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)

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