Monday, March 5, 2012

Happy Birthday, Chicago!

(JWB, 2011)

Well, you probably got the word that Chicago celebrated a big event this past weekend – 175 years since the Illinois State legislature approved the document incorporating the city on March 4, 1837. 

She wasn’t much to brag about back in those days, a swampy mess, hugging a lazy river that divided the boggy hamlet into thirds.  But she had a big lake immediately to her east and a big, big river off to the west, and the economic dynamics of a rapidly expanding country made her, in short order, a rich gal.

The proposal for incorporation was placed before a mass meeting on January 23, 1837 at what was called the “Saloon Building” at the corner of Lake and Clark Streets.  The proposal was the work of a committee headed by William B. Ogden, the city’s first mayor, and it built upon a charter that had four years earlier declared the hamlet to be a village.

The Saloon Building was quite possibly the first city hall in Chicago.  Built a year earlier by Captain J. B. F. Russell and George W. Dole, its name was a reference to the French concept of a salon, or a well-appointed meeting place.

(JWB, 2011)
The charter of incorporation was approved at the meeting and later the state legislature enacted it into law on the March date in 1837.  Under the new charter the city’s geographical area increased from three-eighths of a square mile to 10.635 square miles, the boundaries being North Avenue to the north, Wood Street to the west, 22nd Street to the south, and Lake Michigan on the east.  The area occupied by old Fort Dearborn was not included.

Every male resident of the city over the age of 21 was required to give a minimum of three days annually to work on upkeep of the streets and alleys although anyone could skip the work if he paid a dollar for each day he chose to shirk the task.  This was serious work.  As late as July of 1838 there was a big to-do over the large pool of water on Lake Street at the corner of LaSalle, which was swarming with frogs.

The first election under the new charter was held on May 2, 1837 with William B. Ogden, the Democrat, receiving 492 votes to the 217 that his Whig opponent, John Kinzie, garnered.  The streets were in such a mess that Ogden, upon taking office, used some of his own money to try and improve them.

In July of 1837 the first census was taken and showed the total population of Chicago to be 4,170.  The number of buildings in the “city” was 492 with an assessed taxable value of $236,842.

It was not an auspicious beginning.  But the birthday girl grew up to be quite a lady.  In an editorial that ran in the Providence, Rhode Island Bulletin over 80 years ago, the writer summed up the city and the spirit that made her great in two paragraphs . . .

“Geography has conspired against Chicago’s innocence.  The shrewdest traders of pioneer days gathered there.  The ablest land promoters followed them.  Railways—it is the greatest railway center in America—fought some of their most strategic battles there.  Industry early began to make it headquarters for national agitation.”

“Fire has leveled it, but it has risen triumphantly from its ashes.  The furious growth has brought about staggering problems, but Chicago refuses to be staggered.  Even though the subsoil is unsuitable for tall buildings, they build them just the same.  They convert rivers into sewage systems, and whenever they feel like it arbitrarily fix the boundaries of the lake.”

“. . . We wouldn’t be Chicago for all the money in the world.  But that doesn’t keep us from admiring it tremendously and regarding it in many ways as our greatest city.”

I’d agree with that.  She ain’t an innocent.  She didn’t get to where she is today by sitting quietly by the lake with her legs crossed.  But she’s aged well.  You know, there’s pretty beauty, and there’s tough beauty.  My preference has always been for the latter.

Happy Birthday, Chicago.

(JWB, 2010)
(Information about the city of 1837 came from an article that ran in The Chicago Tribune on March 4, 1929.)

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