a little luck, with amazing clockwork timing:

-April 23, 1846: The Senate approved a resolution calling for the termination of the 1819 Joint Occupation treaty in response to a mistaken British rejection of a U.S. compromise of the 49° parallel, that reignited cries of “54°40’ or Fight!”

-April 24, 1846: Gen. Zachary Taylor sends a detachment of troops to the the Rio Grande to see if rumored Mexican forces have crossed “the Rubicon.”  They had, indeed, and proceeded to capture the Americans the next day: casus belli, (it will take two weeks for news of this to reach Washington)

-May 12, 1846: the Senate votes for war with Mexico

-May 13, 1846: Polk declares war on Mexico

-May 19, 1846: having tricked his opponents into declaring war on Mexico, Polk accepts a British compromise offer to end the Oregon dispute at the 49° parallel, to avoid a “two-front war.”

-June 18, 1846: the Oregon Treaty was not approved by Congress until, one month after war had been declared on Mexico.

Polk had planned for a quick war, underestimating the Mexican military.  Hostilities lasted for twenty-two months, ending with the Senate’s ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo on March 10, 1848. Mexico ceded its northern states of Santa Fe de Nuevo México and Alta California, north of Gila River, to the U.S. Polk now had his continuous southern land route to the Pacific.

Map of U.S. following the Mexican-American War, 1846. (Online)


Early in 1846, Wisconsin was readying its application for statehood, enviously looking at Chicago’s renewed commercial success, and recalled that according to the original provisions of the Northwest Ordinance, Chicago and Galena were to have been within its borders.  The population contained in this area would more than assure that Wisconsin could meet the minimum of 10,000 needed to apply for statehood.  In addition, many of the towns in the disputed area, such as Rockford, where a mass meeting had been held in 1840 that supported the transfer of northern Illinois back to Wisconsin, felt more closely aligned to Wisconsin than to southern Illinois.  Wisconsin’s territorial representative made this argument to Congress in claiming that the new state’s borders should include all land originally allocated by Congress in 1787.  The two northern Illinois’ Representatives (Wentworth from Chicago and Joseph P. Hoge from Galena) were subsequently promised by Wisconsin’s leaders to be made the state’s first two U.S. Senators if they would support the move.  

As Wentworth later related, however, the canal once again saved Chicago for Illinois:

“Our Chicago people were much divided upon the question, and I really believe serious consequences would have grown out of it but for the embarrassments that would be caused by having the Illinois & Michigan Canal owned by two states.  As an original question, all the five states being out of the Union, there is no doubt that Congress would have enforced the provisions of the ordinance, and Illinois been cut off from the lakes, and her Legislature saved from the annoyance of Chicago lobbyists.  But might made right.”

Meanwhile, Wentworth had kept both the Chicago harbor and canal issues alive in Congress by raising the specter of British power on the Great Lakes during any future war, that in early 1846 was not unlikely, as the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty had not resolved the Oregon border that allowed expansionists like himself, encouraged by Polk’s devious plan to passively support such action until he got his declaration of war with Mexico, to continue to pursue “manifest destiny” in Oregon with the chant of “54° 40’ or Fight”:

“Chicago is within two days travel of British troops by the thousands, and Canada is being overrun by them.  Our country must not, will not give up an inch of Oregon… Great Britain fears all this; and is preparing to resist it.  We must prepare also by opening the way for vessels from the great Naval Depot at Memphis to the Lakes.  -And now is the time.  In peace, prepare for war.”


Wisconsin’s unsuccessful play for Chicago was not, however, the only threat posed to completion of the canal at this time.  Unbelievably, just as construction on the Chicago canal was finally ready to resume in the fall of 1845, the Federal government once again stopped all funding for Chicago’s harbor improvements.  During the four years of depression from 1839 to 1843 during which no harbor appropriations were passed, the strong lake current had formed another sandbar at the mouth of the river, precluding vessels with deep draughts from safely entering the river. 

Map showing the growth of the sand deposits against of the north pier. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

In late 1842, the area’s Congressmen had finally succeeded in getting $25,000 approved for dredging the sandbar at the river’s mouth along with minor improvements done under the supervision of Captain George B. McClellan.  This had coincided with the arrival in Washington in March 1843 of the newly-elected Rep. John Wentworth, who succeeded in getting the 1844 appropriation increased to $30,000.

Early in 1846, Wentworth was one of the authors of the River and Harbor Bill of 1846, that earmarked over $500,000 for improvements to the harbors on the Great Lakes and the Hudson River, including $12,000 for Chicago’s harbor and $15,000 for a new steam dredge for Lake Michigan to replace the old Federal dredge that had sunk off Kenosha while being moved north.  The bill easily passed the House on March 20, before Polk’s Mexican scheme began, with the Senate concurring on July 24, 1846, after Polk had declared war.  In an attempt to strengthen the Northern argument that commerce on the Great Lakes was not just internally focused, but also incorporated much international trade, Wentworth also had succeeded in having Chicago declared a new Foreign Port of Entry on July 13, 1846, recognizing and legitimatizing direct shipment to and from Canada and Europe.  All of this was to little avail, however, for Polk veoted the 1846 River and Harbor Bill  on August 3, 1846. Polk used the war to try to hide the obvious sectional bias of his veto:

“It would seem the dictate of wisdom under such circumstances to husband our means and not waste them on comparatively unimportant objects… Some of the objects of the appropriation, contained in this bill, are local in their character, and lie within the limits of a single state; and though in the language of the bill they are called harbors, they are not connected with foreign commerce, nor are they places of refuge or of shelter for our navy or commercial marine on the ocean or lake shores.”

The resulting uproar throughout the North was best represented in an editorial in the Chicago Daily Journal  of August 19, 1846:

“The objects of improvement lie north of Mason and Dixon’s line, and would benefit the North and West, whose growing prosperity is hateful to the slave-owners of the South… All other pretenses of objections to the Harbor Bill are idle and vain. The North can and will be no longer hoodwinked.  If no measures for protection and improvement of anything North or West are to be suffered by our Southern masters… a signal revolution will inevitably ensue.  The same spirit and energy that forced emancipation for the whole country from Great Britain will throw off the Southern Yoke… The fiat has gone forth–Southern rule is at an end.”


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Howe, Daniel Walker.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lewis, Lloyd and Henry Justin Smith. Chicago: The History of its Reputation.  New York: Blue Ribbon, 1929.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf, 1940.

Putnam, James William. The Illinois and Michigan Canal.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


As Whitney was preparing to depart on his survey to the Pacific, those who represented the interests of the South, led by South Carolina’s Sen. Calhoun also reacted to Whitney’s “northern” route by calling for a convention in Memphis that, like St. Louis, was also situated on the Mississippi River but some two hundred and eighty miles farther south, to discuss the necessary improvements along the Mississippi River needed to allow ocean vessels to sail as far upriver as Memphis, that would allow ocean vessels to sail inland from New Orleans to vie for the business of the emerging NorthWest, at the expense of the Northern Erie Canal-Great Lakes route.  Such an inland port would also reinforce the argument for Calhoun’s proposed transcontinental railroad through a southern route.  The Convention was originally scheduled in July 1845 as an attempt to preempt the publicity its planners assumed that Whitney’s successful return from the west would generate, but they simply did not have the time needed in the pre-railroad South to gather the region’s leaders with such short notice and were forced to postpone the convention until November 12, 1845.  Calhoun’s associate, James Gadsden, the President of the South Carilina Railroad, proceeded to take charge of the convention and proposed the construction of a railroad, in response to Whitney’s northern Pacific railroad, along a southern route that started in Texas and ended at San Diego.  (This was one of the few times that Southerners actually argued in favor of Federal funding of ”internal improvements,” for Southernerns tended to be strict constructionists and doubted that the Federal government had the Constitutional authority to finance internal improvements in the individual states.)  There was one, significant impediment to such a route in 1845, however; the land through which such a railroad would traverse, including San Diego, was in Mexico.  


The postponement of the Memphis Convention was all that Illinois’ freshman Democrat Rep. Stephen A. Douglas needed in order to beat the Southerners to the punch.  Douglas was a self-taught lawyer who had been born and raised in Vermont.  He had travelled the West in search of a state whose regulations pertaining to the bar were less stringent than those of New York where he had begun his law career, and eventually found the climate of the legal profession in central Illinois to his liking. A prodigy with a keen memory and a vocabulary to match, and gifted with the ability to use both in a debate, he had quickly gravitated to the life of a career machine politician within the Van Buren Democratic party in Illinois. Van Buren was inaugurated as the country’s eighth President on March 4, 1837, the same day that Chicago voters had approved the city’s new charter.  By the time of Chicago’s first mayoral election in May in which Ogden, a Van Buren Democrat, had been elected mayor, Van Buren had already appointed on March 9, 1837, Douglas as the Register of Federal Land Office in Springfield (that also enabled him to better supplement his income through real estate speculation).  As Ogden rose to power in Chicago, Douglas (at the age of 27) along with Sidney Breese, were appointed in 1841 as justices to the Illinois Supreme Court. Douglas then moved onto the national stage when he was elected by Ilinois’ Fifth District to the House of Representatives on August 7, 1843.  Douglas, who proudly stated that he was a “Western man,” was committed to manifest destiny, Western expansion and development, national unity, and, of course, to his constituents in Illinois.  

He seemed to have captured this national mood in a speech he delivered in the House on January 6, 1845, some three weeeks before Whitney had proposed his Pacific Railroad scheme, in which he had laid out his vision for the country:

“The application of steam power to transportation and travel has brought the remotest limits of this confederacy, now comprising of twenty-six states… much nearer to the centre than when they were but thirteen… Our federal system is admirably adapted to the whole continent;.. [I] would extend the limits of the republic from ocean to ocean.  I would make this an ocean-bound republic…”

But Whitney’s jumping-off point for the proposed railroad, Milwaukee, did not sit well with the Congressman from Illinois, who, like Henry Clay, understood that the potential of the new, emerging technologies of the telegraph and the railroad could be used in the noble cause of holding the Union together by providing better opportunities for communication and economic intercourse with the hope that through these a better mutual understanding of and respect between the country’s sections might result.  Douglas believed that a transcontinental railroad could bind not only his party, but also his country in the face of contemporary divisive Sectional issues.  Douglas showed no shyness in being the only member of Congress to formally respond to Whitney’s proposal with his own to build a railroad not from Milwaukee, but from Chicago.  He published an open letter to Whitney on October 15, 1845, just as construction began to resume on the Chicago canal:

“SIR, I have no doubt the time will come, when there will be a continuous line of rail roads from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Indeed, several links in the chain are already in operation… From Portland [ME] to Buffalo, via Boston and Albany, the cars have been running for some time.  It is in contemplation to continue this line through Upper Canada, to Detroit, where it will connect with the Central Rail Road of Michigan, across the penisula, in the direction of Chicago…  It is confidently expected that this road will be continued westward, along the southern shore of Lake Erie, and the southern point of Lake Michigan, to Chicago, and thence to the Mississippi… In view of these facts, I am unable to comprehend the reasons which induce you to fix your starting point at Milwaukie [sic]… It will not do to rely solely upon the lakes as links in the chain, for their navigation will be interrupted by ice about four months in the year… For these reasons, the route must run around the head of Lake Michigan, or on a line further south… which may be traversed at all seasons of the year… The route from New York to the Mississippi, at or near St. Louis, by way of Baltimore, is worhty of consideration.  This line of rail roads has been in successful operation, for sometime, as far as Cumberland, MD, and Winchester, VA, with the expectation of its speedy extension to the Ohio river at Wheeling or Parkersburgh; thence to Cincinnati and St. Louis.”

The Route of Stephen Douglas’ Proposed Pacific Railroad, 1845. (Online)

He proceeded to lay out his vision for a transcontinental railroad from Chicago to the east bank of the Missouri River, across from its confluence with the Platte River (Ironically, this area had been known as Caldwell’s Camp since 1838 because Chicago’s own Billy Caldwell, or “Sauganash,” who died in 1841, had led the Potawatomi’s displaced from Chicago to this location in 1836 in their search for a new home.  The town’s name would be changed to Council Bluffs in 1852.) where Omaha would be founded on the river’s west bank in 1854 following the signing of the Missouri Compromise, and then up the Platte to the South Pass.  But rather than following Redfield’s route down the Columbia River, Douglas favored a route to Yuerba Buena’s harbor (its name would be changed by American troops to San Francisco in 1847) similar to the route Frémont had just published after his second expedition.  As was the case with the southern route to the Pacific of Calhoun and Gadsden, however, Douglas’ northern route suffered from the same minor geopolitical inconvenience, the land through which it was to traverse was also not complete within the territorial confines of the United States in 1845.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Johannsen, Robert W., The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, Urbana: University of Illinois, 1961.

Johannsen, Robert W., Stephen A. Douglas, New York: Oxford, 1973.

Karamanski, Theodore J, Rally ‘Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War, Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf.  1940.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


While Chicago, as did the rest of the country, suffered through Tyler’s four years in the White House (1841-5), Martin Van Buren and his political machine (of which Ogden was the leader of the Chicago faction), ever since his defeat by Harrison in his reelection bid in 1840, had been planning his political resurrection in the 1844 Presidential election. (He had visited Chicago, the first President to have done so, and had given a lengthy speech on July 3, 1842.)  Meanwhile, Pres. Tyler’s ineffectual leadership had done little to improve the national economy and so Van Buren had opened the 1844 Democratic Convention as the favorite but was denied the nomination by Van Buren’s nemesis John C. Calhoun’s use of the Convention’s 2/3 majority voting rule that allowed the South to virtually control who would be the nominee.   A compromise between Van Buren and his chief opponent, Lewis Cass of Michigan, on the relatively unknown James K. Polk, the former governor of Tennessee and a protégée of Andrew Jackson, was hammered out in a gesture of party unity.  Meanwhile, the Whigs, having been completely disenchanted with Tyler, nominated Henry Clay, having misplayed his moment of glory in 1840, who lost to Polk in a tight election.  Polk was a disciplined, cagey, and ambitious politician, whose political skills were more than a match for Van Buren’s.  He was an unabashed nationalist expansionist who shared his mentor’s view of America’s “manifest destiny,” a phase coined following his election that is credited to John L. O’Sullivan, the editor of New York’s Democratic Review, that defined the country’s pursuit of one geographically contiuguous nation extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. 

Maps of U.S. in 1845 and 1846. (Online)

Polk pledged to serve only one term and had four personal objectives for his Presidency, that he shared with no one before the election:

1. To resolve the Oregon boundary issue,

2. To take as much of northern Mexico as possible, by force if necessary, in order to connect the southern U.S. with a contiguous land route to the Pacific Ocean,

3. To reduce the National Tariff, and

4. To reinstitute the independent Treasury System.

Of these four, the one that represented the most serious threat to Chicago’s long-term success was the President’s commitment to forging an overland route to the Pacific in which a southern transcontinental railroad could be constructed.


Before Polk was innaugurated, however, New York City dry-goods merchant Asa Whitney, on January 28, presented a memorial to Congress that proposed to build a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean (similar to the route first proposed by Judge Dexter In Ann Arbor in 1832), and thus, in combination with the Great Lakes and Erie Canal, would link the contested Oregon country to the Atlantic Coast.  Whitney, who had made a trip to China in 1842-4 and had gained an appreciation for the importance of the China trade, was simply building upon Redfield’s and Dexter’s earlier visions of a railroad to the Pacific.  Whitney, a New Yorker, was interested, of course, in the most direct route from New York City to the Pacific Ocean, that had to be located within the only land that the U.S. had any formal claim to that touched the Pacific: the belt of land that stretched between the 49° border with British Canada and the 42° border with Mexico.  Because he was proposing to use the railroad to do so, however, he was not limited to following the NorthWest’s natural waterways that all converged on St. Louis for his route.  His northern route was shorter to Canton than the southern routes, and it also was believed to pass through vacant, fertile land that would entice farmers whose purchase of said lands would help to pay for its construction.  Therefore, because the South Pass is located some 200 miles north of St. Louis, Whitney had proposed an all-land route that started not in St. Louis, but at some point directly east of the South Pass on the western shore of Lake Michigan, headed directly westward to the South Pass, and then descended the Columbia River Valley to its mouth on the Pacific.

Asa Whitney, Proposed Railroad to the Pacific via the South Pass. Whitney understood that the railroad was not dependent of the rivers so it could be built due west from Lake Michigan in a straight line, the shortest route, and thereby completely bypassing St. Louis. This is 1845 and Galena was planning a railroad to Chicago seen here. This map shows Whitney’s route starting in Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. (Online)

Whitney had also shrewdly coupled the economic advantage of his man-made short-cut to the Pacific with the military realities of the day: namely, the Oregon question with respect to concerns about the British in the Pacific Northwest (the Oregon treaty was not approved until June 18 of the following year), as well as the mounting tensions in the Southwest with Mexico (Pres. Polk would not declare war on Mexico until May 13 of the following year). In order to finance the railroad’s construction, Whitney requested that Congress authorize a landgrant of a 60-mile wide strip of land along the proposed route.  Following his presentation in Congress, he mounted a nationwide media campaign to promote and enlist support for his idea, in advance of the expedition he planned to lead to survey the eastern half of his proposed route.  

He left New York City on June 2, 1845, to start his westward trek at Milwaukee, whose harbor, being 100 miles closer to the tip of Lake Michigan than Chicago, at the time was still a serious competitor to Chicago’s.  Thus was launched what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Potter termed ”the Giant Lottery,” the contest among the cities along the trans-Mississippi Valley to become the central metropolis in the West by becoming the terminus of the railroads that would traverse the 3000 miles between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. 

Whitney, following Frémont’s example, sent back regular reports to keep politicians and potential investors interested.  It was an achievement in and of itself simply because it was over relatively uncharted lands, without the certainty of drinking water.  Upon reaching his objective, the Great Bend in the Missouri River, where the Kansas River empties into it, where Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS are located, he found it easier to return via water transport that returned him to St. Louis on September 19.  While Whitney’s proposed route for a transcontinental railroad along the 42nd parallel would serve the economic and political interests of New York City, Boston, and the Northern states bordering the Great Lakes, it would, however, do little for the cities and states in the country’s mid-section along the 39th parallel such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, (that the builders of the Baltimore & Ohio were planning to ultimately connect with the construction of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad) except to pose an economic threat to their current hegemony of the Westward movement of American settlement.  Whitney’s proposed railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific was a wake-up call to Benton, the Democratic leader in the Senate at this time who would constantly oppose Whitney’s proposals.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Brown, Margaret L., “Asa Whitney and His Pacific Railraod Publicity Campaing,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 20. No. 2 (Sept. 1933

Galloway, John Debo. The First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Simmons-Broadway, 1950.

Howe, Daniel Walker.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Williams, John Hoyt. A Great and Shining Road-The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)



The idea of linking the Atlantic Coast with the Pacific Coast by a transcontinetal railroad had been the subject of speculation throughout the U.S. since at least 1829 when New Yorker William C. Redfield made a proposal to build an interstate railroad from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River (see Chap. 2.3).  Then on February 6, 1832, the Ann Arbor (MI) Emigrant had published an article that proposed to extend Redfield’s interstate route (including Redfield’s bypassing the mouth of the Chicago River) into a full-fledged transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Coast. These early proposals help to establish the context of thirty year-old William Ogden’s 1835 speech in favor of the Erie Railroad (see Chap. 3.11 )before the New York state legislature in which he had predicted a rail system from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River.  By this time, fur traders and explorers had been making their way up the Platte River valley since the first train of trader wagons had struck out from Independence, MO, in 1832 to the Oregon Country (the Pacific Southwest was still Mexico).

The pre-railroad routes to the West. The Oregon and Santa Fe Trails converge at Independence, MO, and then on to St. Louis. (Online)

One the people most responsible for the continued exploration of the “West” beyond the Mississippi had been Missouri’s Sen. Benton, who had been championing Western internal improvement projects since his initial election in 1821. (see Chap. 1.12) Benton quite naturally argued that St. Louis, being in the center of the country at the confluence of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, should be the starting point of the railroad to the Pacific.  But little was known about the geography that lay between Independence, MO, upriver along the Missouri River from St. Louis, the jumping off point for wagon trains to the the Oregon country.  Benton made sure he was current with the lastest information by inviting the region’s explorers to his house for dinner and drinks.  One such explorer was John C. Frémont, a young lieutenant in the Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers who had explored and surveyed much of the territory between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. During one of Benton’s soirées, Frémont had fallen in love with Benton’s daughter, Jessie, whom he soon married, creating a very formitable threesome.  Benton would secure Federal funding that would enable Frémont to continue his explorations in search of the best route that started in St. Louis for the transcontinental railroad.  He had set out on his first trip during the summer of 1842 from St. Louis in the company of mountain man Kit Carson as his guide to the South Pass.  Returning successfully five months later, he proceeded to write with the able assistance of his wife his reflections on the experience that were soon published throughout the country’s newpapers under the title, A Report on an Exploration of the Country Lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers.  Frémont became an instant celebrity, familiarizing the American public with what great wonders awaited them in the trans-Mississippi West.

Map of John C. Frémont’s 1842 and 1843-4 Expeditions. (Online)

Benton used his son-in-law’s newly found fame to garner support for the funding of a second expedition the following year.  Frémont took off in the summer of 1843 with the objective of mapping the route west of the South Pass to the contested land of Oregon.  His route also took him down into the Mexican provinces of Alta California and Nuevo Méxicobefore he made the way back to St. Louis. Upon his return, he produced a map even more detailed than his 1843 map, that Congress published and distributed throughout the country in 1845.  “By 1845, magazines and newspapers had become imbued with [through the efforts of Frémont and his father-in-law] and convinced of the need of a Pacific Railroad.”  The U.S. had elected Southerner James Polk as President in Nov. 1844, and he was committed to making the Pacific Railroad a reality.  He just disagreed on the route it should take.

1845 Map of the West, by John C. Frémont. (Online)


Borneman, Walter R. Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroad West.  New York: Back Bay, 2010.

Galloway, John Debo. The First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Simmons-Broadway, 1950.

Williams, John Hoyt. A Great and Shining Road-The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


Baring Brothers believed the depression had bottomed out during the summer of 1842, and anticipated an economic rebound following the signing of the Treaty of Nanking on September 27, 1842, that ended the First Opium War and opened five ports in China to British merchants. This event had been preceded by the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in August 9, 1842, (Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State, as a Senator from Massachusetts had always kept a close watch on trade issues) settling U.S. and British border claims in the northeast as well as establishing the 49th parallel as the boundary between the U.S. and Canada from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains (while the Oregon boundry was still left unresolved).  In addition, it initiated a new tariff agreement that promised to stabilize customs duties and thus encourage commercial trade. With Anglo-American relations being the least confrontational since the 1837 Panic, the Barings mounted a quiet campaign to help restore the credit of the U.S. in Europe by raising the issue of fiscal responsibility to a moral argument throughout the legislatures and newspapers of America.  Ward, the Baring’s top American representative, was to be responsible for the improvements in Illinois’ affairs.  In contrast to many of the states, Ward’s efforts paid off as Illinois took early steps to avoid repudiation of its debts and eventually to re-establish the State’s credit.  When Ogden had been Chicago’s Mayor, he had personally thwarted early repudiation efforts, while other Ogden associates were also engaged in early attempts to preserve the State’s credit.  One such person was Isaac Arnold, Mahlon Ogden’s law partner, who was one of the callers for a public meeting in Chicago held on January 18, 1841, (he was also the chairman of the resolution committee) to promote direct taxation in order to raise sufficient revenue to pay the interest on the state debt and insure continued construction (by Ogden, among other contractors) of the canal. Arnold also succeeded in the U.S. Supreme Court in having declared unconstitutional a new bankruptcy law which had been passed in February 1841 by the Illinois legislature that would also have, in effect, suspended the collection of debts in defaulted mortgages.

Nonetheless, these efforts had failed to prevent the inevitable collapse of Illinois’ finances in June 1842:

“As if by magic the right man seemed to spring up at the right time; for it was in June of that year [1842] that Arthur Bronson, of New York, and a large owner of real estate in Chicago, came West to look after his property… While Mr. Bronson was being interviewed by leading citizens as to the best means to procure funds for the completion of the canal, various plans were being proposed [by] such men as William B. Ogden, Justin Butterfield, Michael Ryan, and the Hon. Isaac N. Arnold.”

It was not by magic, but rather the increased involvement of the Barings, reinforced by the new Boston interest in the canal, that had brought Bronson, once again, to Chicago not so coincidentally in the same month that the State went bankrupt.  Encouraged by both the ending of the Opium War (that would further lessen their control of America’s China trade) and the imminent completion of the through railroad network to Buffalo, the Boston owners of the B&W and Western Railroads were now joining the Barings once again to capitalize on a public financial crisis to expand their private investment in the West.  Boston money had begun its substantial investment in Chicago.

Prior to his trip to Chicago in June, Bronson had forwarded the initial proposal of the canal bondholders to Arnold.  Arnold, having just been “coincidentally” elected to the Illinois’ General Assembly, had become, without any advantage of seniority, the Chairman of the Committee on Finance, that had primary control over the canal operations.  During Bronson’s visit, he conferred with Ogden, Arnold, and Justin Butterfield, Illinois’ U.S. District Attorney, in putting together a financial package that would be acceptable to the canal’s bondholders.  Butterfield, like Arnold, was also an attorney originally from New York, who had relocated to Chicago in 1835 and had formed a practice with James H. Collins. All three of Bronson’s conferees were, therefore, former New Yorkers and allied to his interests via their relationships with Ogden.  In order to get something built to validate the bondholders’ real estate investments, the group of four developed a cheaper, but unproven “shallow-cut” plan as an alternative to the original deep, through-cut canal that still required over $3 million to complete. The canal’s dimensions were changed from 60’ wide by 6’ deep to 40’ wide and 4’ deep. This reduction in the overall depth of the canal brought concern among the canal’s engineers about the ability of the Des Plaines and Calumet Rivers’ feeders to supply sufficient water at the summit between the two river systems for usable navigation, now that the deeper, through-cut canal had been abandoned.  A committee of three engineers from the Chicago Mechanics’ Institute proposed to solve this problem with a design that involved using steam-powered pumps to supply water from the South Branch to the summit via the Des Plaines River.

In essence, the bondholders would be asked to loan an additional estimated $1.6 million needed to complete the shallow-cut project.  Repayment of the loan would be secured by the proceeds from all sales of canal lots as well as by the income from the canal’s operation.  In addition, the bondholders were also to be given more control in the canal’s construction and finances, for these were to be placed under the control of a new three-man Board of Trustees, two of whom were to be named by the bondholders, while the remaining one was to be appointed by the state.  In effect, although Illinois was to surrender control of all canal operations and revenues to the canal bondholders until all secured loans and interest had been met, the state realized it had no alternative.  With over $5 million already poured into the stalled project, the difference between a finished and unfinished canal was the salvation of the state’s finances.  In addition to the revenues to be generated by the canal’s eventual operation, a completed canal would increase property values and corresponding tax income, while encouraging further investment and settlement within Illinois.

Butterfield drafted the bill which Arnold proceeded to introduce in the General Assembly that fall.  He was persistently forced to defend the giveaway nature of the bill and was never more articulate in his support than at Chicago’s Mechanics’ Institute on November 16, 1842, in his speech titled, “The Legal and Moral Obligations of the State to Pay Its Debts, the Resources of Illinois, and the Means By Which the Credit of the State May Be Restored.”  Neither Ward nor Barings could have asked for a better performance.  As Chairman of the Finance Committee, Arnold “rendered most efficient service” and eventually succeeded in gaining a small majority to pass the Canal Bill on February 21, 1843.     The law authorized the Governor to negotiate a $1.6 million loan following the exact guidelines originally established by the Barings/Boston/Bronson group.  Upon the signing of the loan agreement, all canal revenues and lands were to be placed under the control of the three member Board of Trustees, who would be authorized to make “such changes and alterations in the original plan of said canal as they may deem advisable, having due regard for economics, etc.”  Of special interest to Ogden, Section 17 of the Act provided that the old contractors would be given priority to the new contracts once construction resumed.

In March 1843, Governor Ford authorized Charles Oakley and Michael Ryan, State Senator from La Salle (the other terminus of the canal) and Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Canal and Canal Lands, to negotiate the loan with the representatives of the bondholders.  While they found Bronson and David Leavitt, president of New York City’s American Exchange Bank, to be understandably amenable to these provisions, the European representatives, Barings and Magniac, Jardine, & Co., expressed severe reservations about their ability to market any further American issues in Europe and approached the endeavor with extreme caution.  In addition to a number of additional and clearly specified guarantees, the European representatives required complete verification by their own agents of the present state of the canal, its finance, and the plans for its completion. Lawrence, Sturgis, and Ward, therefore, chose two other Boston men, Captain William H. Swift, the resident engineer of the Western Railroad, and John Davies, former Governor of Massachusetts, to inspect the canal and substantiate its financial condition.  To this end, they traveled to Chicago in November 1842, the trip from Boston to Buffalo being expedited by the recent completion of the chain of railraods in upper New York. On March 1, 1844, they submitted their final report to Ward confirming the information presented initially by Oakley and Ryan.

While Bronson and Leavitt achieved the necessary loan commitments from Eastern investors, it took Barings more than nine months to overcome the hesitancy among the Europeans who no longer trusted American securities following the 1837 Crash.  This distrust had been aggravated in 1843 when Illinois’ General Assembly finally bowed to public pressure and repealed the interest tax that had been originally passed to generate sufficient income to pay the interest on the bonded foreign debt. A sign of fiscal responsibility from Illinois was needed to reassure European investors, and was initiated by Chicago’s new Democrat Congressman John Wentworth who had been elected in the 1842 November election.  Following the 1840 census, two new Congressional districts had been formed in Illinois, one that contained the northwest portion of the state, centered around Galena, and the other comprised of the northeast portion, centered around Chicago.  Therefore, Wentworth was the first resident north of Springfield to be elected to Congress. While Wentworth sent to Springfield a petition signed by prominent Chicago landowners requesting the legislature to reinstate the interest tax, Ward had Leavitt, Davies, and Oakley travel to Springfield in the fall of 1844 to help Arnold and Governor Ford convince the legislature to pass the taxation bill.  Ward’s pressure on Illinois to restore its credit rating also included orchestrating a meeting called by 500 of Chicago’s leading citizens on the Public Square on February 12, 1845, at which resolutions supporting Governor Ford’s tax bill were passed, so that construction of the canal could resume. 

These combined pressures eventually succeeded in getting the tax bill and a supplementary canal bill passed on March 1, 1845, allowing the canal loan agreement finally to be signed on March 10, 1845, handing complete control of canal construction, operations, and any income over to the Boston/Barings/Butler (Arthur Bronson died from pnuemonia in November 1844) interests. They now had control over a contiguous route from Boston to Chicago and that, once the canal was completed, continued on to New Orleans.  Thus, having succeeded in his sole objective of resolving the canal issue, Arnold had no reason to run for re-election following the March 3 adjournment of the General Assembly, and so returned to his Chicago law practice with Mahlon Ogden.  The Board of Trustees who assumed control over all canal operations consisted of Leavitt, representing the New York interests, Swift, agent for the Barings and representing the Boston parties, and Jacob Fry, the State-appointed trustee.  Soon after their appointment, the Board retained Ogden’s good friend Arnold, having just returned from Springfield, as their attorney. Everything had gone according to the plan.  Construction on the canal had resumed in October 1845, and with it, Chicago’s economic future had brightened accordingly.  Anticipating this upswing in the city’s business community, Ogden had brought William E. Jones from Charles Butler’s New York American Land Company to be his partner in his real estate firm, now named Ogden & Jones.  That same year Jones married Ogden’s younger sister, Caroline, who had also moved to Chicago.  “All in the family” continued to be the preferred business practice among the Butler/Ogden clan.


Following the successful completion of the Granite Rail-Road in 1826, Perkins secretly assembled a group of eight men to promote railroads over canals as Massachusetts’ response to the Erie Canal.  While Massachusetts would be cautious in its initial adoption of the railroad:

“Unlike Maryland, Massachusetts had not secured her railway system by a compromise with a canal, a compromise which was to bring financial disaster.  Nor had she made the mistake of rejecting the railroad for a state system of canals as did contemporary Pennsylvania.  Nor were her railroads, like those of New York, merely auxiliaries or adjuncts to waterways, separate parts of an unco-ordinated whole.  Massachusetts had prudently chosen the transportation method of the future.  In the strategy of commerce her railroads ran toward the proper destinations and for the right reasons.  She entered the new world of the railroad, not handicapped, but on superior terms.”

In 1828, Perkins and his associates, including John Bryant, William Sturges, Horatio H. Hunnewell, John E. Thayer, and Thomas Ward, had carefully crafted their “railraod scheme:’” a system of four relatively short railroads centered on Boston: Boston & Lowell, Boston & Maine, Boston & Providence, and the Boston & Worcester, that had not only made Boston the hub of the nation’s most extensive railway network at this time, but also had made this group of investors a good-sized fortune as they perfected a system of land speculation (buying the land where the tracks and stations would be built, but prior to announcing such plans), investing in government-backed railroad company bonds, typically at bankrupt rock-bottom prices, and arranging overly inflated construction contracts. 

Map of the Early Railroads in Massachusetts. (Kirkland, Men, Cities, and Transportation)

 Nonetheless, it was the connection to the Erie Canal and to the interior, accessible via the Great Lakes, that was of paramount concern to Boston’s commercial interests.  Because of the route’s length and the terrain it traversed, this route would take the longest period to construct, and incurred the greatest difficulty in securing initial commitments from investors.  Therefore, its construction-and-management organization was divided into two companies.  So as not to appear too risky to investors, the first of the two companies, the B&W was chartered in 1831 by its president, Nathan Hale, to extend only the first forty-four miles to Worcester.  As was the case with the other three railroads, land speculation was inherently associated with the scheme.  The land for the line’s Boston terminal had already been purchased by another cover company, the South Cove Corporation, that transferred the parcel to the B&W in exchange for a tidy profit.  The B&W was completed in 1835, and permanently put to rest the fears that its capitalists harbored over the viability of the iron horse.  

With the lack of capital in the United States, foreign capital was essential to the success of the scheme and one of Great Britain’s premiere banks, Baring Brothers had been retained to sell these companies’ bonds on commission.  Baring’s connection with the Boston Concern had been established at least as far back as 1828, for they were the merchant bankers for both J. & T.H. Perkins’ and Bryant & Sturgis’ transactions in China and throughout the world.  While exports carried to China seldom generated sufficient money to pay for tea and silks, specie had become too risky to ship directly to Canton.  Following the end of the War of 1812, London’s bankers had allowed certain American traders with a limited base of capital, sufficient revolving credit to carry on a large volume of business, including opium smuggling.  Among the numerous financial establishments in London, Baring Brothers and Company had been known as “The American House” since the 1770s, when co-founder Francis Baring was made the General Agent for the U.S. Government in London.

The economic collapse of 1825 had bankrupted Bryant & Sturgis’ former London banker, forcing them to seek a replacement.  In 1826, Sturgis picked the husband of his cousin Lucretia, Joshua Bates of Weymouth, Massachusetts, who had earlier that year formed a partnership in London with John Baring, a grandson of Francis.  In 1828, Bates and Baring had merged with Baring Brothers and Company, the same year that Perkins evidently had become a client of Baring Brothers.  Both Perkins and Bryant & Sturgis quickly became the Baring’s favored agents in Canton, being privy to the banker’s financial reports and advice.

Following the merger, the newly-organized banking house decided to expand its American operations.  This called for a full-time resident agent, and Bates, the American partner, suggested a long-time acquaintance from Boston, Thomas Wren Ward.  Ward officially commenced his duties as the Baring’s agent on January 1, 1830,  authorized to market the firm’s name and invest its financial resources as he judged prudent.  As a member of the Massachusetts’ Board of Directors of Internal Improvement, it was logical for Ward to be interested in the construction of the State’s first three railroads.  The intimate, longstanding relationship of Perkins and other wealthy Bostonians who were promoting the railroad, together with British capital, was crucial to the eventual realization of “the railroad scheme.”  At this time, the United States had no industrial capacity for rolling iron rails (which remained the case until the end of the Civil War), therefore, the Bostonians, along with the rest of the country, had to rely on England to supply the needed tracks of iron. In March 1833, Ward assured the success of the Lowell, Providence, and Worcester lines by arranging the consignment of track and other necessary iron products from England through Baring Brothers.

Meanwhile, the British government In 1834, under mounting pressure from independent traders, had revoked the East India Company’s monopoly of the China trade, throwing the door open to any British merchant.  With this increase in competition without a corresponding growth in demand, prices in general and the corresponding profitability of transactions in Canton, including opium, began a steady decline.  Seeing the writing on the wall, the Boston Concern began to look for ways to diversify its investments, in anticipation of its inevitable pull-out from the China trade. Following the Panic of 1837, Massachusett’s state-guaranteed railroad projects, as did Illinois’ projects, went bankropt.  The Boston Concern and their associates seized the chance to buy into Massachusetts’s railroads at rock bottom prices.  Their first concern was to complete the railroad to Albany and the Erie Canal, so they took complete control over the second link in the line, the Western Rail-road, planned as the contunation of the  B&W to the New York state line, and had completed it on October 9, 1841, when the first train made the run from Boston to Albany.  This was possible because at the same time the Bostonians were building their line to the Massachusetts border, a chain of railroads, that had started with George Feathersonhaugh‘s Mohawk & Hudson, (see Chap. 2.1) had also been under construction in New York from Albany to Buffalo, paralleling the Erie Canal during this same period.  (These roads would be consolidated in 1853 as the New York Central Railroad.) 

Map of the Railroads that Formed the “Central” Railroad System in New York State.  (Men and Iron: A History of the New York Central)

Meanwhile, early in 1839 the Chinese government had decided to close down the opium trade once and for all.  General Lin Zexu was sent to Canton and upon his arrival, he surrounded the foreign residences and trading houses with soldiers and armed boats, demanding that all opium be immediately turned over to him to be destroyed.  With no alternative, the beleaguered merchants eventually surrendered their supplies of the drug.  Once released, the British retreated to Macao and retaliated by boycotting all further trade with China, and waited for the British fleet to arrive and the outbeak of the First Opium War in June 1840.  With the flow of opium stopped in 1839, William Sturgis, who was now investment manager for J. & T.H. Perkins’ manager John Cushing, had carefully started to shift the Boston Concern’s “China wealth” into the railroads that promised to open up the West, and eventually, to link Boston directly to the Pacific Coast, and once again to China.

Map of the Early Railraods in Massachusetts. (Kirkland, Men, Cities, and Transportation)

The Western Rail-Road, the second leg of the route to Albany from Boston, meanwhile, had been chartered in March 1833, by the Board of Directors of the B.& W. with the help of people like Abbott Lawrence and textile manufacturers in western Massachusetts.  Under the seemingly auspicious conditions of the near completion of the B. & W. and the start of the two roads in upstate  New York, stock in the Western was offered for purchase in November 1834 by treasurer Josiah Quincy, Jr., with B. & W. stockowners to be given preference in the case of oversubscription.  Immediate offers from rival New York City to buy the entire subscription were rejected with well-merited suspicion.  New York, in turn, refused a counteroffer and eventually contributed nothing to support its competition’s scheme.  Apparently, the 117 miles of the Western’s planned route (which was over two and a half times the length of the B. & W.) and the anticipated problems in crossing the Berkshires still sufficiently scared investors that the stock was not completely subscribed until January 1836.  No one group of investors was confident in the project or financially able to bankroll the estimated $2 million cost, so the organizers were forced to rely on numerous small purchases of stock.  Nonetheless, of the eventual 1,863 subscribers, a mere group of twenty men held over 11% of the stock.  Among those who made the larger investments were the Lawrence brothers (200 shares), Perkins (100), and William Sturgis (50).

With all of the stock subscribed, the company started construction with Thomas Wales as president, William H. Swift as resident engineer, and a Board of Directors that included Quincy, Francis T. Jackson, and George Bliss of Springfield (remember this name).  In addition to these men, the leaders of the Western included the following members of the original “railroad scheme:” Perkins, Hale, P.P.F. DeGrand, and Emory Washborn.  Once again, they decided to pursue state funding to aid the project, as well as to line their own pockets.  In contrast to the 1829 request, however, railroads were now known entities, and this time they were successful, with the State legislature agreeing to a $1 million loan in April 1836.  Newly-elected Governor Everett, an original  investor in the Western, had provided immeasurable support in getting the legislature to subscribe to the additional stock issue.

As with Chicago, where construction of the canal had just started, the Panic of 1837 also threatened the work on the Western, forcing the company to approach the legislature for another loan to continue construction.  Luckily, the request had to be approved first by the Joint Select Committee, which was chaired by newly-elected Emory Washburn.  On February 21, 1838, the legislature approved a loan in the form of $2.1 million worth of Massachusetts sterling bonds bearing 5%, which were to be issued to the company to buy iron rails in England, in return for a mortgage on the company’s assets.  With the lack of capital in the United States, foreign capital was essential to the success of the scheme and the European investor preferred governmental-secured bonds to shares in a high-risk venture.  The London investment banking firm of Baring Brothers was retained to sell the paper on commission.  Considering how risky the project had been perceived by Boston’s conservative capitalists, and the number of American public bond issues that were in default following the Panic, why would England’s most prestigious house of finance even bother with such a questionable deal at the start of a depression?

In November 1842, the last link in the line to Buffalo was completed and Boston, along with Albany, was now in direct rail communication with the Great Lakes, with the trip from Boston to Buffalo taking less than two days. The relatively long period of time it took to make the 483-mile trip was not a result of the speed of the trains, but rather due to the eight times a passenger had to change trains along the route traveled by the nine independent companies. With a through railroad completed to Buffalo in late 1842, Boston could now be in better contact with the newly-opened West, especially with Chicago, for regular steamboat travel between Buffalo and Chicago had been in operation since July 1839, reducing the travel time of a round trip from twenty-two to sixteen days.


Adams, Russell B., Jr., The Boston Money Tree, New York, 1977.

Adler, Dorothy R. British Investment in American Railways, 1834-1898. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1970.

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Beebe, Lucius and Charles Clegg. Hear the Train Blow: A Pictorial Epic of America in the Railroad Age. New York, 1952.

Harlow, Alvin F. Steelways of New England. New York: Creative Age Press, 1946.

Harpster, Jack. A Biography of William B. Ogden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2009.

Hidy, Ralph W. The House of Baring in American Trade and Finance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Johnson, Arthur and Barry E. Supple. Boston Capitalists and the Western Railroads. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Kirkland, Edward Chase. Men, Cities, and Transportation: A Study in New England History (1820-1900) – Volume I. Cambridge, 1948.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf.  1940.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


By 1823, Perkins had gained such a central position among Boston’s mercantile community that on June 7, he led a group of the city’s leading citizens that organized an association to erect a monument to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Although twenty-year-old Havard student Horatio Greenough had submitted an obelisk design in the first competition, a second competition was held that chose a similar stone obelisk designed by Solomon Willard that was planned to be the country’s tallest structure at 221.’

Left: Horatio Greenough, Submission for the Bunker Hill Monument Competiton, 1825. (Wright, Greenough); Right: Solomon Willard, Bunker Hill Monument, Charleston, MA, 1825. (online)

As the Erie Canal was nearing completion, the size of the monument may have been an attempt by Boston’s business community to divert some of the nation’s attention away from the project in New York.  While its cornerstone was ceremoniously laid on June 17, 1825 (the actual day of the battle fifty years earlier) by the Marquis de Lafayette during his triumphant grand tour to mark the 50th anniversary of the revolution, construction actually languished for over a year while a method was devised to transport the heavy blocks of granite utilized in the monument’s design, the four miles from its quarry in Quincy to the edge of Boston harbor. After an attempt to build a canal failed, a builder named Gridley Bryant proposed to build a railroad to do the job.  Although his idea was initially greeted with much skepticism, the support of Perkins, who was to become the president and largest stockholder in the railroad company, was most influential in convincing the state legislature to grant Bryant a charter on March 4, 1826.  Although horses were used for locomotion, the Granite Rail-Road that was completed on October 7, 1826, is generally recognized as America’s first operating railroad (John Jervis’ Stourbridge Lion did not make its first steam-powered run on the Delaware & Hudson until August 8, 1829 (see Chapter 2.2) and as such, established a precedent for further ventures featuring intimate relationships between railroads, tall buildings, and the wealth that Boston had initially gained from the China trade.  However, due to financial problems, it took over seventeen years to complete the monument in 1842, and therefore, it never enjoyed the rputation of being the tallest structure in the country, as Baltimore completed the Phoenix Shot Tower to record height of 234’ in 1828.

Jacob Wolfe, Phoenix Shot Tower, Baltimore: corner of Fayette and Front Streets, 1828. At 234’ tall, it was the tallest structure in the U.S. when completed. The walls are 4.5’ thick at the base. Buck shot is made by pouring molten lead through a sieve at the top. As it falls, gravity forms the drops into spheres, before it hits a tub of cooling water at the base. (Online)


Adams, Russell B., Jr., The Boston Money Tree, New York, 1977.

Howe, Daniel Walker.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Whitehill, Walter Muir, Boston: A Topographical History, Second Edition, Cambridge, 1959.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)