Monday, October 20, 2014

Madison Street Bridge Reportage, 1874

Madison Street Bridge (
Almost exactly 140 years ago back in 1874 a common occurrence was played out when the propeller ship James Davidson ran aground at the Madison Street Bridge on the south branch of the Chicago River.  It was the second time that the ship grounded herself at this same location in a week.  With the bridge, which sat on a turntable, in the open position, the Loop was effectively cut off from the west side of the city – at least if you were on a Madison Street streetcar headed east or west.

The Tribune reported that the “elongated wash-tub” became stuck at 6:24 p.m. and was finally freed at 7:35.  “The discomfort which this delay caused to parties who were depending upon the street-cars to take them home to dinner and the indignation they exhibited was much greater than could be imagined by those who were not eye-witnesses of the same.”

If reportage of such a common happening was as clever today as it was back in 1874, I might very well still have the paper delivered to my door each day.  The beat reporter who got handed this gem must have been sick of "ship stuck at bridge" assignments, so after he presented the initial facts of the event, the guy really got down to work.  He began the longest section of the article, “Among other questions arising out of the accident is the nickel question, as between the exasperated car-passenger who has paid his 5 cents to be carried from the corner of State street to the corner of Leavitt, and finds himself belated about thirteen cars this side of the bridge, and the car-conductor, who, whatever his personal feelings in the matter might be, is bound by the rules of the Company, under no circumstances, to return the nickel whose drop into the right-side lower coat-pocket has been duly recorded with the punch.”

The report continues to describe four gentlemen, “representing respectively the newspaper, legal, medical, and business professions,” stranded east of the stuck bridge, who decide to use the Washington Street tunnel to pass beneath the river in order to catch a streetcar on the opposite side.

“Having walked under the river, which they had paid to ride over, they took their seats in another Madison street car on the other side,” the writer, apparently the newspaper man on the trek, reported. 

The conductor began collecting fares as the car started, and unfortunately the lawyer was the first of the four men who he asked for the fare.  The jurist “blandly but firmly declined to pay it, on the ground that he had already done so; that he had, to all intents and purposes, made a contract as between the West Side Car Company of the first part and himself of the second part whereby the former, in virtue and consideration of the sum of 5 cents paid the conductor acting as the agent of the said party of the second part, had agreed to convey, conduct, carry and transfer the said party of the second part from the corner of Clark and Madison streets to any point along the line of the said party of the first part at which the second chose to disembark; and, in short, he would see the Company—deprived of its charter before he would pay another nickel.”

The conductor, “a small man, answered, “Well, then, this yer car don’t move on until them nickels is paid.”

"This yer car don't move on until them nickels is paid."
Hearing this, the driver brought the horses to a halt, prompting a chorus of hoots from the other passengers on the omnibus.  The four “obstinate protestors against incorporated greediness” did not back down, though, and after a momentary stand-off the conductor motioned to the driver to be on his way.

A block or two later the “advocate who had so nobly vindicated the majesty of the law got off,” followed by the doctor and the business man. 

The reporter, left alone, “fell into a reverie upon accidents and sudden death, religious humor, the latest official election returns, patent acrostics, and sundry other subjects natural to his peculiar avocation,” at which point the “keen-witted conductor . . . tapping him gently upon the shoulder . . . whispered softly into his ear, ‘Fare, sir.”

The reporter, noticing that he had missed his stop at Morgan Street, handed the conductor a 25 cent “shinplaster” [a paper note of such poor quality that it was thought that a little bit of water would turn it into a poltise] and made for the rear platform of the car, followed closely by the conductor, to whom he made a demand for his change. 

“A wicked light was in that conductor’s eye, and a Mephistophelian grin spread all over his face as, returning the newspaper-man a nickel change, he quietly remarked, ‘Of course you pay for your friends, too.’”

Then the reporter was on his way home, laughing in a merry cachinnation in the high C,” having taken almost as long to cross the narrow stream that divided the city as it took to free the James Davidson and send it on its way.

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