Monthly Archives: September 2019

A different world: Growing up on an Illinois farm in the early 1950s

I sometimes get the feeling that I grew up in a kind of time warp.

1952 Musselman house Aurora

The house on Douglas Avenue on the southeast side of Aurora where my wife lived when she was six years old.

My wife, for instance, cheerfully refers to herself as a “Subdivision Kid.” She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa (Radar O’Reilly’s hometown) and then moved around as her father was transferred with his job for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. As a result, she grew up in a series of subdivisions in Aurora here in Illinois, in St. Louis, and finally back to Illinois and Boulder Hill here in Kendall County where she lived in modern houses, watched television, had heated bathrooms and bedrooms, and never listened to “The Great Gildersleeve” on an RCA console radio.

For me, on the other hand, things were different. Very different.

When I was born, my folks took me home to the farm they were renting from Clarence and Elsie Butcher in Wheatland Township, just across the Will County line from Kendall County. The farm we lived on was considered relatively new, the buildings having only been built in the early l930s. But while the house might have been considered almost new when they moved in, it seemed to have been built in considerable haste.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm in Wheatland Township my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in the living room of that house, looking at the front door, and seeing it festooned with clean rags that had been carefully and tightly packed into its numerous cracks to keep out the stiff prairie wind that was barely slowed by the poor-quality storm door. While the door looked impressive, all those cracks and gaps meant it did little to keep those breezes out. That house was just plain COLD.

The bathroom in that farmhouse was in the basement, right beside the cistern. Houses don’t have cisterns these days, they having been replaced by water softeners. The cistern was a large open-topped concrete tank built into one corner of the basement where all the rain water from the gutters on the roof was directed. The collected rainwater, being ‘soft,’ was then used for washing clothes and anything else that required some suds since the water from the well was loaded with minerals and therefore ‘hard.’

1947 Dad, Roger, Boots

My father looks on as I view Boots, the family Border Collie, with suspicion. Boots and I went on to become fast friends.

The bathroom had been added to the house as an afterthought in the basement corner next to the cistern a few years before I was born. My sisters, aged 9 and 12 when my parents brought me home from Copley Hospital in 1946, loved the indoor plumbing, no matter how primitive it might seem to modern sensibilities. Because anything was better than braving rain, sleet, and snow to make it to the outhouse. Even so, it took real courage for my childhood self to go to the bathroom before bed after listening to the latest installment of “Inner Sanctum” on the radio, let me tell you.

We had no automatic water heater, of course. Hot water had to be produced via a hand-fired water heater that was fueled with corncobs. After I got old enough—six—it was my duty of a Saturday night, to make sure the water heater had been started early enough so that my date-bound sisters could take hot baths and otherwise get ready in time for their dates.

1947 Roger in wash tub

Nothing like a cool swim on a hot day. The family Buick is in the background. Bought used, the car was roundly hated by my father who always referred to it as “The Lemon.” For years, my sisters thought that was the brand name.

One particularly disastrous instance that has stuck in my mind all these years occurred when I had the fire going nicely, and then attempted to check its progress, only to burn my hand on the spiral metal lid handle. After I complained, my mother advised me to use a piece of cloth with which to pad my hand. There were plenty of random pieces of cloth lying around the basement, especially around the old wringer-type washing machine. Unfortunately, the piece of cloth I grabbed happened to be one of my sisters’ nylon unmentionables, which promptly welded itself right onto the hot metal handle while a large hole melted in the undergarment. My father, who came down to the rescue, thought it was pretty funny. My sisters were less amused.

We didn’t get our first TV set until that year I was six years old. I’d seen TVs before that, of course, at friends’ and relatives’ homes, but my major electronic entertainment came from the big console radio in the living room. I remember the first TV was a black and gold table-model RCA that my parents bought from Don Pennington’s store in Plainfield.

Prior to the delivery of the TV, as noted above, the only entertainment I remember was listening to the radio. My folks owned a large console RCA Victor radio with an ornate walnut case that sat off the floor on four turned wooden legs. I remember enjoying a number of radio programs, from soap operas to action-adventure programs.

The Ranger & Sgt. Preston

“The Lone Ranger” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” shows were two of my favorites on radio. Both got ported over to TV and became hits there, too.

My mother and sisters (when they were home from school during the summer) listened to soaps during the day, including “One Man’s Family,” “Portia Faces Life” (my sister Elaine’s all-time favorite), “Ma Perkins” (which seemed to feature excessive numbers of screen doors slamming shut), “Our Gal Sal,” and “Just Plain Bill.”

I wasn’t much into soaps, however, being a boy of five or six. Action-adventure was my cup of tea. I listened to “Gang Busters,” “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon,” and “The Lone Ranger” as often as I could. “Superman” (Up, up, and away!) was another really big favorite. Imagine my amazement when I watched George Reeves actually go up, up, and away on our new TV set for the very first time. I ran right out to the barn to tell my father about the amazing occurrence! Superman could REALLY FLY! I’d just seen it happen on the television set with my own eyes! Which resulted in a gentle lecture about special effects that might have been the start of the skepticism that led me to a career in journalism.

Comedy shows were another favorite of mine. I liked “Fibber McGee and Molly” since Fibber’s closet and mine seemed to enjoy a similar arrangement, at least according to my mother. “The Great Gildersleeve” was another favorite, as was “Amos and Andy.” I know “Amos and Andy” is not politically correct these days, but I really liked it a lot when I was a kid, and always figured the black guys who delivered the coal for our furnace from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora were probably very funny guys when they weren’t busy shoveling coal into our basement. On coal delivery day, I always waited patiently outside for them to tell a joke or two, but never with any success. Nowadays I wonder how they were able to restrain themselves from painting over the company’s motto lettered on the sides of the brown dump trucks they drove: “Our Name is Brown, Our Coal is Black, We Treat You White.”

1952-53 Grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School during the 1952-53 school year.  The author is sitting in the lower left corner. His wardrobe–jeans and flannel shirt–has not changed appreciably since.

I attended a one-room school, Church School, located about a mile from our farm. When I started, there were six grades and nearly 30 students in one room, a far cry from schools in town where each grade had one or more rooms to itself. But at least I had classmates; five to start out with. My oldest sister went through eight years in two different rural one-room schools and was the only student in her class for all eight years.

By the time I started school, the seventh and eighth graders had already been moved into town, thanks to activism by my mother and other farm wives. The junior high in Oswego had much better facilities—a science lab, for instance—and there was no danger any student would have to go through their first eight grades as the only person in their class again.

But I started school almost at the end of the one-room country school in northern Illinois. Consolidation was being vigorously pursued by state education officials. When I started second grade, the fifth and sixth graders had been moved into town, and by third grade, the fourth graders followed. We moved off the farm in the middle of that third grade year and when I went to my first day of classes at my new school, there were more kids in my third grade classroom than there had been in our entire school out in the country.

And as part of the first real year of the Baby Boom, there was certainly no worry about me being the only student in my class. By the time we graduated from high school, we were the first class in school history to have more than 100 class members.

Farm technology was on the same cusp as electronic entertainment media at that time. Most farmers ran diversified farms, and my parents were no different. My dad took care of the livestock—cattle and hogs—out in the barn, and planted, tended, and harvested the fields that produced grain and forage crops. My mother’s realm was the garden, orchard, and chicken house as well as the farmhouse where she did the cooking, washing, and cleaning.

Diversified farms, as the name implies produced both grain and livestock, and my dad made a pretty good living on 120 acres of land. He often rented some more acreage from non-farming neighbors, but I don’t think he ever farmed more than 180 acres. My mom canned about everything that came out of the garden and the orchard, from fruits to vegetables. The chickens produced eggs that were, along with the dressed chickens themselves, traded in town for groceries. Meanwhile, my dad milked the family cow—a dappled golden brown and white Guernsey named Daisy by the time I came along—that provided milk and cream for the family with enough milk left over to have a family friend turn into cottage cheese. My grandmother churned the cream into butter and my father relished the buttermilk left over from the process. I never could stand the stuff straight, but it certainly made great pancakes.

Then I became a town kid when my father had to retire from farming. I hated leaving the farm, but it probably saved my life since I was violently allergic to just about everything on it from the hay and straw in the barn to the feathers on the chickens out in the chicken house. And by moving into town, I got to know and become intimately familiar with the Fox River in all its moods. It’s something I still enjoy since our house is located on the riverbank right across to the street from the house my parents moved to all those years ago.

It seems curious that when my family was trading eggs for groceries in Montgomery and taking extra cream and milk to the creamery in Yorkville that other kids my age were living in modern ranch homes on paved streets with sidewalks, and who never got a case of goosebumps in their lives from an episode of “Inner Sanctum.”

But time warp or not, the 1950s were a good time to grow up in my small corner of northern Illinois. And even though I have a hard time trying to fit my mind around it, I imagine today’s youngsters will look back just as fondly on their childhood days.

 

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Filed under family, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Women's History

Stagecoaching west of Chicago in the 1830s and 1840s was not for the faint of heart

John Taylor Temple was a young professional man on the make. And he happened to be in the right place for someone with the initiative—not to mention the connections and cash—necessary to make his ideas become reality.

To take advantage of the new roads being pushed west and south from Chicago, the travelers anxious to use them and, even more importantly, the new U.S. Mail contracts being awarded by Congress, Temple established a stagecoach company at Chicago in 1833.

Stagecoaches were so called because they completed their routes in stages, traveling from stop to stop on regular schedules, exchanging tired horses for fresh ones, and giving passengers a chance to rest, eat, and sometimes sleep. Although called stagecoach companies, the firms did not always operate what are commonly considered stagecoaches. Often, especially early in the region’s history, stages were usually little more than light wagons sporting (reportedly uncomfortable) seats and canvass covers.

Image result for John Taylor TempleFollowing the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, a succession of postmasters general headed the office until John McLean was appointed in 1823. McLean, it turned out, was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system and developed the system whereby the post office department controlled the mails in individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mails from office to office. By 1828, McLean’s system of private stage contractors was in place and working very well. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract was required to sell its stock and other assets to the successful bidder.

As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from Detroit. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon was placed in service between the two towns followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.

With mail (and its related passenger) service set to be extended southwest of Chicago to Ottawa that same year, Temple saw an opportunity.

John Taylor Temple was born in Virginia and married in 1822. He graduated from Middlebury College in Casleton, Vermont on Dec. 29, 1830, and apparently arrived in Chicago a year or two later.

He quickly became involved in local politics, and probably had inside knowledge that the road the Cook County Board had laid out along the High Prairie Trail to Ottawa would soon become a mail route.

Thanks to a likely combination of hard work, foresight, sufficient funds, and help from his political friends, in 1833 Temple was awarded the contract to carry the mail between Chicago and Peoria via Ottawa.

Stagecoach model

Stagecoaches like this model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire, were the favored vehicles until the stagecoach era ended.

Whether he had inside knowledge about the route’s immanent establishment or not, Temple was somehow able to plan far enough ahead to order what the Chicago American described as an “elegant, thorough-brace post carriage” from the East. He had the coach shipped to Chicago via the Great Lakes from Buffalo before ice closed navigation on the lakes for the winter of 1833-34 in time for it to be used to deliver mail starting in January of 1834.

Temple had most likely seen the newly-developed Concord Coaches making their runs while he lived and went to school in Vermont, and undoubtedly figured these most modern of conveyances would be perfect for his new Illinois venture.

According to most early Illinois historians, the first coach on Temple’s new stage line left Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834 with John D. Caton, a rising young lawyer, at the reins of the four horse team.

Word quickly spread concerning the new stage line. The Sangamo Journal in Springfield reported on Feb. 1, 1834, just a month after Temple’s coach made its first run: “We understand that there is now a line of stages running regularly once a week between Peoria and Chicago.”

But shortly after the establishment of Temple’s line, it appears he was already being challenged by more experienced operators, even though he held the all-important mail contract.

John D. Winters had been engaged in staging in Illinois for almost a decade by the time Temple began his line from Chicago to Ottawa. Winters first ran stages on the leg of the St. Louis to Galena route from Peoria north starting in the 1820s.

1840s-stage-road-map

John D. Caton drove the first stagecoach west of Chicago in January 1834, when he piloted a coach on the first leg of the trip to Ottawa.

In 1834, Winters, by then an experienced stage operator, established a stage company at Chicago, apparently to directly compete with Temple though without the vital mail contract. Given his personality, Winters may well have felt young Dr. Temple was out of his depth trying to run a stage company. According to a notice in the Feb. 18, 1834 Chicago Democrat, passengers were invited to try “The New Line of splendid four horse Post Coaches in Illinois—From Ottawa by way of Holderman’s Grove [in Kendall County], Walker’s Grove [Plainfield] and Laughtons [Riverside] to Chicago, once a week, 80 miles, through one and one half days, fare $5.”

Various histories of the region also state that John S. Trowbridge, who apparently established a competing line about 1835, also challenged Temple.

Trowbridge got his first experience with mail contracting when he submitted the low bid to carry mail on horseback on the Chicago Road between Niles, Michigan and Chicago.

Both the competing Temple and Trowbridge stages stopped at Elijah Wentworth’s tavern in Western Springs.

As late as Aug. 6, 1836, the Chicago American was reporting that “John T. Temple & Co. are proprietors of a stage line from Chicago to Peoria.” The paper noted that “the through trip is made in two days—to Ottawa the first day.” The newspaper reported the company’s stages left Chicago at 4 a.m. and arrived at Joliet in two hours on the southern route. Tickets were sold at Markle’s Exchange Coffee House in Chicago for passage.

1845-frink-walker-offices

John Frink and Martin O. Walker’s stagecoach office in downtown Chicago.

Then in 1837, the stagecoach game in northern Illinois changed forever when John Frink arrived on the scene. Frink wasted no time in getting into the thick of the Chicago-area stagecoach competition.

Born at Ashford, Connecticut in 1797, Frink reportedly “begun life as a stage driver” before becoming a successful stage line operator, establishing lines between Boston, Mass. and Albany, N.Y. as well as a line linking New York City and Montreal, Canada.

He was described as “A man of limited education and without cultivation, yet he was a man of strong mind, wonderful natural intelligence, indomitable will, great sagacity and a remarkable knowledge of human nature.”

Frink had his dark side, too, one that would eventually result in the dissolution of his successful partnerships and his estrangement from his family.

Railroads, when introduced into the areas Frink’s lines served, seriously undermined the stage business. As a result, Frink and his first wife, Martha R. Marcy Frink, decided to emigrate west to Chicago about 1836.

Meanwhile, a steadily growing number of competitors challenged Temple’s stage line. A medical doctor and an active politician, he was apparently better at dabbling in Chicago politics than making sure mail and passengers got delivered on time. As a result, few tears shed when he finally decided to give up the business and sell out to Winters. In the April 1, 1837 Chicago American, a news item headlined “South-Western Mail” reported that “It affords us much pleasure to be enabled to inform our readers that Dr. J.T. Temple has sold out his Stage line to the Illinois Stage Company. Our only regret is, that the arrangement was not sooner made. Success to the new line.”

But although Winters temporarily had the company, it was incumbent on him to obtain the all-important mail contract. And apparently that he was unable to do.

1840 Arrivals of the Mails

Late June 1840 mail routes from Ottawa carried in Frink, Walker & Company stagecoaches.

The post office sought new bids on all Illinois postal routes in 1837. And with Temple and his political connections out of the way, the way was open for someone else to step in. Frink was ready, willing, and able to successfully seek the mail contract what would allow him to build a new business in Illinois.

Frink, seemingly always looking for a knowledgeable partner, apparently decided the experienced Trowbridge fit the bill, and the two agreed to merge their operations. About the time Frink and Trowbridge joined forces, a man named Fowler then reportedly joined Frink and Trowbridge to form Frink, Fowler & Trowbridge.

It was about this time as well that Frink successfully acquired the mail contract he needed to move ahead with his stage line connecting Chicago and the head of navigation on the Illinois River.

Trowbridge and Fowler left the scene and Frink teamed with Charles K. Bingham to form Frink, Bingham & Company. The partners apparently ran stages over the old Temple routes, as well as establishing new lines to the northwest to serve Galena. After working with Bingham for a short time, the partner Frink had been looking for all along, one with seemingly deeper pockets and more business skills than any previous associate, was found. Martin O. Walker joined the partners either in late 1839 or early 1840, making the company a three-way venture.

Although the company was still known as Frink, Bingham & Company, Walker was apparently a full, although silent, partner in that firm as early as February of 1840.

The Fergus Directory of the City of Chicago for 1839 reported that Frink, Bingham & Company were doing business at 123 Lake Street. A concern called simply Frink & Walker was also in business at the same location, and Martin O. Walker was listed as one of the principals. In the directory, Walker’s occupation is listed as “mail contractor.”

1840 Frink & Walker formed

By early June 1840, Frink, Walker & Company had been established. It wou1d go on dominate the stagecoach business in the Midwest for many years.

Like all Frink’s earlier partners, Bingham soon left the scene. In a legal notice published in papers in the area dated June 1, 1840, it was announced that “The Co-partnership heretofore existing between John Frink, Charles K. Bingham and Martin O. Walker, under the firm of Frink, Bingham & Co, was dissolved on the 28th day of May, 1840. The business of the late firm will be settled by either of the subscribers.” John Frink and Martin O. Walker signed the notice.

A second notice followed the first stating: “The undersigned have formed a Co-partnership and will continue the Stageing [sic] business under the firm of Frink, Walker & Co., and hereafter no notes of hand or writing obligatory will be allowed other than signed by a member of the firm or an Agent duly authorized for that purpose.” The notice was signed by Frink, Walker, and Cunan Walker. Whether Bingham left the firm voluntarily or involuntarily is unknown.

It’s likely Walker provided sufficient cash and business acumen for the operation while Frink furnished the political and operational savvy to operate the company without the need for additional partners. Historian Milo M. Quaife (Chicago Highways Old and New, 1923) appeared to agree, at least in part, with this interpretation, reporting that Frink was the partner in the new stagecoach business responsible both for operations and for negotiating the vital mail contracts.

Whatever their relationship, Bingham and the rest of Frink’s former partners with the exception of Walker left the public scene after May of 1840. From then on, the company, although formally Frink, Walker & Company, was known throughout the Midwest as Frink & Walker.

In 1849, Walker once again apparently became a silent partner in the company, which by now included a number of business partners. That year, the firm became known simply as John Frink & Company, the name it operated under until Frink’s death in 1858.

1830s Arrival of the Stage

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Frink, as Quaife reported, appears to have had excellent political connections, and was able to procure the all-important mail contracts for the company. In June 1850, a St. Louis newspaper’s Washington, D.C. correspondent reported that Frink and Walker’s mail contracts in Illinois totaled $78,000 per year, a substantial sum for the time. In addition, the firm also had contracts to deliver mail in Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan that totaled another $50,000 per year. The company’s mail contracts often earned more than $150,000 annually.

As Quaife so aptly put it: “In a day when the spoils principle was accorded universal recognition in the realm of politics, it is evident that someone connected with the firm must have been possessed of no mean order of political talent to obtain, year after year, the extensive contracts of which the figures cited afford evidence.”

If Frink had the political and personal connections, Walker seemed to have the financial knowhow.

Martin Walker was born in Hubbardton, Rutland County, Vermont on June 9, 1809. As a youngster he worked in the dry goods business before moving to Albany, N.Y., where he worked in the stage line office of Baker & Walbridge. Upon Walbridge’s death, Walker bought his interest in the company before selling out to Baker in 1838 and moving to Chicago, where he almost at once joined Frink in the mail contracting business.

But in fact, their success may have come in spite of Frink’s partnership with Walker. Walker was reported to have had a personal dispute with Postmaster General Amos Kendall, after which Kendall supposedly ordered that Walker was to have no more mail contracts. That the firm did is either testament to Frink’s business acumen or Walker’s ability to keep his interests secret. Walker’s bad relations with the post office may also been one reason the firm’s name changed to John Frink & Company in 1849.

Martin Walker had varied interests in transportation companies in and around Chicago. In addition to stagecoach companies, Walker, according to the Proceedings of the City Council of Chicago, was, with Samuel B. Walker, his older brother, operating horse-drawn omnibuses in Chicago in 1855 and 1856. During that year, the bad condition of South Clark Street apparently damaged the pair’s omnibuses and injured some of the horses used to pull them, and they filed claims for damages with the city. The pair again applied for recompense the following year for more harm done to one of their horses due to “a defective plank on Clark St.” In 1867, the Proceedings reported Walker was a partner with Guy Cutting in the Chicago South Branch Dock Company, another transportation-related venture.

Samuel Walker arrived in Chicago two years after Martin, and proceeded to become involved in a variety of businesses, including the omnibus operation and livery stables. According to the 1850 Chicago Census, he lived relatively nearby Martin Walker’s household. In Gager’s 1857 Chicago city directory, both Martin and Samuel are listed as owning a livery stable at 54 Dearborn Street. Their brother Curran is listed as a bookkeeper who was living at 69 Randolph Street.

In the 1844 Chicago city directory, Martin Walker was listed as living at his home on State Street in Chicago. His only affiliation in that directory was with Frink, Walker, & Company.

To compliment his Chicago business enterprises and his stagecoach partnership with Frink, Martin Walker acquired several hundred acres of land in Seward Township of Kendall County. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that Frink and Walker, on the Seward Township property in Walker’s name, “had stables there for their horses, and a number of houses and farms.”

Raising and resting horses weren’t the only things happening on the Frink and Walker property. Hicks also reported that in 1844, a subscription school operated for a short time in one of the houses on the company’s land.

Besides the Kendall County land, Walker also held title to four lots in blocks 8, 9, and 10 of the original City of Chicago totaling more than $3,000 in value in 1843, and his brother, Samuel B. Walker owned another lot in Block 1 of the city that was worth $2,320 in 1843.

In addition to the land owned outright by Walker, the firm of Frink & Walker owned at least 20 acres in unincorporated Cook County plus other properties.

Frink, Walker & Company, operated from their stage depot at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Clark streets in Chicago. In 1846, the company had applied to move the Illinois Exchange Building, which stood on the site, after which they built their new depot on the site.

The company’s stagecoach storage sheds, where repairs were also done on coaches and where veterinarians treated horses, were located at the northwest corner of Wabash and Randolph streets.

The combination of Frink’s expertise and energy and Walker’s money was a potent one. According to one account, “This became one of the most powerful business concerns in the Northwest, and its operations eventually extended [west] to Des Moines, Iowa and [north to] Fort Snelling, Minnesota.”

Stagecoaching, of course, was not the only sort of transportation John Frink and Martin Walker dabbled in. But it got them their start. In the future, we’ll look at other transportation technologies that were used to tie our corner of northern Illinois to the rest of the nation.

 

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Filed under Business, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Transportation, travel, Uncategorized

The old trails, traces, and thoroughfares that helped build northern Illinois

It was the spring of 1837, and Robert Hill had a problem. It was his job to persuade his neighbors in his Cook County voting precinct to fulfill their responsibilities to work on the roads that passed through the area. One road was an almost purely local trail that ended—or began, depending on your perspective—at Hill’s claim. The other was a minor branch of the Chicago to Naperville Road, itself part of the system of main thoroughfares to Ottawa and Galena.

Chicago roads scan I

The web of trails, traces, and roads leading from Chicago on Lake Michigan to the prairie hinterland as settlement in northern Illinois began is evident from Albert Scharf’s 1900 map.

In those days before state and federal tax support of road construction and maintenance, local government required residents to work on the growing system of primitive roads that, like a spider web, spread westward from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

The network of trails used by Native Americans in the area bounded by Lake Michigan and the Fox River Valley probably evolved from game trails. When Europeans arrived in the area, they continued to use the existing trail system, even though, as one historian suggested, the trails were often not the most direct routes from point to point. With their twists and turns, they were often hard to follow. Names like Vincennes Trace and Potawatomi Trace suggest the trails were little more than faint tracks through the prairies and groves that dotted northern Illinois. Even experienced guides frequently got lost.

But during the settlement era—the 1820s to the 1840s—overland routes were the only options for travelers between Lake Michigan and the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru and Ottawa. Not until the Illinois & Michigan Canal linked Chicago’s lakefront with the head of navigation on the Illinois River and rail lines began stretching west of Chicago in the late 1840s was overland transport by road eclipsed.

In addition, merchants and other business owners in and around the booming lead mining town of Galena in far northwest Illinois were interested in an overland link with Chicago that might offer an alternative to expensive, relatively slow river transport of food, equipment, and other supplies the growing area required. While river transport was satisfactory for bulk cargoes, the Mississippi River of those years was a sometimes fickle transportation route. Drought often closed off portions of the river to navigation. High water sometimes did the same as the primitive steamboats of the day struggled upstream against the raging current while trying to dodge a variety of hazards, from snags to shifting sandbars. And even the mighty Mississippi often froze over during the winter months.

1820 Chicago

Chicago, as seen in this view from Lake Michigan in 1820, boasted little more than Fort Dearborn and a few fur traders’ cabins scattered along the North and South Branches of the Chicago River. Two decades later, it would be an incorporated city, the largest in northern Illinois.

Beginning in the early 1830s, as settlement accelerated in the region around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, both the state and local governments in Illinois began to lay out an official system of roadways. In northern Illinois, the initial purpose of this fledgling road net was to connect the areas south and west of Lake Michigan with Chicago and its Great Lakes links with Eastern markets.

Shipping from the east via the Great Lakes to Chicago had slowly increased since the visit of the first steamboats carrying troops during the Black Hawk War in 1832. But a major problem existed; there was no harbor at Chicago. The Chicago River entered the lake at an acute angle, running parallel to the shoreline, with a sandbar blocking entrance of the river to ships on the lake. As a result, ships had to anchor offshore and transship their cargoes over the bar in small boats. It was, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and became downright dangerous to ships and crews when storms howled out of the north and west, threatening to drive unwary vessels ashore. As a result, while steamers first visited Chicago in 1832 to drop off their cargoes of U.S. Army troops, they left as soon as they were unloaded because there was no sheltered anchorage for them.

Realizing the settlement’s strategic advantages, the U.S. Government began the creation of a true port at Chicago in 1833 by cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. Construction started July 1, supervised by Maj. George Bender, 5th U.S. Infantry. Bender began with setting a series of piers through the sand bar that blocked the harbor mouth. The deceptively simple task of cutting a channel through the bar—and then making sure it stayed open—proved a lot more difficult than originally thought. It eventually took some six years, and a cost more than $100,000 (nearly $3 in today’s dollars) to get the job completely finished.

1830 Chicago Harbor improvements

The proposed improvement of a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. When it was finally completed, the channel helped fuel Chicago’s explosive growth.

But on Saturday, Feb. 15, 1834, with only a rudimentary channel carved through the sandbar, Mother Nature took a small hand in creating the Chicago Harbor. A heavy, two-day rainstorm caused the Chicago River to suddenly rise by three feet. The outflow of storm water found the channel Maj. Bender had begun and on which Lt. James Allen was then working, and cut a 30-foot wide, 12-foot deep channel through the bar. It’s likely the astonished engineers could hardly believe their good fortune.

On May 4, the Michigan, a sidewheel steamer with a fore-and-aft sail rig, took advantage of the new channel, and became the first steamboat to enter the Chicago River harbor, passing under the recently completed Dearborn Street drawbridge to anchor along the riverbank.

For the first time, with the channel finally cut through the bar, ships didn’t have to unload their cargoes immediately and flee to an area where there was some shelter. Instead, ships could be moored at docks along the river, safe from sudden storms, while cargo was unloaded.

3 Steamboat Michigan 1833

The Michigan was the first ship to make its way through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River and dock in the city.

Just a couple months after the Michigan arrived in Chicago’s new harbor, the aptly named Illinois became the first sailing ship to enter the Chicago River under full sail. On July 12, 1834, the Illinois forged through the newly opened channel with “her top-masts covered with flags and streamers,” sailing up-river through the open Dearborn Street drawbridge to dock at Newberry & Dole’s riverbank wharf.

While work to improve the channel through the bar and keep it from refilling with sand would continue for several years, the arrival of those first Great Lakes freighters was an important start.

1834 Dearborn St drawbridge

The Dearborn Street drawbridge—the first of many that would be built in Chicago—raises to let a ship through to dock along the Chicago River in 1834.

The tonnage of goods shipped to and from Chicago skyrocketed almost immediately after the safe harbor was provided for arriving vessels. In 1833, the year work on the channel through the bar began, just four ships arrived at Chicago—two brigs and two schooners, but no steamboats. Just two years later, 250 ships arrived and a year after that, the number of arrivals had nearly doubled to 456 vessels, with the total including 49 steamships.

In addition to goods, people were also arriving at the new port, as more and more pioneer farmers used the Great Lakes route to travel west. After arriving, these pioneer families left Chicago’s swampy streets and settled on the Illinois prairies in the fast-developing city’s hinterland. Meanwhile, a growing volume of cargo awaited shipment east. Goods crowding the docks along the Chicago River included steadily increasing amounts of grain produced as the acreage of cultivated prairie rapidly expanded in northern Illinois.

In 1837, four years after the channel through the bar at the mouth of the Chicago River was begun, only 100 bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago via the Great Lakes. A decade later—and a year before the completion of the I&M Canal and commencement of construction of the first railroad west of the city—more than 2.2 million bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago. Each and every bushel of that grain arrived at Chicago thanks to the network of roads extending into the growing city’s hinterland.

That spider web of roads stretching northwest, north, and southwest of the city provided the means for the coming tsunami of growth that would propel the Chicago metropolitan region that was then supercharged by completion of the old-technology I&M Canal and the new-technology rail lines that followed the old traces and trails out of the city by the lake.

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