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:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s