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 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.
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