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)

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