In just three years from the approval of its charter, the town’s population had exploded from the original 350 to over 3,500 by the summer of 1836.  In order to begin a series of civic improvements, the town’s Board of Trustees had attempted to secure a loan but were rejected by the Chicago Branch of the State Bank of Illinois on August 5.  In response, the Trustees then named Ogden as Chicago’s fiscal agent, who immediately succeeded in negotiating a loan, probably through Bronson, allowing the town to embark on a series of sorely needed internal improvements.  Encouraged by its growing population (as well as by continual interference from the state in its local affairs), the Board of Trustees decided on November 18, 1836, to apply to the state legislature to incorporate Chicago as a city.  A committee of five: two members of the Board of Trustees, Ogden and Peter Bolles, who was also the president of the Chicago Marine and Fire Insurance Company, and a citizen representing each of the town’s three districts, Ebenezer Peck, Theophilus Smith, and John D. Caton, was appointed to draft the city charter.  Attorney Caton had arrived from Monroe County, New York, in 1834, destined to be appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1844.  Thus, railroad supporters (Ogden, Peck, and Smith), as well as the president and two directors of Chicago Marine and Fire Insurance (Bolles, Peck and Smith), comprised a majority of the committee that ultimately framed Chicago’s city charter that was submitted to the state legislature.

Undoubtedly, the enthusiasm behind these development plans had been encouraged not only by Pres. Jackson’s banking program and policy of Western expansion, but also by the very extensive plans the state was drafting for internal improvement.  President-Elect Martin Van Buren had signaled his intensions to continue the growth policies of Jackson.  True to the spirit of the times, Illinois’ Internal Improvement Act, passed by the legislature on February 27, 1837, was intended to establish a comprehensive transportation system throughout the entire, thinly populated state.  A $4 million loan was guaranteed to allow construction of the Chicago canal to continue, and adjacent rivers and creeks were to be made navigable to extend the water routes throughout the state.  However, even more funding, $9.65 million was allotted to a separate fund for the construction of a proposed 1,340-mile network of nine railroads.  Of this, $3.5 million was earmarked for the IC that was to be extended to Galena, thereby completing the “St. Louis Cut-off.”  To avoid any sectional bickering that could stall the start of construction, the law incredulously stated that all nine of the railroads were to be started at both ends simultaneously.

It was during this initial period of euphoric intoxication that the legislature approved Chicago’s city charter on March 4, 1837, only five days after the passage of the Internal Improvement Act.  The city’s leading Democrats, Francis Sherman, Peter Pruyne, and “Long John” (he was 6’-6” tall) Wentworth, the acting-publisher of the Chicago Democrat, the city’s first newspaper, asked Ogden to run as the Democratic candidate against Whig John H. Kinzie in the city’s first mayoral election.  Wentworth was a Dartmouth-educated, pro-Jackson/Van Buren newspaper writer originally from New England who had moved to Chicago, seeking his fortune, having arrived on October 25 of the previous year.  He had accepted the position as the paper’s “Agent” for the Democrat’s owner, an acquaintance from his home state of New Hampshire who had been forced to return home, leaving Wentworth, for practical purposes, in charge of its editorial policy.  The first popular election of the new city’s Mayor was set for the first Tuesday in May, May 2, 1837, and its outcome reflected the city’s economic transition as Ogden, the representative of the East Coast American Land Company, easily defeated Kinzie, the old town’s favorite son who had been a former agent of the American Fur Company.  In the span of only one year, William Ogden had managed to become the leader of the new city’s 4,170 residents, a feat of which recently-elected Pres. Martin Van Buren would have been very proud.  The new Mayor took the oath of office on the following day, and six days later initiated Van Buren’s patronage program that had been perfected in New York state politics by rewarding Wentworth for his support when Common Council made the Democrat the city’s official newspaper.  A month later Ogden also named Wentworth as the city’s printer.  Ogden placed a new but trusted friend, lawyer Isaac Newton Arnold, in the important position of City Clerk.  Arnold was born in Hartwick, NY, and had studied law in Cooperstown, NY, before moving to Chicago in late 1836.  It did not take long for Arnold to strike up a friendship with Mahlon Ogden that led to their mutual professional partnership that eventually would be responsible for the Mayor’s legal affairs.  Arnold had made his first acquaintance with the future Mayor in St. James Church in the spring of 1837. Keeping one’s business within the control of one’s family had been a very common New England business practice since the founding of the colony.  While it provided lucrative employment for family members, it also allowed the family leader to control business decisions and keep them from the prying eyes of the public.  Ogden would use this technique, combined with Van Buren’s patronage system, extensively to his advantage during his long and successful career in his adopted hometown.


John Mills Van Osdel, William B. Ogden House, block bounded by Erie, Rush, Ontario, and Cass Streets, 1837. (Vernon, Graceland)

Proof of Ogden’s decision to restart his life by moving to Chicago is evident in his hiring of an architect to design a new house for him in Chicago during a return visit he made to New York in the fall of 1836, prior to his successful election as Mayor.  Ogden needed an impressive edifice not only to encourage potential real estate clients, but also to comfortably house the many members of his extended family for which still he felt responsible.  During his return trip to New York to prepare for his move to Chicago, it appears he had already planned to accept the mayoral nomination, if so offered, of the city for which he had helped to write its City Charter,  for he searched for a designer-builder where he came upon twenty-five year-old John Mills Van Osdel.  Van Osdel was the son of a carpenter and while working for his father in New York City, had read about architectural design and construction in the city’s Apprentice Library.  Ogden  hired him to design and ultimately supervise the construction of a house north of the river on the block bounded by Ontario, Rush, Erie, and Cass (now Wabash).  Not wanting to raise any eyebrows before the election, Ogden apparently had told Van Osdel to keep the project secret.  Before Van Osdel set out for Chicago following the mayoral election, he completed the drawings and had all of the millwork and windows manufactured in New York and then quietly shipped to Chicago during the spring of 1837.   Van Osdel prudently did not come to Chicago to erect the house until June 9, a month after Ogden had been elected Mayor.  Van Osdel produced a two-story Greek Revival design, that became known as “Ogden Grove” that incorporated four two-story high columns in its great south-facing portico on Ontario.

Van Osdel, William B. Ogden House, block bounded by Erie, Rush, Ontario, and Cass Streets, 1837. Diagonally to the lower right is Isaac N. Arnold’s house. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

Upon his arrival, Chicago’s first architect had quickly come face-to-face with the harsh reality of building in Chicago:

“He noticed a block of three buildings, three stories high, the fronts of which had fallen outward, and laid prone upon the street.  Upon inquiry he found that the frost of the preceding winter had penetrated to a great depth below the foundations, and the buildings have a south front, the sun acting upon the frozen quicksand under the south half of the block rendered it incapable of sustaining the weight of the building.  At the same time, the rear, or north part of the block, being in shadow, the frozen ground thawed gradually, and continued to support the weight resting upon it.  The consequence was that the block careened.  The front settled fourteen inches more than the rear, making all the floors fourteen inches out of level from front to rear.  This movement pressed the upper part of the front wall outward beyond its center of gravity, and it fell to the ground.  The rear wall inclined upward twelve inches, but resting against the party walls and floors, remained intact.”

Further reading:

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

Arnold, Isaac N. “William B. Ogden: and Early Days in Chicago,” Fergus Historical Series, No, 17. Chicago: Fergus, 1882.

Ericsson, Henry L. Sixty Years a Builder: The Autobiography of Henry Ericsson. Chicago: A. Kroch,  1942.

Gilbert, Paul T., and Charles L. Bryson. Chicago and Its Makers. Chicago: F. Mendelsohn, 1929.

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

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)


Charles Butler’s efforts to bring his brother-in-law out of his depression appear to have been successful, for following Ogden’s return to his native Walton, NY, after having completed the sale of Butler’s lots in the summer of 1835, he seems to have decided to start a new phase of his life by moving the majority of his family, for whom he had been financially responsible since his father’s initial stroke in 1821, to Chicago.  In William Butler Ogden, the new town was gaining what any city needed to grow into an important political and economic entity: a successful, resourceful, shrewd, and experienced thirty-year old businessman, a proponent of railroads who had deep pockets and powerful political connections, that following Martin Van Buren’s election as President in the coming November, reached all the way to the White House, via the Albany Regency’s Democratic patronage machine.  Ogden would help to build the city and, correspondingly, reap the appropriate benefits of doing so, for as we will see, what was good for Chicago, would also be good for William Butler Ogden.         

He made his return trip to Chicago with his younger brother, Mahlon, late in the spring of 1836, in order to procure one of the canal’s construction contracts. While William had forgone his youthful hopes of becoming a lawyer due to the death of their father, he had made sure that younger Mahlon would succeed in becoming an attorney.   After Mahlon had completed his law studies back home in Geneva, NY, the Ogdens’ political connections with the Jackson administration had secured him a clerk position in the office of Noah Haynes Swain, then the U.S. District Attorney in Columbus, OH.   Mahlon had accompanied Charles Butler on his return visit the prior year to the NorthWest and was eager to join his older brother in carving out a new life in Chicago.  In order to encourage the success of the upcoming June 20 sale of canal lots, the canal commissioners had awarded the first construction contracts for the Chicago, or Summit, Division of the canal on June 6, 1836, just two weeks prior to the land sale.  Ogden, in partnership with one of his Walton business partners, Harry Smith, who had married one of Ogden’s cousins, a daughter of Ogden’s Uncle Daniel, was awarded a $200,000 contract to build a portion of this section of the canal.  Finally, on July 4, 1836, a grand parade from the Public Square to Canalport where the canal was to begin (the corner of Ashland and 29th), marked the official start of the project.  Judge Theophilus Smith opened the dedication ceremonies by reading the Declaration of Independence.  Following the usual speeches and groundbreaking by local dignitaries, the proceedings ended with a closing address by current Canal Commissioner Gurdon Hubbard.

Map of Bridgeport (originally Canalport), the start of the I & M Canal at Ashland and 29th (dot). (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

The same day that Ogden had been awarded one of the canal contracts, he was also elected to the town’s Board of Trustees that led to his long-time relationship with the town’s Clerk, Ebenezer Peck, one of the G&CU’s founders.  At about the same time, Ogden established his real estate management company, the Ogden Land and Trust Agency as an agent for Eastern land speculators, in a small building in the North Division on Kinzie near State Street.  Contrary to the majority of Chicago’s land speculators, Ogden preferred property in the city’s North Division to that in the South, as did other businessmen who did not have their primary place of business located in the South Division.  From here, Ogden would manage the investments of not only Butler’s American Land Company, but would expand his own clientele to nearly 100 investors, who were primarily located along the East Coast.

Further reading:

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

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

Kogan, Herman and Lloyd Wendt. Chicago: A Pictorial History. New York: Bonanza Books, 1958.

Masters, Edgar Lee. The Tale of Chicago. New York: Putnam, 1933.

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

Scammon, J. Young. “William B. Ogden,” Fergus Historical Series, No, 17. Chicago: Fergus, 1882.

Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

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


Chicago’s First Courthouse, southwest corner of Clark (left) and Randolph (right), 1835. The courthouse was probably the first building in Chicago with any architectural pretensions, for its design echoed the then prevalent Greek Revival style, even though its overall massing was based on that of a Roman Temple. At the right midground is located the jail and enginehouse erected in 1833. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

The overwhelming success of the initial land sales and the exploding rate of newcomers entering the city seemed to signal that Chicago was going to survive as a western settlement.  Appropriately, it was now time to start constructing buildings not as just quick, expedient shelter, but as buildings in a material more suitable for such architectural aspirations that spoke of a secured and long-lasting future: masonry.  In the fall of 1835, construction began on the Public Square of the County Courthouse at the southwest corner of Randolph and Clark, establishing Randolph Street, one block south of busy, commercial Lake Street, as a quieter location for offices.  A log blockhouse erected in 1833 that was used as a jail was already standing on the Square at the southeast corner of Randolph and La Salle, opposite the site of the planned structure.  The Courthouse was probably the first building in Chicago with any architectural pretensions, for its design echoed the then prevalent Greek Revival style, even though its overall massing was based on that of a Roman Temple.  A courtroom that seated 200 was elevated above a basement in the brick body of the 30′ by 60′ building.  Office space was located in the basement for the county government.  To enter the courtroom, one mounted a flight of stairs and passed under a wooden portico of four Doric columns that faced onto Clark Street.

The Saloon Building, southeast corner of Lake (left) and Clark (right), 1836. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

While the county was provided office space in the basement of the Courthouse, the town’s government, such as it was in 1836, had to look elsewhere for space.  This was admirably provided in 1836 with the erection of the three-story Saloon Building by J.B.F. Russell and G. W. Doan, one block north of the Courthouse on Clark Street at the southeast corner of Lake Street.  Once again, an air of permanence was sought with the use of masonry on its exterior.  Stores were located on the ground floor, while the second floor contained offices.  It was the third floor that contained a large hall from which the building derived its name.  ‘Saloon’ originally had nothing to do with our current conception of a western tavern, but came from the French term, salon, interpreted by the building’s owners as a spacious and grand room.  Many of early Chicago’s important political meetings and famous social events took place in the Saloon’s hall until even larger and more commodious facilities were constructed in the 1850s.


In addition to these two governmental institutions, the first major private building type that demanded the increased architectural attention of masonry was the hotel.  With the onslaught of newcomers arriving in Chicago during 1835 and 1836, demand for temporary shelter constantly outpaced the city’s inventory of rooms for rent.  Prior to 1835, the two leading suppliers of nightly accommodations were the landmark Sauganash Inn at the southeast corner of Lake and Market and the first Tremont House, erected in 1833 at the northwest corner of Lake and Dearborn by Alanson Sweet.  He had named it after the Tremont House in Boston that was famous for being the first American hotel to have both running water and indoor plumbing. (This was designed by Isaiah Rogers in 1829.)  Neither of these early local structures could legitimately claim to be “hotels,” however, because of their diminutive size and rustic service.  A more accurate description for all of Chicago’s similar buildings at this time would be rooming house or “inn.”  In the fall of 1835, however, construction began on what Chicago could justly call a hotel, the four-story Lake House.

The Lake House Hotel, southeast corner of Rush and (old) Michigan, 1835. The Rush Street swing bridge is in the foreground. (Karamanski, Rally ‘Round the Flag)

Built by a group that included John H. Kinzie and Gurdon Hubbard, in the more fashionable North Division now accessible with the completion of the Dearborn Street drawbridge, it was located across from the fort where the river took a southern dogleg at the southeast corner of Hubbard (then Michigan) and Rush Streets, and was thus located to look directly downriver to the lake at the new cut in the sandbar that allowed the river to run straight into Lake Michigan.  Hence, the Lake House was positioned to take immediate advantage of new visitors arriving from lake schooners, as well as farmers who parked their prairie schooners across the river on the fort’s reservation.  Constructed with an exterior of brick, the Lake House was touted when it opened in the fall of 1836 as the “best hotel in the West,” having brought to Chicago such extravagances as napkins and printed menus. 

The year 1836 also saw the start of construction of a second brick hotel: the three-story City Hotel.  It was owned and operated by Francis Cornwall Sherman, a local brick manufacturer who had moved to Chicago in April 1834.  He wisely located the hotel on the northwest corner of Randolph and Clark, right in the middle of the city’s emerging governmental district: directly across Randolph from the Courthouse and only a half block down Clark from the Saloon Building. Sherman, who had started out as a brickmaker, would rise within the ranks of the Democratic Party to be elected Mayor in 1841, and again in 1862.  Just north of the City Hotel on Clark Street the city’s first post office was erected.


With government and private owners starting to utilize masonry construction in 1835-36, it was only a matter of time (and money) until a local congregation would incorporate brick in the erection of a new church.  This occurred in 1836-37 with the construction of St. James Episcopal Church on a lot, in the North Division, donated by John H. Kinzie that was located on the southwest corner of Wabash (then Cass) and Illinois, between Hubbard (then Michigan) Streets.  Kinzie apparently also footed much of the cost of construction, that permitted the use of the more ostentatious (and expensive) brick for the exterior of the 44′ by 64′ building.  In contrast to the Greco-Roman Courthouse, St. James was given a more appropriate English “Gothick” Revival (as this predated by a few years the writings by British architect Augustus Welby Pugin that identified the architectural qualities of an authentic Gothic Revival: exterior, including pointed arched windows, crenellations, finials, and a square, flat-roofed bell tower.  “The English church authorities labored to counteract the growth of the national Renaissance and built after the forms obtained in England during the seventeenth century, so that in 1837 Chicago’s villagers had a grotesque Doric house on one side of the river, and a grim, perpendicular Gothic house on the other, telling in wood and brick that architectural ideas were alive and would some day grow and flourish here.”

St. James Episcopal Church, on Cass (now Wabash), just south of Illinois, 1836. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)


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

Industrial Chicago.  Vols. 1 and 2, The Building Interests. Chicago: Godspeed, 1891-1896.

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

Masters, Edgar Lee. The Tale of Chicago. New York: Putnam, 1933.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf. 1940.Stoddard, Francis Hovey. The Life and Letters of Charles Butler. New York: Scribner: 1903.

Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

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


I consider William Ogden to be “The Man who made Chicago Chicago,” so it is central to my story to understand Ogden’s background before his move to Chicago. As Arthur Bronson’s associate, Charles Butler, returned home following his inspection of the proposed canal, he had more pressing personal concerns.  He had married Eliza Ogden, the oldest of five children in a family from Walton, NY, in 1825.  The older of her two brothers, William, (born 1805) had been forced at the age of sixteen in 1821 to take over the management of his father’s businesses, that included a number of timber, flour, and woolen mills, after their father first suffered a stroke and then had died some two years later.  William had been quite successful in building up the businesses, especially in the face of competitors in the northern section of the state who had gained an economic advantage with the completion of the Erie Canal.  He felt sufficiently financially secure in 1829 to finally ask his childhood sweetheart, Sarah North, to marry him, but she subsequently succumbed to pneumonia not long after she had accepted his proposal.  Ogden had since languished in depression over the past three years from the loss of his one true love, going aimlessly through the motions of life without any real interest in the future.  No one knew this better than his sister Eliza and her husband Charles, who was about to attempt to jumpstart his brother-in-law’s passion for life.  

In his biography of William Ogden, Jack Harpster made a convincing argument that Butler’s attempt to restore the purpose in Ogden’s life was to have ramifications way beyond those of his original objective.  The New York & Erie Railroad had lain stillborn since its initial charter by the New York Legislature in April 1832.  The 1832 Presidential election had elected Martin Van Buren as Pres. Jackson’s Vice-President.  Van Buren’s law partner, Charles’ older brother Benjamin, would be named in November 1833 to replace Roger Taney as the U.S. Attorney General following Taney’s failure to be confirmed as the Treasury Secretary by Jackson’s opponents in the Senate as a rebuff to the President’s unilateral action against the Second Bank of the United States (2BUS).  Following his election, Vice-President Van Buren, still the leader of the Albany Regency political machine, was now committed to getting the State legislature to approve an additional loan guarantee so that construction of the Erie Railroad could begin, that had so far languished in committee due to the influence of politicians along the route of the Erie Canal who opposed the railroad in the south.  Ogden had experienced, firsthand, the economic changes wrought by the Erie Canal, to which he had no geographic access, while a railroad in the southern portion of the state would offer similar advantages to his property and restore his economic competitiveness.

Harpster had reconstructed the events that led to Van Buren and Benjamin Butler to identify Ogden, obviously through the recommendation of Charles Butler, to be the man to run for the State Assembly during the upcoming 1834 election so that he could make a speech during the 1835 session that might turn the tide in favor of the Erie Railroad.  Harpster speculated that Charles had invited his moribund brother-in-law to a secret meeting somewhere in the Hudson Valley during 1833, that included his brother and Van Buren, in which the Vice President “made him a deal he couldn’t refuse:” that he run for the Assembly seat from Delaware County under Van Buren’s Democratic Party. Charles knew that Ogden would have no real alternative but to agree, hoping that the political campaign would reignite the twenty-eight year old’s lust for life.  Ogden was successful in the 1834 campaign, but before he was to deliver his speech in the Assembly on March 21, 1835, the Erie’s opponents had forced the vote to be rescheduled a day earlier, in which they once again rejected any further funding for the Erie.  Unbowed, Ogden still stood in the Assembly the next day and delivered his reasoning for such funding: 

“The importance of proceeding without delay… must be apparent to every one; for if the business of the western states should be diverted from us, [by the railroads then being constructed by New York’s competing ports] it would be difficult, if not impossible, to regain it by any subsequent exertions… I see continuous railways from New York to Lake Erie… and south through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to the waters of the Mississippi, and connecting with railroads running to Cincinnati and Louisville in Kentucky, and Nashville in Tennessee, and on to New Orleans.  They will present the most splendid system of internal communication ever devised by man.”

Although the issue had been defeated the day before, Ogden’s speech had the effect Van Buren had hoped for in that the funding for the Erie was approved by both houses in the upcoming fall session.  

Meanwhile, Charles Butler, after his trip with Bronson to Chicago in 1833, appears to have become fixated on real estate speculation, contrary to his earlier nature, and in February 1835 purchased Bronson’s 182 acres in Chicago along the north bank of the river for $100,000 (a 400% profit) with funds he had obtained collectively from a group of seven friends that included his brother as well as his brother-in-law.  He then relocated from Geneva, NY, to New York City and organized the American Land Company, of which he placed himself as president.  He then initiated the second phase of his campaign to reignite his brother-in-law’s purpose in life: he asked Ogden to travel to Chicago in order to prepare the land for sale and to supervise its sale in May 1835 after the Federal government started auctioning the newly-acquired Native lands, and in June when the state was to commence selling canal lots, hoping these two events would generate a large crowd of interested speculators. Having performed the sole task that he had been asked to do by the Vice President, Ogden resigned his Assembly seat so that he could travel to Chicago in May 1835 so that he could manage the sale of the land that his brother-in-law had bought from Bronson.


Ogden arrived in Chicago in late May 1835 and first met with Bronson’s brother, Frederick, who had been sent to Chicago by his older brother before he had made the decision to sell the land to Butler, to legally transfer the title of the property at the Federal Land Office on Lake Street, near Clark. Ogden then set about preparing, albeit somewhat skeptically, the property for auction. The standard method of land speculation at the time was to purchase the land with a minimum down payment, using a mortgage to finance the balance of the transaction. Once the land had increased in value, a portion of the original real estate was resold at the higher value in order to discharge the mortgage, leaving the purchaser in sole ownership of the remaining land without any cost to himself, for all practical purposes, the speculator would gain ownership of the land at no cost. Ogden was astonished when he had sold only one-third of the land, because he had already recouped the entire purchase price. Fired by the optimism generated by the new canal bill and funded by Jackson’s distribution of Federal monies to regional banks that was part of his battle plan with the 2BUS, the town’s land prices had gone wild with speculation. What Bronson had bought in the summer of 1834 for $20,000 would be worth $500,000 two years later in September 1836.

Before Ogden started his return trip to New York, however, he made a quick inspection trip up Lake Michigan and into Green Bay, finally stopping at Fort Howard, WI, located at the mouth of the Fox River into Green Bay (the town of Green Bay would not be incorporated until 1854). He had heard talk of the timber resources in upper Wisconsin and wanted to see for himself if the area had any real timber investment potential. With his lumber experience he would have pleasantly smiled as the steamboat plied the wooded shores of Green Bay. This may have been the final event that convinced Ogden to move to Chicago and begin a new phase of his life, for over time, he would own most of the forests in the area that centered around the small lumber company town that he would build and name Peshtigo, Wisconsin. On his return trip to Chicago, he made the acquaintance of two men who would become his oldest friends and business associates, Walter Newberry, Bronson’s land agent in Chicago, and lawyer J. Young Scammon. Scammon was a twenty-three year-old lawyer from Maine who was moving to Chicago to make his fortune. Within a week of his arrival, Scammon was hired as the deputy of the circuit court clerk.


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.

Arnold, Isaac N. “William B. Ogden: and Early Days in Chicago,” Fergus Historical Series, No, 17. Chicago: Fergus, 1882.

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

Milton, George Fort, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War, New York: Octagon, 1969.

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

Stoddard, Francis Hovey. The Life and Letters of Charles Butler. New York: Scribner: 1903.

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


By no means, however, were Chicago’s leaders in general agreement on the canal issue.  Apparently responding to the State’s ambivalence over whether to build a canal or a railroad at Chicago, Bronson also joined with local leaders John H. Kinzie (Robert’s older brother), Gurdon Hubbard, George Dole, and State Senator Peter Pruyne, who were more than likely inspired by the state’s “Central” railroad scheme and had decided to cover their canal bet by submitting a proposed charter for Chicago’s first railroad, the Chicago & Vincennes (C&V) Railroad. It was slated to run directly from Chicago south along the Illinois/Indiana border to the Wabash River at Vincennes in southwestern Indiana, thereby making a similar connection to the Mississippi, but threatening to bypass most of the interior towns in Illinois along the canal route.  Suspiciously, the General Assembly approved the C&V charter on January 17, 1835, thus posing a serious threat to the proposed canal and the towns along its route.  

The railroad scheme evidently accomplished its sole intended purpose of getting the legislature to act on the canal, for once the representatives from the canal towns succeeded in getting the legislature to pass a new canal bill on February 10, 1835, less than a month after the approval of the railroad’s charter, the same four Chicago men abandoned the railroad scheme and organized Chicago’s first bank, the Chicago Branch of the State Bank of Illinois, in anticipation of the boom to come from the start of the canal’s construction.  The canal bill set the dimensions of the canal at 45’ wide at its surface and 30’ at its base, with a depth sufficient for boats with 4’ drafts.  It also authorized the Governor to negotiate both a $500,000 loan to begin construction, and to issue bonds using the canal land grant and future tolls as security, to sustain the project through to completion.  Governor Duncan immediately began corresponding with New York financiers through Bronson and sent former Governor Edward Coles to negotiate a loan with the Rothschilds in Europe.  His efforts proved premature, for Bronson replied to Coles that potential lenders were leery of such an undertaking and wanted assurances that the State would guarantee the loans even if the project failed.


All this speculative activity, however, was predicated on the assumption that the canal would be successfully completed, which in 1835 was by no means a foregone conclusion.  Sectional jealousies in the state legislature were hindering both the planning for the canal in the North, as well as all efforts to fund the initial surveys for the “Central Railroad” in the South.  Studying the chronology of events in 1835, it appears that the push for the Cincinnati & Charleston Railroad began by Dr. Drake on August 10, with the corresponding chartering of the company in the four states it was to pass through, and then the Charleston resolution of October 22, got the attention of those in Illinois debating this issue and in October 1835, Josiah Sidney Breese, in order to transcend local bickering, proposed to marry the two projects into one grand scheme that would benefit all of the state, to the detriment of St. Louis. Breese was one of Illinois’ “founding fathers” in that he had been brought to Illinois following his graduation from Union College in New York in 1818 by his childhood friend, Elias Kane, who had been named as the new state’s first Secretary of State, to be his assistant.  Breese had completed his legal training in Illinois and was admitted to the bar in 1820.  In 1827, he had been named by Pres. Adams as the U.S. State’s Attorney.  In 1835, when he made his proposal to merge the Central Railroad with the canal, he had just been named as a Judge in Illinois’ Second Circuit.  His proposal for the railroad was not as altruistic as it may appear on the surface, however, for Breese had joined with Darius B. Holbrook, a Bostonian investor, in purchasing land at the junction of the Mississippi and the Ohio, with an eye towards speculating on the construction of a town they planned to name Cairo.

Breese echoed Bronson’s statement that Eastern investors would require the State of Illinois to guarantee any canal construction bonds and suggested that the credit of the state be used to complete both projects and that construction of both should start at the same time.  The inherent logic of his proposal was irresistible, and it took only three months for supporters to get the legislation passed that chartered the Illinois Central (IC) Railroad on January 18, 1836.  Just two days earlier on January 16, 1836, the legislature had chartered another railroad, the Galena & Chicago Union (GCU).  From exposure to the earlier Central Railroad proposal, Chicago lawyers Ebenezer Peck, the town’s clerk, and Judge Theophilus W. Smith, a former (1823) canal commissioner, understood the railroad’s potential to increase land values, and planned a railroad from Chicago northwest to the Mississippi River at Galena, the center of the region’s lead mining.  At this time, Galena, was much larger in population and appeared to have a brighter future than Chicago, consequently Galena appeared first in the railroad’s name.  This proposal can also be seen as another branch of the “St. Louis cut-off,” for with the completion of the G&CU, Galena’s lead as well as farm products from the states in the upper Mississippi Valley, would need to be shipped downriver along the Mississippi only as far as Galena, and then transferred to rail for the trip to Chicago, from where they would be shipped via water to New York, thereby completely bypassing St. Louis and New Orleans.

Although Galena was just within Illinois’s northern border, many of the lead mines in the area were across the border in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin viewed the region and its riches as its own.  As both the Rock and Wisconsin Rivers provided transport from the Mississippi that, combined with a number of portages, could reach Lake Michigan, it was logical that a canal or railroad could be built that would link the lead region to Green Bay so that the route (and its corresponding transportation cost) that its lead would have to travel to the East would be significantly reduced from its traditional path down the Mississippi and around Florida.  Geographer Henry Schoolcraft had been the first to propose such a canal to Green Bay in 1831.  By 1836, however, the small settlement of Milwaukee had grown in importance to suggest that instead of a canal to Green Bay, a railroad from the Mississippi directly to Milwaukee’s harbor on Lake Michigan made more sense, for the same reasons that Illinois’ railroad advocates were making.  In fact, Wisconsin had barely beaten Illinois to the first punch over Galena as Wisconsin’s territorial government had approved a memorial to Congress requesting funding for a canal from the Mississippi to Green Bay, only three days before Illinois granted the charter for the G&CU Railroad.


The initial plans for both the IC and the G&CU were intimately connected with the construction of the Chicago canal, for they were chartered within a week of the passage of another canal bill by the state legislature on January 9, 1836.  Sales of canal construction bonds, along with the plans for the canal, had been languishing until this bill was passed that responded to the concerns of Eastern lenders by authorizing the credit of the state to guarantee the canal bonds.  This bill also appointed the canal’s third Board of Commissioners (Gurdon Hubbard, William F. Thornton, and William B. Archer) and William Gooding as its chief engineer.  The canal’s dimensions were optimistically increased to 60’ wide at its surface, 36’ wide at its base, with a depth of 6.’  Once this bill was passed, sales of the bonds increased sufficiently to pay for final surveys and estimates by Gooding.  The new canal commissioners set the date of June 20, 1836, for the second public sale of canal lots.  Fortunately for the generations of Chicagoans to come, the three commissioners also had the foresight to set aside the canal land along the lakefront west to Michigan Avenue that lay between Madison and 12th Street to be dedicated as a public park.  

Ill. and Mich. Canal Commissioners Map, July 2, 1836. “Public Ground: A Common to remain forever Open, Clear, & Free of any buildings, or other obstructions Whatever.” (Online)

On their map appeared the following inscription along the lakefront: “Public Ground-A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or other Obstruction Whatever.”  This most fortuitous act may have been in response to a petition signed during the previous November by Chicago’s leading citizens and sent to the Federal government.  In it, they had asked that the government, in closing down the now useless and deteriorating Fort Dearborn, dispose of the fifty-four acres of prime lakefront real estate upon which it sat in the following manner: the thirty-four acres that lay between the south bank of the river and Randolph Street should be auctioned and the profits used to finance a variety of public improvements, while the remaining twenty acres that sat between Randolph and Madison should be made into a public park that fronted on the lake.  The impetus for such a proposal may have been the start of construction of the Courthouse, that was going to remove a portion of the public square from public use that at the time was the only public open land available for recreation.  No matter the reason for why the commissioners had set aside the lakefront property, this one action, unquestionably, more than any other in the city’s history, would have the greatest impact upon Chicago’s urban landscape.


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

Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Grant, H. Roger. The Louisville, Cincinnati, & Charleston Rail Road. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

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

Lorenzsonn, Axel S. Steam and Cinders: The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin: 1831-1861.  Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009.

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

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

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


As many of the city’s initial settlers had moved north into the region from southern Illinois, a Methodist circuit was established that brought Methodist preacher Jesse Walker to Chicago on a regular basis as the town’s first representative of organized religion.  In 1831, Stephen Beggs was assigned to the local congregation as Chicago’s first resident minister to be joined the following year by Walker.  Subsequently, the increased rate of settlement in early 1833 had also brought enough Roman Catholics to Chicago that they successfully petitioned the Bishop of St. Louis for a resident priest.  Father John M. I. St. Cyr arrived in Chicago on May 1.  At this same time, the commandant of the garrison at Fort Dearborn, Major John Fowle, a Presbyterian, had made a request for a minister to the American Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church, which brought the Rev. Jeremiah Porter to Chicago only twelve days after Father St. Cyr had arrived.  Hence, by June 1833, three major Christian denominations had full-time resident ministers hard at work in the bustling town.  It took the arrival of a fourth in July, however, to stir the original three from their complacency into a competition that would stretch over the next twenty years to build Chicago’s largest and most beautiful building dedicated to God.

The Temple Building, southeast corner of Franklin and South Water, 1833. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

On July 4, 1833, Dr. John T. Temple, a Baptist, arrived in Chicago.  At first, he attended the Presbyterian services at the fort, but ideally he wanted to attend a Baptist service led by a Baptist minister in a Baptist building.  He, therefore, requested the American Baptist Home Missionary Society to send a minister, and in anticipation of his arrival started construction of a two-story frame building along the emerging S. Water Street corridor on the southeast corner of S. Water and Franklin Streets.  When Rev. Allen B. Freeman arrived in town on August 16, the Temple Building was ready for his use.  Temple had spent over $900 of his own money on Chicago’s first house of religion.  While the second floor was intended to provide space for a school, the ground floor was a hall for religious services.  In the spirit of the day, the Baptists graciously extended the use of the first floor hall to their Protestant cousins, while at the same time forthrightly denying any such use by the town’s Catholics.  

Augustine D. Taylor, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, southwest corner of Lake and State, 1833. The steeple was added at a later date. (Mayer and Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

Left out in the cold, the Catholics had no choice but to eventually respond with their own structure, if they did not want to lose the battle over Chicago’s many souls to those who had their own building for worship.  Therefore, the city’s Catholics had begun construction in August on Chicago’s first Roman Catholic church, St. Mary’s Church.  Located near the southwest corner of Lake and State Streets, one block removed from the bustling S. Water Street district, the plain, small (25′ by 35′) building was erected during August and September 1833 by carpenter Augustine D. Taylor, who had just arrived from Connecticut in June.  As the parish lacked the resources of Temple, and yet was in a hurry to complete the building in order to catch up with the Protestants, Taylor, therefore, employed Chicago’s new method of wood construction.  St. Mary’s was the most famous of the early balloon-framed structures because, until Sprague’s research, many historians believed it to have been the first balloon frame erected. By October the church was sufficiently completed to be dedicated, although the interior had not yet been plastered and the exterior still needed to be painted.  In fact, the building appeared quite stark (it cost only $400), for even the roof remained unbroken by a steeple or tower, which was not added until a later date.

By this time the Presbyterians could afford to build a larger, more expensive building than the Temple Building.  Enjoying the hospitality of the Baptists, unlike the Catholics, they were not under any pressure to erect their building as fast as possible, so they were able to utilize the more traditional timber frame when they began work on the First Presbyterian Church on the southwest corner of Lake and Clark Streets.  The time involved with frame construction was evident in that the church wasn’t sufficiently completed by Joseph Meeker to be dedicated until January 4, 1834.  Somewhat surprisingly, Chicago’s first congregation, the Methodists, were the last to build a church, waiting until June 1834 to begin construction north of the river at the corner of N. Water and Clark Streets.  One of the first actions taken by the new town trustees had been the implementation of a free ferry in September 1833 across the Main Branch at Dearborn.  The Presbyterians’ decision to start construction may have been influenced by the start of work in March 1834, on the first bridge over the main branch of the river at Dearborn Street, only a block east of the lot owned by the Methodists.  Unlike the stationary Randolph Street bridge over the South Branch, the Dearborn bridge that opened in August 1834, was made a drawbridge with a sixty-foot opening, anticipating the river traffic soon to come.

Dearborn Street Drawbridge, 1834. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)


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

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.

Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

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


South Water Street, ca.1832. This print was made in 1902, as a recreation of the area as it was in 1834. The area was much more built up in 1834 than pictured here, therefore, the scene is more accurate for a few years earlier. The Dearborn Street drawbridge at the far right should, therefore, not be included as it was not completed until August 1834. (Mayer and Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

Prior to the land craze that had started in the fall of 1832, all buildings in Chicago, with a few notable exceptions, had been constructed employing log construction.  Chicago historian Alfred Andreas stated that the first timber-framed building (employing columns, beams, and diagonal bracing connected with mortise-and-tenon joints) in Chicago was erected in 1828 by the Federal government for the town’s favorite Pottawatomi chief, Sauganash (also known as Billy Caldwell), at the southeast corner of Chicago Avenue and North State Street.  It was not until 1831 that another framed building was erected: a two-story addition to the Eagle Inn operated by local raconteur Mark Beaubien, the younger brother of fur trapper Jean Baptiste Beaubien, that he had originally built on the southeast corner of Lake and Market, at the fork of the river’s two branches.  

The Sauganash Hotel (formerly the Eagle Inn), southeast corner of Lake and Market. Named in honor of Chicago’s favorite Native American, also known as Billy Caldwell, the building consisted of a log house built in the 1820s by Mark Beaubien, with the two-story timber-framed addition being erected in 1831. (Andreas, History of Chicago-1)

With the completion of the addition, he changed its name to the Sauganash Inn in honor of the local Native chief.  Beaubien ran a ferry to transport folks across the South Branch to connect the town with the prairie to the west of the river, until the town’s first permanent bridge, a log bridge over the South Branch was erected by soldiers from Fort Dearborn under the direction of Anson Taylor, just north of Randolph.  This was wide enough for farmers from the west to drive their wagons over directly into the town’s business district.  There was also a footbridge across the north branch just above Wolf Point that was also constructed in 1832.

Chicago, 1830. Mark Beaubien’s original building at lake and Market. (Andreas, History of Chicago-1).

In 1832, Robert Kinzie had built his store on the West side incorporating a timber frame.  During the summer of 1832, George W. Dole built a framed building for business purposes located at the southeast corner of S. Water and Dearborn Streets, in the emerging business district paralleling the south bank of the Main Branch.  In the fall of 1832, Philip F.W. Peck, a recent arrival who hailed from Providence, RI, and had stopped in Chicago simply to sell the small inventory of goods he had originally planned to sell somewhere farther south, soon followed Dole’s lead and erected a framed building at the southeast corner of S.Water and La Salle into which he moved his growing business.  

As long as sufficient wood and time were available, the heavy timber frame had met Chicago’s needs more than adequately.  However, once settlers and, more importantly, land speculators began to descend upon Chicago in the latter half of 1832, the stunning growth in population in such a short time required a corresponding boom in the construction of suitable shelter for the newcomers, as well as appropriate commercial structures to service the increasing number of settlers moving through Chicago.  The situation was not unlike that of the preceding spring when makeshift shelters seemed to appear from nowhere due to the evacuation of the fort during the Black Hawk war in response Gen. Scott’s troops arrival with cholera.   The ensuing panic had sent the refugees once again desperately in search of shelter:

“The next morning in vain did we seek for a house.  A rail fence was, however, in sight.  Into one corner I moved.  A few boards made the floor.  Carpet kept off the wind from our heads and backs.  Other boards formed a far from water-proof roof.  Here we remained three days and nights, cooking on the ground… After three days Captain Johnson and my husband secured a lot of green lumber.  In sight of our fence stood the frame of a house.  To this the green boards were soon nailed and a temporary partition put in.  Here our two families moved.”

Reacting to a similar frantic need for temporary shelter in 1833, approximately 150 wooden buildings were erected in a manner best described by the recently arrived Charles Butler:

“But what was the condition of this objective point, this Chicago of which I was in pursuit, to which I had come?  A small settlement, a few hundred people all told, who had come together mostly within the last year or two.  The houses, with one or two exceptions, were of the cheapest and most primitive character for human habitation, suggestive of the haste with which they had been put up… Emigrants were coming in almost every day in wagons of various forms, and, in many instances, families were living in their covered wagons while arrangements were made for putting up shelter for them.  It was no uncommon thing for a house, such as would answer the purpose for the time being, to be put up in a few days… In the tavern at which we stayed, the partitions were chiefly upright studs, with sheets attached to them.”

Necessity, indeed, had been the mother of invention.  Butler had described, in essence, a technique not unlike that employed in the wigwam or teepee of the prairie Natives, who had been forced into a parallel nomadic existence by the recurrent waves of white settlement and displaced Natives.

Various buildings and people have been credited by historians as having been the first to utilize the new technique of balloon framing. Architect John Van Osdel recorded that George Snow was the inventor of the “balloon frame.”  Architectural historian Paul Sprague’s research uncovered that: 

“The first ‘balloon frame’ built in Chicago… was erected in the fall of 1832 by George W. Snow, and stood near the Lake Shore.  It was but a slight affair, yet served for the while, as his place of business and to protect his goods or freight received by vessel.”  

Snow had only just arrived in Chicago that fall, and the first recorded experiment with the balloon frame in his warehouse appropriately reflected the urgency of his business to hastily take advantage of the burgeoning influx of settlers at that moment.

Balloon Framing. This is different from contemporary “platform framing” in that the wall studs are continuous for two stories, not one, and the floor joists are nailed to the sides of the studs. (Sprague, JSAH, December 1981)

In essence, the balloon frame was a compromise between the solid bearing wall of logs used in a log cabin and the skeletal frame of widely spaced heavy timbers in a braced-frame building.  While the balloon frame’s smaller studs were still arranged in a frame-like construction, the spacing between the studs was relatively small, meaning that the wall, braced with its sheathing boards, structurally acted more like a bearing wall than a true skeletal frame.

I do not agree with the analogy drawn by many historians between Chicago’s development of the balloon frame and that of the iron skeleton frame.  The balloon frame moved away from the truly skeletal nature of the heavy timber frame to the more planar nature of the bearing wall, while the iron skeleton frame achieved a system of linear elements spaced far apart, similar to the heavy timber frame.  Although they both developed in Chicago, the structural concepts are not similar.

In addition to the speed of balloon framing, less skilled labor was needed to hammer its nailed connections than that needed to erect a braced frame that required a carpenter’s ability to craft a mortise-and-tenon joint.  Skilled carpenters during the initiation of the land boom must have been in great demand.  In even greater demand would have been timber, especially in the sizes needed for log or frame construction.  The smaller pieces used in balloon framing would have been easier to procure than mature timbers in the surrounding, lightly forested prairies. Unhindered by any legal building ordinances, the overwhelming success of the balloon frame would eventually allow Chicago one day to boast of being the largest wooden city in the world, while citizens of more substantially constructed cities would derisively refer to Chicago as the “Slab City.”


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

Dedmon, Emmett, Fabulous Chicago: A Great City’s History and People, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Canada, 1981.

Industrial Chicago-vol. 1: The Building Interests. Chicago: Goodspeed, 1891.

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

Sprague, Paul E., “The Origin of Balloon Framing,” JSAH, December 1981, p. 314.  

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

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


Following the death of John Kinzie in 1828, his heirs had established a pre-emptive claim in 1831 following the initial survey by James Thompson, to the 102 acres on the north side of the river in Section 10 where his house was located opposite Fort Dearborn. His younger son, Robert A. Kinzie, held a quarter interest in this land, even though his own store was on the west side.  He had traveled to New York City during the winter of 1832-33 to order merchandise for his store for the upcoming season, where he offered to sell his share of his father’s property to a complete stranger who just happened to walk into the store at that precise moment.  His name was Arthur Bronson, one of New York’s richest financiers, who had already heard the rumors about the region’s lush potential farmland.

The Erie Canal had opened the vast plains of western New York to farmers who were eagerly clearing and cultivating the newly accessed lands.  Unfortunately, the land that these farmers toiled over was owned not by them, but by three large land companies who had purchased this vast area from those who had been granted the original Dutch colonial land charters.  The land companies were trying to sell the land to the farmers to recoup their investments, but the financial instrument in use at the time was an installment contract that allowed the farmer to pay annual installments towards the purchase price, but the land company held the deed until the last payment.  As this was virgin land, the first years in which a farmer started to clear the land involved major start-up costs that meant there was little, if any profit with which to make the annual land payment.  The companies were trying to be sympathetic to the realities faced by the farmers by approving the non-payments, but the contracts stipulated that any unpaid interest was to be converted to principal, which then compounded the interest due the following year.  Therefore, as they tended their land year by year, they became more and more in debt, becoming virtually serfs to these companies. The result of this type of contract was that by 1829, over four years after the completion of the Erie Canal, not a single farmer in western New York owned the deed to the land that they had been working.

Charles Butler, a lawyer in Geneva, NY, had represented many of these farmers during these years, that had enabled him to develop a true sympathy for their plight. Butler was no mere backwoods attorney, but the younger brother of Benjamin Franklin Butler, the law partner of Martin Van Buren who in 1830 was the U.S. Secretary of State.  The Butler brothers had been born and raised in Kinderhook, NY, that was Van Buren’s hometown as well.  In fact, after finishing his law studies, Benjamin had clerked in Van Buren’s law office, and eventually became Van Buren’s right-hand man in the “Albany Regency” while the Senator was away in Washington.  Butler’s younger brother, Charles, after having finished his pre-law education, had clerked first for his older brother in Van Buren’s law office, and then for Van Buren himself, becoming an intimate friend of Van Buren’s family during this period.  The Butler brothers, Benjamin and Charles, in 1830, therefore, were close associates of Sec. of State Van Buren, who for all practical purposes was the third most powerful man in the U.S. government.

In early 1830, Charles had hit upon what at the time was a novel idea, but today is considered standard practice: to loan the farmers the money to buy the land using the value of the cultivated farmland as security for a mortgage.  Being intimately connected with Albany politics, Charles was aware that a new company, New York Life Insurance and Trust had been chartered in January 1830 by Isaac Bronson, a commercial banker who was one of the wealthiest men in New York City at the time, and his older son, Arthur, to provide the mortgage service of which his clients were in disparate need.  The Bronsons had intended the new company to be a more responsible investment alternative to the speculative investments that were quite common for the era, as they believed that commercial banks should be involved solely in investment loans. Butler’s civic mindedness took him to New York City to make his proposal to the Bronsons that seemed to fit their new business objectives perfectly.  The Bronsons understood not only the value of Butler’s farmers’ cultivated farmland, but also of Butler’s intimate political and personal connections with Van Buren who ran Albany’s politics, and agreed to Butler’s plan, hiring him to be their mortgage application agent in Geneva County, where he was responsible for arranging over $1 million in mortgages over the next five years.

Some three years later in late 1832, Arthur Bronson had begun to hear of the stories about the Illinois territory from the soldiers returning from the Black Hawk War.  Bronson, who was an acquaintance of General Scott, sought out his recommendation about the area who confided that Chicago’s location would be very important in the future settlement of the West, no doubt confirming Bronson’s intuition.  In January 1833, while Butler was in New York City on regular business, Bronson broached the idea to his trusted mortgage agent that the two of them make a trip to Chicago that summer to evaluate the investment potential of the region.  Butler’s political value to Bronson had since increased with the 1832 Presidential election that resulted in the re-election of Pres. Jackson and saw Butler’s good friend Martin Van Buren elevated as Jackson’s Vice-President over the incumbent John C. Calhoun with a corresponding promising future for Butler and his brother as well.

Only days after Bronson had suggested the trip to Butler, he was walking around New York City gathering information and chanced to visit the store of a supplier to Native traders, where he encountered Robert Kinzie, who made the offer to Bronson to sell his portion of his father’s land on the north side of the Chicago River if he was interested in the land when he saw it during his upcoming trip to Chicago.  Bronson and Butler departed on their journey in June 1833, and arrived at Chicago on August 2, only days before the local election that determined whether or not to incorporate the settlement as a town, to inspect the potential of the area and found:

“The present condition and prospects of Chicago… was, of course, the subject of constant and exciting discussion.  At this time, that vast country lying between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River and the country lying northwest of it,… lay in one great unoccupied expanse of beautiful land… beautiful to look at in its virgin state, and ready for the plow of the farmer.  One could not fail to be greatly impressed with this scene,… and to see there the germ of the future, when these vast plains would be occupied and cultivated, yielding their abundant products of human food, and sustaining millions in population.  Lake Michigan lay there,… and it is clear to my mind that the productions of the vast country lying west and northwest of it on their way to the Eastern market… would necessarily be tributary to Chicago, in the site of which… the experienced observer saw the germ of a city, destined from its peculiar position near the head of the lake and its remarkable harbor formed by the river, to become the largest inland commercial emporium in the United States.”

It is important to point out that Bronson and Butler were not fly-by-night land speculators, but conservative, professional investment businessmen who had played pivotal roles in the economic success in western New York State that had been made possible with the construction of the Erie Canal. They were builders as much as they were investors.  

Chicago at the time of James Thompson’s survey of 1830. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I).

They inspected the Kinzie property, the northern portion of Section 10, bounded by the lake on the east, the river on the south, State Street on the west and Chicago Avenue on the north, but Bronson declined to purchase Kinzie’s quarter interest at this time because other parties still held a majority interest in the property.  Kinzie’s brother-in-law, Major David Hunter, not only held one-half interest in this property, but also owned 80 acres immediately adjacent to the west in Section 9, known as Wolcott’s (Dr. Alexander Wolcott had been the Indian Agent from 1820 to 1830) addition bounded by State Street on the east, Kinzie on the south, La Salle on the west, and Chicago on the north.  Bronson did eventually buy all of Hunter’s property, 182 acres along the northern bank of the river’s mouth, for $20,000 on Nov. 1, 1834, and hired local resident Walter L. Newberry to be his land agent.  Newberry was the younger brother Oliver Newberry, a wealthy Great Lakes shipping and Native supplies merchant from Detroit, who had sent George W. Dole to Chicago in 1831 to open and manage a store there.  Newberry had then sent his brother, Walter, to assist Dole in their company’s growing business.

Meanwhile, the 1833 land boom had become an explosion in October when the land in the School Section, Section 16, immediately to the south of Thompson’s original platted Section 9, that is bordered by Madison on the north, State on the east, Halsted on the west, and Twelfth (now Roosevelt) on the south, was put up for sale at public auction, bringing in a sum of $38,865.  An even greater investment potential, however, was about to become available immediately to the west of Chicago.  On September 26, 1833, the United Nation of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Pottawatomie Tribes had signed a treaty in Chicago that ceded to the Federal government all of their remaining lands east of the Mississippi River.  In exchange for the government’s promise to pay their living expenses for one year and $1 million for miscellaneous settlements, the Tribes had promised to move west of the Mississippi River within three years.  This action extinguished the last Native claim in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and opened the area for white settlement, in which the government planned to start selling lots in May 1835. However, the ultimate removal of the Natives from Illinois also meant the end of the lucrative Native and fur trade that had sustained the area’s economy since its discovery by Europeans.  This economic loss would be more than offset in the immediate future, however, by the greater commercial potential in the sales of the newly vacated Tribal lands.

Canalport/Bridgeport the start of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, Ashland and 29th. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

Upon their arrival the two visitors from the East were quickly approached by Chicago’s leading businessmen regarding their recommendations concerning the funding and construction of the canal.  Perceiving that the commercial potential of the region revolved around the completion of the canal, Bronson, who had witnessed the construction of the Erie Canal and understood the potential profit to be gained not only in building the canal, but more importantly, also in speculating in the land immediately adjacent to this new capital improvement, shrewdly purchased 7,000 acres of land adjoining Canalport (its name was changed later to Bridgeport).  At this time support for the canal was still languishing in the Illinois legislature as there were those who were still arguing for a railroad over a canal, so the two New Yorkers provided appropriate assistance the following year in the presentation of a petition to the legislature that requested the incorporation of a new company to construct the canal.  The presentation of the Chicago canal petition in the General Assembly on November 5, 1834, reinforced the efforts of newly elected Governor Duncan, who was from northern Illinois and, fearing the potential monopoly of a railroad, was also an advocate of the canal.


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

Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: the Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation” New York: Norton, 2005.

Haeger, John Denis, “Eastern Financiers and Institutional Change: The Origins of the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company and the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 39, No. 1, (March 1979), pp. 259-273. 

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

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

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago-1. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Stoddard, Francis Hovey, The Life and Letters of Charles Butler, New York: Scribner: 1903.

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


Gen. Scott had marched his troops from Fort Dearborn in the summer of 1832 through this fertile prairie that had now been opened for farming.  In the fall, these men had returned to their homes back east with glowing reports of the newly available land, initiating an intense land craze that had Chicago at its center.  Scott had returned home as well, having gained an appreciation for the water route from Buffalo to Chicago and the potential for a canal at the Chicago River. Echoing Cook’s claims made in Congress six years earlier that the canal would be invaluable in wartime, Scott recommended that the War Department take an active interest in getting the canal built.  Undoubtedly, this also strengthened the argument for improving the mouth of the Chicago River along the design proposed by William Howard in 1830 that called for a channel through the sandbar that would be protected by piers extended into the lake.  A young army engineer, Lt. Jefferson Davis, had been sent to evaluate the situation and had recommended this plan over the objections of those who favored the alternate improvement of the Calumet River to the south (where Redfield’s proposed railroad to the Mississippi was to pass by Lake Michigan before heading straight for Rock Island).  On March 2, 1833, Congress sided with Davis and voted $25,000 to cut the sandbar and erect the two piers as originally proposed three years earlier by Howard.

William Howard, Proposed improvements to the mouth of the Chicago River, 1830. (Sprague, JSAH, December 1981)

In the meantime, the canal issue had been thrown into complete chaos when on January 7, 1833, Chief Engineer Bucklin presented his final estimates for the three alternative schemes.  The estimate of the Chicago canal route at $4,107,440.43 was the highest of the three, while a similar canal that connected the Calumet River with the Illinois River would cost much less at $1,601,695.83.  However, Bucklin estimated the cost of a railroad over the Chicago route to be the least expensive at $1,052,488.19.  Bucklin’s study had obviously impressed Governor Reynolds, who foreshadowed Bucklin’s conclusions by telling the Illinois General Assembly on December 4, 1832, that the railroad was “the only practicable mode of connection.”  That body, however, was unable to resolve the issue and later in March 1833, following Congress’ appropriation for harbor improvements, abolished the canal commission altogether and repealed all acts passed since 1829 that pertained to the canal’s construction.  The final cost estimate of over $4 million was viewed as too high for the state to undertake on its own.  More resources would have to be procured from the Federal government in addition to the recently approved $25,000, if construction of the canal was ever to begin.  The State could not afford or was unwilling to appropriate the amount Bucklin had estimated and decided to hold their cards, wanting Jackson and the Federal government to make the next move.  The project was purposefully stalled for the next two years, even as public anticipation of the project fed the nascent town’s population and corresponding demand for land.  Nonetheless, Lt. Davis completed the two piers later that year, extending the northern pier some 1000’ into the lake in an attempt to overcome the strong lake current from reforming the sandbar at the mouth of the river.   But it would be a continuous struggle to keep the river’s mouth clear of new sandbars that were created by the lake’s strong current that formed against the back of the new north pier until its end was reached and then the current would simply begin to silt up the mouth once again, forcing the pier to be extended a little farther north each time in response to the latest sandbar.  

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


The Illinois legislature had passed an act on February 12, 1831, that clarified the process that a group of people living within the general proximity of each other would have to follow in order to incorporate as a formal town with all of the concomitant legal rights and responsibilities.  The most significant requirement to meet was a minimum population of 150.  If a majority of residents approved of such incorporation at a public meting, an election was to be held five days from when that decision had been approved in order to elect the new town’s five Trustees. During the spring and summer of 1833, immigration in anticipation of the first sale of the canal’s landgrant had more than doubled the area’s population to approximately 350, more than sufficient to qualify to organize under a town charter. On August 5, 1833, a public meeting was held at which an election was held that approved (by a vote of 12-1) to incorporate the Town of Chicago.  On August 10 an election was held at the Sauganash Inn that elected the town’s five trustees as George W. Dole, Madore B. Beaubien, John Miller, E.S. Kimberly, and T. J. V. Owen as the Board’s first President.


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

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



The problems with the Chicago canal were only compounded in the spring of 1831.  Tensions began to mount when a band of Sauk Natives led by the warrior Black Hawk, returned to their village, Saukenuk, near Rock Island from winter hunting in Iowa, seeking refuge from Sioux warparties only to find white squatters living in their lodges in what the Natives viewed as a direct violation of the Treaty of 1804.  The Federal government, on the other hand, had sold the land under the village to white settlers and, in its interpretation of the treaty, the withdrawal of the Natives was dictated.  Infantry from St. Louis temporarily quelled the situation and forced the Sauks to sign a new treaty requiring them to retire west of the Mississippi but without the season’s crops they normally would have harvested.  Their distress had been compounded by a poor winter hunt that had left the starving Sauk with little alternative but to try to return to their former home.  The following spring on April 5, 1832, the Winnebago prophet White Cloud visited Fort Armstrong and informed government authorities that the Sauks led by Black Hawk, were going to recross the Mississippi and join White Cloud’s village in northern Illinois, thereby defying the treaty signed just the previous year.

Map Showing Location of Fort Armstrong, Saukenuk, and Black Hawk’s retreat to Bad Axe. (Online)

Following the killing of three of Black Hawk’s emissaries, who were seeking a peaceful resolution, on May 12, 1832, the Natives broke into smaller warparties bent on revenge and wreaked havoc throughout northern Illinois.  Rightfully fearing for their lives, white settlers fled the area for the relative safety of Fort Dearborn that at the time had fortunately been abandoned by its garrison.  Fortunately, because the population at the fort was to increase five-fold by the end of May, swelled by over 400 refugees who were able to take shelter in or near the vacant barracks.  Once the fort was filled, latecomers were forced to hastily erect temporary shelters with whatever materials were readily available.

While over 4,000 local militia, regulars, and volunteers pursued Black Hawk up the Rock River, the Federal government shipped additional troops, under the command of General Winfield Scott from Buffalo to Fort Dearborn.  Unfortunately, when these men finally arrived on July 10, they presented an even greater threat than did the Natives: cholera.  Once word of the shipboard menace got out, the fort emptied even faster than it had filled.  Around midnight, one of Scott’s officers ordered the fort’s remaining civilian occupants to evacuate before morning, when the infected soldiers would be moved into the fort.  The ensuing panic sent the refugees once again desperately in search of shelter:

“The next morning in vain did we seek for a house.  A rail fence was, however, in sight.  Into one corner I moved.  A few boards made the floor.  Carpet kept off the wind from our heads and backs.  Other boards formed a far from water-proof roof.  Here we remained three days and nights, cooking on the ground… After three days Captain Johnson and my husband secured a lot of green lumber.  In sight of our fence stood the frame of a house.  To this the green boards were soon nailed and a temporary partition put in.  Here our two families moved.

In the ten days that it took the soldiers to recover, over 100 had died.  By the time the surviving troops had finally set out for the Rock River, the local troops from Fort Armstrong had already caught up with and cornered the main body of Natives trying to recross the Mississippi at the Bad Axe River in southern Wisconsin and massacred over 150 Natives on August 2, 1832.  Hostilities were formally ended with the signing of a treaty on September 21, that set a deadline of June 1, 1833, for the final withdrawal of the Sauks to land west of the Mississippi.


Pres. Jackson used his upcoming 1832 re-election campaign as a plebiscite on the value of the Second Bank of the U.S. that, even though it had a rocky beginning after its 1816 charter, had by 1832 calmed down the national economy and had stabilized the country’s currency.  (Based on Hamiltonian principles of a strong, national government, the 2BUS was a political lightning rod in the country’s mounting Sectionalist politics for strict constructionists argued that there was no provision in the Constitution for the Federal government to establish such an institution.) In fact, buoyed by the 2BUS’s recent policies and by increased land sales, the Federal government made the final payment of the Federal debt in January 1835 that had left Congress somewhat in a quandary regarding what to do with the burgeoning inflow of money coming from the sale of Federal lands.  Congress passed the Specie Distribution Act of 1836 specifically to “spread the wealth” to the states to be used for internal improvements as they deemed best (without any Federal centralized planning, Jackson’s bogeyman).  

Nonetheless, Jackson viewed the 2BUS as an institutional threat to his personal authority (the President had no control over its patronage positions) and had used Populist reaction against the 2BUS and the marked failure of the issuance of paper currency as political issues to win his re-election in 1832, after which he had embarked on a program to destroy the bank by denying the renewal of its charter due in 1836.  Jackson eventually settled on a policy that was questionable in its legality: stopping all further deposits of Federal revenues in the Bank in order to weaken its power.  However, he had to first go through three Secretaries of the Treasury before he found one, Roger Taney who at the time was also the Attorney General. to implement his plan.  This new banking policy had the added bonus, utilizing Van Buren’s patronage process by distributing these funds into initially seven (whose number eventually grew to over ninety) “pet” banks that were, not so coincidentally, all owned by Democratic Party stalwarts.  The reduced power of the 2BUS to control the money supply, combined with the infusion of Federal monies that became available once the Federal debt was paid off, into “less-principled” regional banks resulted in an explosion of paper currency that had unleashed a frenzy of real estate speculation that was slowly resulting in inflation of the dollar and an economic bubble.


Anderson, Frederick K., Joined By a River: Quad Cities, Rock Island, 1982.

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

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