Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chicago: A Look Back (May 22, 1862)

Found on the pages of The Chicago Tribune on May 22 of 1862 . . .

The following blurb on Page 4 of the 1862 Tribune effectively characterizes the personality of the city nine years before the Great Fire of 1871 leveled it:

“Since the presentment of the ordinance before the last meeting of the Council, relative to cows, these animals have taken to grazing in the Court House Square.  In addition to the milky mothers, all the dogs of the South Division also make it their rendezvous.  We suggest that they be mildly prevailed upon to skedaddle, unless, as is probably the case, they are Democratic candidates for office, in which case they are bound to remain.”

Courthouse Square as it looked in 1862
Courthouse Square stood where today the Richard J. Daley center stands, bounded by Washington and Randolph Streets to the south and north, and by Clark and Dearborn Streets to the west and east.

Written between 1875 and 1878 newspaper reporter Frederick Francis Cook’s Bygone Days in Chicago describes the square.

“. . . The Court House in those days brooked no rivals.  With its aspiring cupola, it so dominated the town that none could help looking up to it as something superior and apart–being, in fact, the only really tall object in sight, except when ‘Long John’ (John Wentworth, two-term mayor of Chicago in the late 1850’s and 1860’s) took an airing.  If you wanted a hack you went to the Court House Square for it; and it was nearly the same if you were looking for a policeman, for several could generally be found hanging about there to prevent rival hackmen from murdering each other, or a combination of the pestiferous crew from doing a stranger to death, both being not infrequent happenings.”

The Courthouse in flames, October 8, 1871
“In a way, also the Court House was everybody’s monitor and guide.  It told you when to rise, when to eat your dinner, when to knock off work, when to jubilate, when to mourn, and , above all, it helped you to locate fires; for the clang of its great bell could be heard in almost every part of the town.”

“In 1862 the Court House Square was surrounded by an oddly assorted architectural hodgepodge, typical of the various stages of the city’s development, from the primitive ‘frame’ of the thirties, to the new, six-storied marble Sherman House, at this time the finest building in the city, as well as one of the best appointed hotels in the country.”

The designer of the original 1853 Courthouse was John M. Van Osdel, who was born in Baltimore in 1811 and moved to Chicago in 1836.  (The Page Brothers Building at 177-191 north of the Chicago Theater, although significantly altered is a remaining Van Osdel design).  The original Courthouse grew in stages over the years.  Shortly after the building was erected the city added five feet of fill to the square on which the building sat, partly burying the lower most level.  A third floor, along with a cupola, was added with an observation post 120 feet in the air that was accessed by way of a spiral staircase.  This was the fire watchman’s post in the great tinderbox of a city.

The Courthouse Bell, fallen into the basement during the fire.
By the time of the Chicago Fire in 1871 a clock had been added along with a 10,849-pound bronze bell that continued to ring for five hours in the early stages of the fire until it finally fell through the burning building. 

Thanks to the well-researched website The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory for the detail.

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