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.”
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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