While the original 1836, uncompleted tracks for the G&CU had started at Dearborn and ran west along Madison Street, Ogden having almost the entire city at his beckon call in 1848, had chosen the corner of Kinzie and Halsted to begin his tracks.  Analyzing his choice, the following issues more than likely played a role in this decision: First, it was adjacent to the city’s business district, meaning that it was convenient for the company’s passengers and freight.  Second, he owned much of the land in the north division, where he planned to eventually extend the tracks to the lake (selling his land needed for the tracks to the company for a tidy profit).  And third, he would have to bridge the lesser-travelled north branch rather than the busy south branch of the river was less travelled than the south branch, meaning a bridge over this portion of the Chicago River would have to be moved less often, disrupting rail traffic much less than a bridge over the south branch.  If one stood on the spot where Ogden had the first rail laid in June 1848, and looked back east toward the lake, your view you take you directly to a brand new factory being erected on the north side of the river’s mouth into Lake Michigan.  As the Federal government still owned the south side of the mouth (Fort Dearborn reservation), the north side of the river’s mouth was the most valuable piece of real estate in downtown Chicago.  Ogden owned this property, and would eventually sell it in August 1847 to Virginian Cyrus McCormick to erect the the largest factory of its kind in the country.

Wheat’s great strength in the NorthWest was its ability to be stored over a long period of  time without rotting until the spring thaw opened up the Great Lakes shipping season, permitting the grain to finally be transported to markets in the East and Europe.  The Achilles’ heel of wheat, on the other hand, was that no matter how large a plot of land the region’s farmers planted with seed, once the grain had started to ripen, there was a period of roughly ten days within which they could harvest by hand as much as humanly possible before the wheat began to rot in the field.  The promise of the seemingly ideal flat, unbounded prairie to provide bread for the world would be unrealized until enough farm laborers had moved west to help the new landowners harvest all of the wheat that the fertile acreage could produce.  Farmers could grow as much wheat as they could plant, but those ten days in early summer would determine not only what percentage of the crop actually got harvested, but also how much profit the farmer netted after paying the premium wages demanded by the few available hired hands who had migrated to the west at this time.  As early as 1842, Chicago understood that this limitation of nature’s bounty had to be overcome if the city was ever to realize the latent profit in its surrounding farmland:

“We therefore say to inventors – here is a field for you to operate in; anything that you wish to have introduced into extensive use, which you know to be really valuable, you can bring here with a good prospect of success.  Bring along your machines, and also give us a chance to advertise them.

The next three years saw wheat exports increase at a “modest” rate from 586,907 bushels in 1842 to 956,860 in 1845, as each year more farms were established in the surrounding region. Exports in 1846, however, once again exploded to 1.46 million bushels, an increase of over 500,000 bushels, some 33%  above the year before.  The following year, 1847, saw another jump of half a million bushels to a total of 1.97 million. Chicago had now more than doubled its wheat exports in just two harvests.  One of the reasons for the increase was the first appearance of a machine such as what had been called for as far back as 1842: the “Virginia Reaper.”

Cyrus McCormick’s “Virginia Reaper,” patented 1834. (Online)

In July 1846 Chicago laid eyes for the first time on the ungainly machine that was about to revolutionize the harvesting of wheat and secure for Chicago the role of the world’s grain merchant.  Some thirty of the wood and iron beasts had been shipped via the Erie Canal from Brockport, NY., where they had been manufactured by Seymour, Chappell, and Co. to the design patented by Cyrus Hall McCormick of Walnut Grove, Virginia.  Although McCormick had invented in 1831 and patented in 1834 what he soon dubbed the “Virginia reaper,” he had continued to refine its design in the small number of machines he had manufactured each year since 1839.  These he fabricated on his father’s farm until he had sufficient confidence in their performance that he could afford to grant franchises to various manufacturers to produce enough machines to meet the growing demand in the East for the new-fangled device.  This began in 1844, when McCormick had first passed through Chicago during the summer on his first attempt to promote his invention west of the Allegheny Mountains.  Appreciating the potential demand for his machine on the flat prairie farms in the west, McCormick had chosen larger and better-established Cincinnati over youthful Chicago to be his western manufacturing center, undoubtedly due to the scheduled completion of the Miami-Eire Canal in 1845 that would link Cincinnati to Toledo on Lake Erie, and thence to New York via the Erie Canal. He signed a contract with A.C. Brown on September 19, 1844, to produce 200 machines for the upcoming 1845 harvest (all told, McCormick had contracts for the manufacture of over 400 machines for 1845, an extremely ambitious increase over the 70 reapers he had made the previous year).

Unfortunately for McCormick, his plans proved overly optimistic as one contractor after another either fell behind in production or produced such shoddy workmanship (despite his residence in Cincinnati that spring to supervise Brown’s manufacture) that the machines proved worthless to the farmers who had been anticipating all winter long the liberating boon promised by such a device.  Nonetheless, with no apparent alternative, McCormick renewed his contract with Brown in Cincinnati to produce 100 reapers for the 1846 harvest.  Before returning to his Virginia home for the winter, however, he made one more pass through Illinois to bolster the sagging opinion of his product.  Passing through Chicago, he still found the local papers bemoaning the lack of any mechanical assistance for the region’s farmers:

“We may add that from the great number of enquiries made at our office this winter, some machine or machines to cut grain will be in great demand in the Western States for a few years to come, and those who wish to make sales will do well to be on hand.”

While Brown in Cincinnati once again fell short of McCormick’s expectations for the 1846 harvest, Seymour, Chappell and Co. successfully fulfilled their contract for 100 reapers, all but ten of which were shipped from Buffalo via steamship to Chicago where McCormick had no trouble in selling all 90 in just months.  Gratifying was the response of farmers, such as H.E. Towner of Will County who flatly stated, “For my own part, I consider it [McCormick’s reaper] to the Western country the most important invention of the age, and that it will greatly increase the product of the country, not being able to without it to reap so much as can be sown.”  McCormick was somewhat unprepared for the immediate enthusiasm shown his machine by Illinois’ farmers and agricultural editors alike:

“[It] will cut from 15 to 20 acres per day, which is as decided an advantage upon the old method of ‘cradling’ as the Magnetic Telegraph is on steam.  These machines are highly useful in this State, where the harvest is large, while the means of saving it is disproportionally small.”

Encouraged by Chicago’s response, McCormick contracted in July 1846 with a local manufacturer, Charles M. Gray and S. R. Warner, to make 100 reapers to sell in Boone, McHenry, and DuPage Counties for the 1847 season.  Although McCormick had enticed his younger brother Leander to move from Virginia to Cincinnati in January 1847 to help Brown produce his contract for the 1847 harvest, he apparently had already made up his mind that if Gray could produce his 100 machines without defect and on time, he would centralize his manufacturing operations not in Cincinnati as originally planned, but in Chicago.  McCormick, whose all-important patents allowed him to charge a patent fee between $15 and $30 on every reaper produced by a manufacturer, realized that in the upcoming year, 1848, he faced the uncertain task of renewing his original patent.  If not successful, his subcontractors would be free to use his design without paying him a cent, resulting in immediate financial loss.  Moreover, the quantity of the reapers now being made, as well as the far-flung geographic distribution of production and sales, was straining his ability to personally oversee production and introduction in the field by individual purchasers of his machine.  Another factor that had to be considered was the larger freight charge per reaper, that he had to absorb, for shipment from the factories in the east to the farmer in the west.  McCormick was slowly having to face the fact that either he must move from his Virginian birthplace and centralize all operations in one locale closer to his markets or face total loss of control of the development of the machine he had spent his entire life perfecting.


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

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

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

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

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While the Bostonians were finalizing the financing needed to start construction in Michigan, Ogden was desparately searching for financing to start the G&CU.  The G&CU’s new Board’s political friends had seen to the rechartering of the company in the State legislature that was approved on February 24, 1847.  This increased the size of the Board of Directors to thirteen and the size of the company’s stock to three million dollars.  On April 5, Ogden was formally elected as the new company’s president who named Turner as its Superintendent and John Van Nortwick as Chief Engineer.   Ogden’s group now owned a company worth three million dollars (that included the title to 940 acres of woodland along the Des Plaines River, from which ties and fuel could be obtained), while they had not put a penny of their own money into the company.  Ogden then had made an inspection trip along the proposed route of the railroad up to Rockford, from where he changed course and went north into Wisconsin, following the Rock River, that was becoming the center of the NorthWest’s emerging wheat belt.  By this date, Galena’s lead had been supplanted by the region’s wheat crop as the area’s top grossing product.  (In fact, the G&CU tracks would never reach Galena.)  Stopping first at Beloit, at the stateline, and then at Janesville, the largest inland town in Wisconsin with a population at the time of 2,500, he querried if there was any interest among its inhabitants for a branch line of the G&CU.  Ogden’s northernly detour indicated that he was not only interested in building a railroad west to the Pacific, but also an entire network of roads criss-crossing the entire NorthWest.

Map of the completed Chicago & NorthWestern Railroad as built by Ogden. Note the original route to Galena was never completed because Ogden wanted to build two routes: one to Council Bluffs for the transcontinental railroad, the second one through Wisconsin to ring off Milwaukee. (Online)

Although the Rockford meeting that January had been well-attended by residents along the proposed route, Ogden needed some kind of major publicity event that would generate national publicity for the small, but growing town of Chicago in order to divert attention away from St. Louis that was, at this moment, basking in the glory of Whitney’s reports and energies.  Having pushed the country into war with Mexico on May 13, 1846, Pres. Polk then gave Ogden what he so badly needed on Aug. 3, 1846: he vetoed the Congressional funding bill that included money for the dredging operations at the mouth of the Chicago River and in the process, set off a major revolt in the NorthWest that culminated in the 1847 Rivers and Harbors Convention.  What would be the city’s first national convention was just the opportunity Ogden needed to showcase the potential of the nascent metropolis to a nationwide audience, including the Boston owners of the MC.

Following the highly successful convention in July, representatives of the MC began investigating the options open to them to extend the railroad to Chicago.  Rather than build to St. Joseph on Lake Michigan, that had been designated as the western terminus of the line in the company’s original charter, Forbes had approved Brooks’ proposal to plot a southwestern course to the Indiana border at New Buffalo (appropriately named in honor of the terminus of the Erie Canal at Lake Erie), some twenty-five miles closer to Chicago in anticipation of continuing the line to Chicago in the near future.  From New Buffalo, a lake steamer could then be boarded for the ride to Chicago, where the Bostonians’ canal was on the verge of completion (the switch to New Buffalo would also reduce the length of the lake steamer trip by some fifteen miles).  While the realignment of the Central’s route telegraphed Forbes’ intention to go to Chicago, it was also meant as an attempt to block a potential albeit dormant competitor, the Southern Michigan Railroad, whose own charter terminated its route at New Buffalo.

Once news reached Ogden that the MC was considering extending its tracks to Lake Michigan at New Buffalo, with the goal of eventually building a line around Lake Michigan to Chicago, he and Scammon unilaterally (and naively) announced that the G&CU would become the natural next link in the road to the west.  Ogden had organized the G&CU along the lines of an East Coast stock corporation, the first in Chicago, and put up stock in the company for subscription on August 10, 1847.  This was followed up with the publication of a pamphlet for distribution in Wisconsin that laid out his plan for a branch line that extended from Rockford north, following the Rock River to Beloit.  Only $20,000, however, was raised in Chicago by this method, for not only were many people suspicious of the motives of Ogden, the real estate agent, but also Chicago merchants feared that a railroad into Chicago would hurt their business:

“Chicago is a retail center, dependent on the farmers who come to trade.  If they can ship their produce on a railroad they won’t come to town.  Villages, perhaps cities, will spring up along the right of way and farmers will trade there, nearer home.  Grass will grow in the streets of Chicago if railroads come.”

The only recourse left open to Ogden and Scammon was to canvass the entire countryside along the proposed route during the Fall of 1847, giving speeches to whomever would stop to listen and to cajole from all who came a commitment to buy at least one share, even if it meant they had to borrow the first payment from Ogden against the upcoming harvest, for after all, the railroad was being planned to expedite the tedious process that farmers had to endure in bringing their crops to the Chicago market.   Enough was subscribed through this campaign to pay surveyor Richard Morgan to commence a survey of the route to the Fox River in September, in preparation to let the first construction contracts during the upcoming Spring of 1848.

It wasn’t just the transportation of wheat from the burgeoning farms in the west for which Ogden was planning, but in true synergistic thinking, he was also making provision for increasing the harvesting capacity of these farms with the help of  a new machine, the “Virginia reaper.”


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

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

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

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

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


Meanwhile, it took less than six months from the resumption of the canal’s construction in Chicago in October 1845, for the same Boston investors (Thomas H. Perkins, John Bryant, William Sturgis, John E. Thayer, Josiah Quincy) who had taken over control of the canal to snatch the stalled Michigan Central Railroad from a bankrupt State of Michigan and consolidate their planned route to the west with the addition of an overland connection through Michigan (to replace the steamboat route between Buffalo and Chicago over Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan, for the over-water routes were of no practical use during the winter) to their recently acquired canal project.  By January 1846, when the State of Michigan had finally run out of money, the route had been completed from Detroit to Kalamazoo, over two-thirds of the distance to Lake Michigan.  

The Routes of the Michigan Central and Michigan Southern: 1846-1852.

The looming possibility of the MC’s eventual bankruptcy with the corresponding opportunity for a private company to purchase the railroad for a bargain was appreciated by two Detroit law partners, James F. Joy and Michigan’s commissioner of Internal Improvements, George F. Porter. Understanding the importance of a completed railroad to Detroit’s long-term economic future, the two had undertaken a letter-writing campaign to newspapers, extolling the potential merits of the stalled project.  The letters eventually got the attention of the Bostonians and the owners of the various New York roads that paralleled the Erie Canal, including John W. Brooks, then the superintendent of the Auburn & Rochester.   True to their modus operandi, the Bostonians would wait until the state had expended all that it could afford and the project was bankrupt before they stepped in to buy up the project and its land at a very favorable price. During the fall of 1845, when the reports of Whitney’s transcontinental expedition were filling the pages of the nation’s newspapers, Brooks traveled to Detroit as the representative of the Boston investors to confer with Joy and Porter.  He eventually aligned himself with the two lawyers in a campaign by the Boston Concern to purchase the MC from the state.  After much debate, similar to the final canal agreement in Illinois, the Michigan legislature saw no alternative and eventually approved the transfer of the assets of the MC on March 5, 1846, to an investment group headed by the Bostonians, with the stipulation that the road be completed to Lake Michigan within three years.

As the financing of the purchase proposal was being finalized, a Bostonian new to  railroad investment, John Murray Forbes, had emerged to become president of the fledgling company.  Forbes was the son of T.H. Perkins’ youngest sister and had been brought up in the family’s Chinese opium business in Canton by his older brother, Robert Bennet Forbes, who by 1840 was put in charge of Russell & Co. by Samuel Russell,  (By 1846, Ogden had been Russell’s agent in Chicago for a number of years: see Chap. 7.1.) Although originally not so inclined, by September 1846, the younger Forbes had agreed to accept the presidency of the railroad before the purchase was completed on September 23, 1846.  Soon thereafter, Brooks was made the superintendent of the reorganized Michigan Central and began construction in the spring of 1847 on the railroad’s final Michigan leg from Kalamazoo to Lake Michigan, in order to honor the agreement with the state.  


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

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

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

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

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


While Douglas had, rather nonchalantly projected his Pacific railroad from Chicago over the virgin plains of Iowa, following Asa Whitney’s recent exploration of a route through Iowa and northern Missouri to the mouth of the Kansas River, overland travel through virgin prairie, with minimum water supplies (i.e., rivers) was not as simple as drawing a line from here (Chicago) to there (Caldwell’s Camp).  When Ogden revealed his plan to build a line to Rock Island in his 1848 annual report, an overland route west across the Mississippi and through Iowa to the junction of the Missouri and Platte Rivers, however, had just recently been forged by Brigham Young and his followers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons.  The Mormons had been led by their prophet, Joseph Smith, to settle in Northwest Missouri in 1831.  Although they had been forced by local authorities to move to adjacent counties for a variety of reasons. Primarily, they were quite successful as an autonomus community as their numbers had grown to the point where they could control the outcome of a local election.  The Panic of 1837, however, had taken its toll on them as well, leading to an internecine split among the group’s leaders.  This fracture further fueled the hate and jealousy of their neighbors that ultimately resulted in the Missouri-Mormon War of 1838, during which the state’s Governor, Lilburn Boggs had issued Missouri Executive Order 44 on Oct. 27, 1838, that stated “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.”  

Map of Iowa and Illinois, the Land bridge from Chicago to the Pacific. The Mormons had blazed a trail from Nauvoo across Iowa. Ogden first had to lay tracks through northern Illinois to the Mississippi, before he could contemplate continuing into Iowa. (Online)

Over 8,000 followers evacuated back across the Mississippi River to Quincy, IL, where they were welcomed by the local authorities.  In essence, the Mormons were a significant demographic force wandering in search of a hometown (Chicago’s population in 1839 was a mere 4200).  The sect soon purchased the town of Commerce, IL, some 50 miles upriver and changed its name to Nauvoo, that Smith said in ancient Hebrew meant “How beautiful upon the mountains.”  The state legislature approved its city charter on April 25, 1839, that among other provisions, allowed it to maintain its own militia.  By 1844, the sect was so successful and prosperous that it had grown in size to over 14,000, the largest town in the state (in 1845 Galena’s size was 14,000 while Chicago’s population in 1844 was 8,000).  Internecine bickering, however, eventually broke out again in 1844, this time over the practice of plural marriage, which led to the arrest and assassination of Joseph Smith while he was incarcerated in Carthage, IL, on June 27, 1844.  Local authorities believed the sect would disintegrate following Smith’s death, but the group’s discipline held and Brigham Young was elevated to be its new leader.  In frustration, Illinois revoked Nauvoo’s charter on Jan. 29, 1845, and demanded that the Mormons leave the state by the end of the year.  In September, Hancock County authorities also demanded that they leave and Young made the fateful decision that he would lead his people to where Smith had prophesized their ultimate home would be, in Utah, a place that he felt no one wanted that was also, at the time, outside of the U.S. where no one would ever bother them again.  

Route of the Mormons to Utah, 1847-8. (Online)

Unfortunately, the conventional route to the west down the Mississippi to St. Louis and up the Missouri to Independence to begin the Oregon Trail, was closed off to Young and his followers because it was, of course, located in Missouri, the state that had issued the Mormon extermination decree.  Young had no alternative but to lead his 14,000 people in a 265-mile overland trek through Iowa’s virgin territory.  Rumors were heard that local militias were planning an attack during the coming spring that made Young push the time of departure that he had hoped could wait for the warmer temperatures of spring up to February 4, 1846, when Young’s pathfinder group walked across the iced-over Mississippi River into the freezing darkness of a midwestern February.  One hundred and twenty days later, they arrived on the outskirts of Caldwell’s Camp on the Missouri River on June 13, along the way, having cut a trail through the southern half of uninhabited Iowa that included erecting housing and planting crops for the Mormon parties that were following.   As the following Mormon parties arrived at the Missouri River, they changed the name of the area to Kanesville, in honor of Thomas L. Kane, a young Philadelphian lawyer who had used his political connections to gain Federal permission for the Mormons to occupy the lands that the Natives were residing upon at the time.  Young spent the remainder of the year establishing “Winter Quarters,” across the river and away from the disgruntled Natives, in what is now northern Omaha (that would be founded in 1854), where the majority of the group resided, waiting for the coming spring’s march to Utah.  They would reach it on July 24, 1847, some 22 years before the transcontinental railroad would.  Brigham Young had proved that an overland route from Chicago to the Pacific, that completely bypassed St. Louis, Missouri, was quite feasible.


William Weeks, The Nauvoo Mormon Temple, 1841. Bottom right: the reconstruction. (Online)

Soon after moving to Navoo, Joseph Smith began preparations to build the second Mormon Temple, the first one in Kirtland, OH still stands today although it has had a checkered history.  Smith laid the cornerstone on April 6, 1841. The architect was William Weeks.  Its total height was 165,’ easily the tallest building west of the Appalachian Mountains; Baltimore’s shot tower was the tallest in the U.S. at 234,’ soon to be surpassed by Manhattan’s Trinity Church at 279.’ (The tallest building in Chicago at this time was the First Methodist Church at 148.’)  Although Brigham Young had begun the Mormon evacuation in February 1846, he ordered that its construction be completed so that it could still be dedicated.  This occured on April 30; the last of the Mormons left some four months later, leaving the building vacant. They tried to find a buyer to no avail, and eventually sold the $200,000 structure for $5000.  Vigilantes set fire to the vacant building on October 8, 1848.  In 1999 the Mormons decide to rebuild a copy as close as possible to the original building.


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


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The Proposed route of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. (Online)

The first train to make an appearance in Chicago did not chug into town accompanied by the usual celebration of parades and speeches, however, as many American cities had experienced their first encounter with the iron horse.  Instead, the first train to appear in Chicago had departed from the city, headed west on October 25, 1848.  (What this meant was that all the iron rails and the early rolling stock had to be shipped to Chicago via lake steamers.)  William Ogden, the builder of Chicago’s first railroad did not want to helplessly wait for the lines slowly coming from the East to make a connection with Chicago or worse, completely bypass the small town altogether by simply continuing due west from the tip of Lake Michigan (as had Redfield’s and Dexter’s original routes fifteen years earlier), but in exemplary “I will” fashion, unilaterally started building his tracks to the west, confidently assuming that the Eastern tracks would eventually make their way to Chicago in order to forge a connection with his planned western route (however, this would take three and a half long years to occur, testifying to the gamble that he was undertaking).       Let me restate this fact to emphasize Bill Ogden’s foresight and the immense gamble he was undertaking in 1848, without any financial assistance from the Federal Government, i.e., land grants, because I don’t believe history truly appreciates Ogden’s achievement.  In 1848, there was not a railroad track within 100 miles of Chicago. Ogden could have laid  his tracks safely to the East to make a link with one of the two roads, the Michigan Central or the Michigan Southern, laying tracks from the East headed for the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and thereby hastened the connection of Chicago with the East Coast, and have had a quicker return on his investment.  Instead, he started building to the Pacific, ahead of all comers.  His tracks started in Chicago and headed straight first for the wheat fields in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin (the Pacific connection would come, hopefully, later).  His plan was that his small. short road would entice the eastern roads to head north, once they reached the tip of Lake Michigan, to connect with his operational line to the Pacific.  Hindsight, once again shows how intelligent Ogden had been, but that original pair of iron rails to “nowhere” dangled on the edge of bankruptcy for their first three years, with Ogden’s investors nervously hoping that they had not thrown away their money on a pipe dream.

In Chicago in late 1845, as construction on the canal had resumed with vigor once the Bostonians refinancing plan had been accepted by the legislature, Ogden, who had a number of canal construction contracts, was also looking ahead to the next financial opportunity once the canal had been completed.  Undoubtedly he had found inspiration during that summer from Asa Whitney’s reports of his Pacific Railroad expedition and Douglas’ counterproposal that had started from Chicago that had been published on October 15, 1845.  But in truth, Ogden had voiced his support for a transcontinental road as a member of the New York State Assembly ten years earlier, before he had left the state for Chicago (see Chap. 3.11).  However, ten years after he had delivered this speech he now understood that the inherent importance to the long-term economic success of his adopted hometown lay not with the route in the midsection of the country that linked Cincinnati to St. Louis for which he had initially advocated back then, but with Douglas’ route that led directly from Chicago to the Pacific, and determined to make the project his own life-long ambition.  His ultimate objective to build a road to the Pacific was revealed as early as April 5, 1848, when in his first Annual Report of the Galean & Chicago Union, he expressed his interst in extending the road not only to its original terminus on the Mississippi, Galena, but also via a second line directly to Rock Island.

One can assume that through Ogden’s network of friends and business associates (after all, these were the same people with which he had just finished working behind the scenes in securing Boston’s refinancing of the canal) he was at least aware of the Bostonians’ plan to push their railroads to Lake Michigan once the national economy rebounded.  Rather than waiting for the railroad from Boston to arrive at the Calumet River at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, with the chance that the Bostonians might just keep going west and, thereby, bypass Chicago altogether, he had initiated a campaign in Chicago to build a railroad to the West that could be the next link in their chain, and thereby, attempted to insure that the railroads from the East would swing north to connect with his line out of Chicago.   Therefore, once Ogden had succeeded in getting the construction of the canal restarted in October 1845, that serendipidtously coincided with Douglas’ publication of his proposed Chicago transcontinental railroad, it took Ogden less than month to call a secret meeting at his house to discuss with his inner circle his plan to take over the charter of the moribund G&CU (see Chap. 3.9).  At this same moment, Douglas moved into the Chairmanship of the House Committee on Territories, in charge of overseeing all legislation that pertained to the development of all lands west of the Mississippi (i.e., land grants) that as of yet had not fallen under the jurisdiction of a state.  He would hold this powerful position for two years until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in the fall of 1846, in which he politically maneuvered to eventually take over the Chair of the Senate Committee on Territories, a power he would wield for ten long and critical years, to the distinct advantage of Chicago’s long-term interests.

Construction of the original G&CU that had been chartered on January 16, 1836, under the direction of Elijah K. Hubbard, Gurdon Hubbard’s younger cousin and business associate, who represented the interersts of New York financier Elihu Townsend who owned a majority of the company’s stock, had actually begun in 1838 with a few piles being driven along Madison Street, to the west starting from the point where the construction of Dearborn Street had stopped.  However, first the financial panic of 1837, and then the death of the younger Hubbard on May 26, 1839, had stopped the project dead in its tracks.  Nothing had been done on the project during the economic recession, as the deadline contained within its original charter that required the road had to be completed within ten years (i.e., January 16, 1846) inevitably approached.  Farmers along the proposed route in the Rock River valley who had subscribed to the company’s stock understood that the deadline was upon them, and had called a meeting in Rockford, scheduled for January 7, 1846, to discuss what alternatives they would have once the deadline had come and gone.  

Apparently, Ogden had gotten word of the meeting which had piqued his interest in the G&CU, in which he quietly had his team research the pertitent legal facts.  Maybe the most important fact they uncovered was that Gurdon Hubbard was planning to make a bid to take over the charter once it expired on January 16, as he believed he had first rights to purchase the charter through his cousin’s will.  It appears from Ogden’s next series of actions that at this time there may have been some bad blood between himself and Hubbard.  This may have resulted from Middletown, CT, financier Samuel Wadsworth Russell’s decision, who was then the owner of the country’s largest China merchant, Russell & Co., having absorbed J. & T.H. Perkins in 1827 upon the retirement of its head, John Perkins Cushing, to replace Hubbard with Ogden as his local real estate agent.  (Andreas claimed that over time Ogden & Jones would become the agent over Russell’s entire financial estate.)  Nonetheless, Ogden had called the secret meeting at his house in the fall of 1845, prior to the Rockford meeting, that included his close associates J. Young Scammon and Walter Newberry, his new partner William E. Jones, his attorney Isaac N. Arnold, and a newcomer, John Bice Turner, to orchestrate a secret campaign to resurrect the bankrupt G&CU.  While Ogden and Scammon knew how to run a business, neither of them knew anything about building a railroad, and so they had asked Turner, who had been a contractor on a number of lines in upsate New York before he had serendipitously moved to Chicago in 1843, to join the campaign.  On December 5, 1845, a mere ten weeks after Asa Whitney had returned in St. Louis and began to promote his route for the transcontinental railroad, and only seven weeks after Douglas had published his own transcontinental railroad plan, Ogden held a public meeting at the Courthouse to elect Chicago’s delegates to the Rockford convention in the coming month. 

At the convention on January 7, 1846, Scammon, Newberry, Arnold, and Jones successfully presented Ogden’s proposal, with Newberry moving a resolution that their group be allowed to take over the expired charter if they could gain control over a majority of the Galena’s stock, that Newberry had then revealed was already under discussion.  The resolution was almost unanimously approved by those in attendence, the news of which infuriated Hubbard when he eventually found out.  But it was too late for Hubbard to do anything about it, for while Ogden’s associates were working the convention, he himself had traveled secretly to New York to finalize the purchase of the needed stock from Townsend.  Ogden may have already made the acquaintence of Townsend some twelve years earlier, as Townsend had been a member of the original Board of Directors of New York & Erie Railroad when Ogden had made his impasioned speech in the New York Legislature. Among the provisos of the deal struck by the two New Yorkers had been the transfer, new stock for old stock, of six shares of Townsend’s Galena stock, one each to Ogden, Scammon, Newberry, Charles Walker, Thomas Dyer, and William H. Brown. Brown was a lawyer originally from Connecticut who had moved to Chicago in 1835 to be the Cashier of the new Chicago Branch of the State Bank of Illinois. What was to become a trademark of Ogden’s later corporate takeovers was the fact that no cash was exchanged between the involved parties. Townsend’s price was $20,000 that Ogden agreed to pay in two installments: $10,000 in full-paid stock upon the formation of the Board of Directors, and $10,000 in stock upon the road’s completion to the Rock River (note that at this early date Ogden had already decided to build to Rock Island, and not to Galena!). Following the Rockford convention, the new stockholders met in Chicago and elected a new Board of Directors, with Ogden as its president.  The Ogden group had handily beaten Hubbard in taking over control of the city’s first railroad.


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

Brown, Margaret L. “Asa Whitney and His Pacific Railraod Publicity Campaing.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 20. No. 2 (Sept. 1933), pp. 209-224.

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

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.

Smith, Alice E. George Smith’s Money. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1966.

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



On a day in June 1848, only six weeks after the Grand Celebration of the opening of the canal, a small work crew had gathered at the corner of Kinzie and Halsted, some five blocks west of the North Branch, and began to level the ground in preparation to lay the first rail in Chicago for the city’s first railroad, the Galena & Chicago Union.  At this precise moment, there was not a pair of railroad tracks to be found within a 100-mile radius of Chicago.  George W. Waite, the company’s assistant engineer would drive the first grade peg in what was eventually to become the world’s largest network of railroads. As opposed to the gala celebration that had marked the start of construction on the canal some thirteen years earlier, however, there is no record of any fanfare or banquets that had accompanied the laying of the first rail in Chicago’s vast web of tracks.  

Point of origin of Chicago’s Rail network: corner of Halsted and Kinzie (upper lefthand corner), 1848.

There can be little argument over the fact that the invention of the steam locomotive was changing the face of nineteenth century civilization, for very few objects or ideas, including time itself, escaped unscathed from the railroad.  Although similar to the telegraph, that had beaten the railroad to Chicago by some six months, in how it effected the perception of time, and therefore space, or at least distance, the railroad would have a more direct impact on the physical structure of a city.  Chicago, arguably more than any other American city in the latter half of the nineteenth century, would best manifest this phenomenon.  While the town of Chicago, incorporated in 1833 with some 350 residents, had grown to have a population of 20,023 by 1848, the last year of its prerailroad era, it was still overshadowed in size and economic importance by its older rivals, Cincinnati and St. Louis (in 1850 Cincinnati’s population was 115,435 and St. Louis’ was 77,860 while Chicago’s was a mere 29,963).  However, within the short span of only eight years, Chicago would become the hub of the world’s largest railroad system in 1856.  By the time the first Michigan Central train, the second of the lines from the East Coast to make it to Chicago pulled into town in June 1852, the city’s population had exploded to 38,734, and would only continue to exponentially grow over the next forty years, finally surpassing Cincinnati’s following the end of the Civil War, but not until 1868.  Meanwhile St. Louis would also overtake Cincinnati after the war, albeit at a faster rate and remain larger than Chicago in 1870 with 310,860, more than Chicago’s 298,977 residents. Chicago would not surpass St. Louis’ population and be able to claim to be the largest city west of New York until the first transcontinetal railroad had changed the continent’s transportation routes to Chicago’s advantage.  Two men, more than any other, were directly responsible for this achievement, Stephen A. Douglas and William B. Ogden.  Chicago had been doubly-blessed with this pair: Douglas, who would pursue its interests at the national level, and Ogden, who would provide the local “clout” in implementing the various plans that would make Chicago, and not St. Louis, the capital of the West.


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

Stover, John F. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. New York: Columbia University, 1978.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

-May 13, 1846: Polk declares war on Mexico

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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