Sunday, December 20, 2015

Horsepower in Chicago -- December 20, 1870

Transportation, for freight and passengers, in a rapidly growing city of the late nineteenth century relied heavily on horsepower supplied by . . . horses.  In Chicago during this period it is estimated that close to 75,000 horses were stabled within the city, there being 9 horses for every 22 of the city’s inhabitants.  [Tarr & McShane. The Horse as an Urban Technology.]

After about 1850 technology moved away from the horse drawn omnibus for transporting passengers in a city to trolleys that rode on rails laid at street level.  It was an improvement for patrons who paid cheaper fares for faster and more dependable transportation around town.  It was still an burden for the horses.

“The equipment proved a nightmare to operate,” wrote Perry R. Duis in his Challenging Chicago.  “The weight of the car and the frequent stops and starts exhausted the animals after traveling only a few miles of a route.  The company had no choice but to own and maintain a large herd—usually seven horses for each car—which also required a lot of blacksmiths, grooms, hostlers, and barn hands as well.  Many of the animals perished each year because of falls, rough handling, or other urban hazards.”

Particularly hard on a horse’s vulnerable legs was pulling the dead weight of the loaded trolley from a standing start, something that happened over and over again as it plied the route.  Horses could generally work no more than five hours without being totally exhausted, and they were usually kept on the transit routes no more than five years before they were sold or put down.

There were times when the price of horseflesh brought more for a carcass than one being sold after retirement from the transit lines.  No insurance was paid to an owner who destroyed his own animal, so many horses were worked until they dropped dead in the streets.  Rendering companies bid on the rights to pick up dead animals, guaranteeing their service within a few hours of the death of the horse.

Consider this account from Chicago, carried in The Chicago Daily Tribune on this date, December 20, in 1871.

A cold rain had been falling that day until 2:00 in the afternoon when it began to snow.  At about that time a horse trolley left Cottage Grove, drawn by an “emaciated, woe-begone-looking white horse, that stumbled along as if on its way to a bone yard.”  [Chicago Daily Tribune, December 20, 1870]

Because of the snow the car was crowded.  The horse was shoeless while “the cobblestones remained slippery.  The horse “under this combination of adverse circumstances” was “about as often down as up, slipping all the time.”

By the time the trolley reached Harrison Street (probably having traveled four miles or more), there were two inches of snow on the tracks.  The cars following this one began to stack up until there were 17 cars lined up looking “for all the world like a funeral procession.”

“Every time the car came to a halt, which was about every fifty yards, the horse would sink together from sheer exhaustion, and there was a trembling in every limb.  When encouraged to make a fresh start it would be convulsed with spasm, sway from side to side, and fall on its knees, but full of good pluck, somehow would manage to get started again.”

When it came to the end of the line, there were 22 cars piled up behind the poor horse and the car it was pulling.

Scenes like this were commonplace in the wild days of growth just before and after the fire of 1871.  Next time I am out in the cold, waiting on the 151 and see two of them pull up to the stop, one after the other, I’ll swipe my fare card, thinking of that poor exhausted nag, pulling its heavy load of citizens through the Chicago snow.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Clarence Darrow Argues for the Defense -- December 18, 1896

December 18, 1896 -- More Trouble at Fort Sheridan (JWB Photo)
On this date, December 18, in 1896 a manslaughter trial ended in the courtroom of Judge Peter S. Grosscup.  The defendant was a young Fort Sheridan private, James D. Allen of the Fifteenth Regiment, who was accused of killing another private on the post, Daniel M. Call, the previous March. 

Judge Peter Grosscup
What makes the trial especially interesting is that Judge Grosscup was the same jurist who had issued the injunction against the Pullman strikers two years earlier, allowing 22 railroads to continue operations.  Leading a boycott of those railroads, Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union was indicted for refusing to end the job action.  A team led by Clarence Darrow defended him.  Darrow was in the courtroom as Private Allen’s attorney on this day in 1896.

Allen had little chance of winning.  At least four witnesses had seen him shoot Call, and the facts were indisputable.  Apparently at breakfast on the morning of March 20, 1896 a quarrel began between the two men because one had supposedly taken the other’s seat at the mess table.  The Chicago Tribune reported, “Call, in a joking way, suggested that it would be a good plan to settle the matter with the boxing gloves.” [Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1896]

Four other privates in Company A accompanied Allen and Call to the company’s barracks where the Allen and Call put on boxing gloves and began sparring.  It seems that Allen was the better athlete of the two.  He was an instructor at the garrison’s gym and “well-formed, and skilled in difficult feats of agility and strength.”  One can imagine that he would be aggrieved, then, when Call appeared to be “having the best of the sparring match.”

After five minutes or so of trading punches, Allen sat down for a few minutes and then announced that he was going for a drink of water.  When he returned, “he opened the door a little way, and, thrusting his hand holding the revolver through the space . . . shouted to call, 'You’re a goner.'"

He was right.  He shot Call in the abdomen, and the wounded man was carried out on a stretcher. He subsequently died.  In the struggle for the weapon, Allen was also shot in the upper leg.

An officer on the post, Captain Brinkerhoff, said, “The man must be crazy.  It has been reported to me since the affair that he has been acting and talking queerly for the last few days and it is a deed no sane man would have done.  The dispute which started it was trivial, and onlookers thought the boxing match was merely a friendly contest.”

Colonel R. E. A. Crofton
(Buffalo Bill Center of
the West)
The shooting was the culmination of a series of distrurbing events that had taken place under the command of Colonel R. E. A. Crofton over the preceding three years.  Consider the following:

March 25, 1893:  Soldiers at Fort Sheridan are so alarmed at reports of a sea monster in Lake Michigan off Fort Sheridan that 200 of them sign a resolution to give up drinking.

November 1, 1893:  Lieutenant J. A. Maney shoots Captain Alfred Hedberg, allegedly as a result of a quarrel over the dead man’s wife.

February 22, 1894:  A federal grand jury returns a number of indictments against unlicensed liquor dealers at Fort Sheridan, Highwood, and Highland Park.

July 18, 1894:  Three soldiers are buried at Fort Sheridan after a caisson explosion on the south side of Chicago.

January 9, 1895:  Three soldiers are hospitalized, two of them with gunshot wounds, and a fourth in jail after an altercation with Highwood police.

October 3, 1895:  Lieutenant Samuel S. Pague tries to shoot the post commander, Colonel Crofton, and is taken to the federal insane asylum in Washington, D. C.

November 1, 1895:  Six enlisted men join in a complaint to the Secretary of War regarding enlisted men being used as body and house servants.

January 25, 1896:  The Tribune reports on various “scandals and quarrels” that have occurred at Fort Sheridan under the command of Colonel Crofton.

March 20, 1896:  Private Allen shoots Private Call.

January 16, 1897:  A cavalry trooper stabs an infantryman.

January 17, 1897:  There is a “rebellion” at the fort over the quality of the food that is being served.

When the guilty verdict was returned at the trial of Private Allen in December of 1896, Allen said, “I do not know what to say about the verdict.  My friends seemed to be satisfied, and I guess it is all right.”

Things clearly were not “all right” at Fort Sheridan, and the Allen manslaughter trial appears to have been the last straw for the War Department. On February 4, 1897 the Fort Sheridan post commander, Colonel Crofton, was forcibly removed from the army by orders of President Cleveland and placed on the retired list.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reliance Hotel Fire -- December 17, 1953

The body of Captain Nicholas Schmidt is removed from the wreckage
of the Reliance Hotel (
It was on this date, December 17, in 1954 that the Chicago Fire Department suffered through another tragic day when over one hundred men responded to a 3-11 alarm fire at a sway-backed hotel, the Reliance, at 1702 West Madison Street.

The wind was out of the west at ten to fifteen miles per hour, and the temperature stood right around ten degrees as over two-dozen firemen searched the second floor’s 17 rooms and the third floor’s 28 rooms.  Five men were on the roof of the structure when a portion of the building collapsed.  The men on the roof rode the debris down into the building; those on the second and third floors were trapped in the wreckage.

Some men were able to free themselves as frantic firefighters worked most of the day in frigid temperatures to free those who were trapped in the debris.  Four doctors, three from the Presbyterian Hospital and Dr. Herman H. Bundesen, president of the Board of Health, went into the debris to attend to trapped men as they awaited rescue.

Finally, after more than six hours as another wall tilted precariously over the rescue effort and hope dwindled, Assistant Fire Commissioner Anthony J. Mullaney ordered all of his men to leave the wreckage and a crane was brought in to search for two firemen who remained missing.  Shortly after the order a portion of the third floor tumbled into the basement.

One of the missingg men was George Malik, a 37-year-old acting lieutenant.  “They put the crane in – our hope is gone,” his wife cried softly.  “That means all our hope is gone.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1953]

The survivors’ stories were harrowing.  A lieutenant with Squad 2, Alvin Joslin, said, “We had no warning.  The wall just let go.  I was lucky.  I was pinned under a door and it shielded me.”

Fireman Arthur Carlson of Engine 31 said he could feel rescuers walking on the debris that entrapped him.  “They dug me out after we had been in there three or four hours.  It seemed forever.”

“It was like I was in a cast,” fireman Raymond Nowicki of Engine 107 said.  “I could only see down, so I just had to stay put and pray.

Over eight hours had passed before the last fireman’s body was found.

One resident at the hotel, John Tybor, died in the fire.

Five firefighters lost their lives that cold December day.  Lieutenant George Malik had served with the department for ten years, the whole time with Engine 34.  He left two children, George, Jr., 10, and Judy, 8.

Fireman John Jarose, a father of three children, Diane, 11; Kenneth, 7, and John, Jr., 2, also died.  He had fractured a leg fighting a fire at St. Ignatius High School the previous January and had spent three months recovering in a hospital.

Fireman Robert Jordan was looking forward to spending the first Christmas in a new home with his wife and three children, Gregory, 16; Barbara, 13, and Robert, Jr., 8.  He had been a fireman for ten years.

Fireman Robert R. Schaack had been wounded on Okinawa and drove a truck before joining the fire department.  He had been a fireman for five years and lived with his parents.

The last fireman to be removed from the wreckage was Captain Nicholas Schmidt, 56, who had 26 years of service with the department, serving with Company 112 and with Engine 107.  He left a widow, Lillian, and three sons, John, 24; Robert, 23, and Edward, 8, along with two daughters, Mary, 20, and Audrey 12.

The equipment is better these days, and the protective gear the firefighters wear provides more protection than it did back in 1953.  The danger, though, is just as great and the firefighters just as brave as they ever were.

The death in the line of duty this past Monday of firefighter Daniel Capuano reminds us of that.  Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and comrades as they mourn his passing.  Firefighter Capuano’s wake today and tomorrow’s funeral are reminders of how special these men and women are, folks who at a moment’s notice drop everything and walk into unknown peril to search for, assist, and, often, save the lives of people they have never met.

As you give thanks this holiday season, take a moment to give thanks for them.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Alexander Hamilton Statue Dedication -- December 16, 1954

This is a 1952 Hamilton . . . Apparently, somewhere
there is a 1954 Hamilton (JWB Photo)
The great thing about research is that often researchers start out in a certain direction and end up heading into an alley that they didn’t even know existed.  That happened to me this afternoon.

I learned that on this date, December 16, back in 1954 a statue of Alexander Hamilton was placed in Grant Park near the Illinois Central tracks between Madison and Monroe.  Apparently the statue had existed previously and was removed while the first underground garage in Grant Park was being constructed.

I’ve been interested in the Hamilton statue for a number of years and have written at least three blogs pertaining to it in one way or another.  They can be found here, here and here.  Yet, the Hamilton statue that I wrote about must be a different statue than the one placed in Grant Park in 1954 – the statue in Lincoln Park was unveiled two years earlier than the one remounted in Grant Park. 

Clearly, there would be no reason to dig up a perfectly good gilded statue in a swell location and stick it next to the Illinois Central tracks.

So . . . there must be a second Alexander Hamilton statue that at some point made its farewell address and headed out of Grant Park.

Some digging revealed that there was such a statue, the last work of significance sculpted by Bela Lyon Pratt, who studied at the École des Beaux Arts and with August Saint-Gaudens.  The architectural work was executed by Charles A. Coolidge (Think Shepley, Routan and Coolidge, the Boston firm that designed the Art Institute and the Chicago Cultural Center building).  The Grant Park Hamilton was unveiled on September 28, 1918.  Frank G. Logan, the vice-president of the B. F. Ferguson monument fund, made the presentation.  [Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1918]

The re-dedication of Pratt's statue on September 28, 1918
(Chicago Tribune Photo)
Anyone know where it is?  Because in the duel of the two statues this one clearly lost.

Oh, and by the way.  The other Alexander Hamilton statue -- the one that Kate Buckingham left a million dollars to create and take care of -- that one is gone now, too. 

There isn’t much of mystery there.  A sign posted next to the polished granite base on which the statue once stood reads, “The Alexander Hamilton statue is temporarily removed for conservation of its gilded finish . . . Funding for this project is provided by the Kate S. Buckingham Fund of the Art Institute of Chicago.”

With luck Mr. Hamilton will be back by the Fall of 2016.

The other Hamilton, the one that got stuck on the wrong side of the tracks back in 1954?  I hope he’s somewhere warm, and that someone is taking good care of him.

The gilded guy has also said farewell . . .
just a polished granite base remains (JWB Photo)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Symphony Center in Chicago Dedicated -- December 14, 1904

Theodore Thomas Orchestra Hall (JWB Photo)
Two thousand two hundred members of Chicago society came together on this evening, December 13, of 1904 to attend the dedication of the new home for the Chicago symphony orchestra on Michigan Avenue.  Three-quarters of a million dollars made up of voluntary contributions from over 8,000 different people had made it possible to get the place built.

After 14 years with the orchestra its conductor, Theodore Thomas, finally had a home for his musicians who had up to this point played in the cavernous Auditorium building just down Michigan Avenue.  The Apollo and Mendelssohn music clubs joined with the members of the Chicago symphony for five numbers, beginning with Tannhäuser’s “Hail, Bright Abode.”

Attorney and former United States congressman George E. Adams dedicated the new hall with a short speech, saying to the audience members who had helped fund the project, “We hope and believe that this building will outlive every one of you and every one of us.  We hope and believe that it will stand for generations to come.  But if it stands for centuries it will not outlast the beneficent influence which you have bestowed upon the higher life of the American people.”

Unfortunately, when the first reviews of the new hall emerged, it became clear that the impassioned desire for it to stand for generations needed to be tempered somewhat.  The critic for The Tribune, W. L. Hubbard, wrote, “It would be an act both graceful and joyous to state that the concert last evening convinced that Orchestra hall was all that could be desired – that it was a concert room virtually faultless . . . But the facts so far as personal observation and attention could establish them last evening, make such a statement now impossible.  And the disappointment felt because of this is only the more keen because the contrary had been so earnestly desired.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1904]

The brass instruments “swallowed up” the orchestra in louder sections.  The quality of the strings “when heard” was “hard.”  A violin solo was “small and colorless.”  The kettledrums were “hollow” and “tubby.”

Most devastatingly, in the critic’s words, “For the first time since the Chicago orchestra has been heard it sounded common . . . for last evening it seemed that instead of having the Chicago orchestra given to us permanently, it had been taken away from us and an inferior unfinished organization substituted.”

A tone deaf Chicago would find a way to get along with Hubbard’s assessment for 91 years until a major overhaul of what is now Symphony Center would begin, a project that consumed the better part of two years from 1995 to 1997 and markedly improved the space.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

World's Columbian Exposition Moves Forward -- December 12, 1890

A big day in Chicago on this date, December 12, back in 1890, when directors were named and a plan formulated for choosing the architects for the World’s Columbian Exposition that would open just 30 months later.  The fact that committees were just being formed and architects named at this late date is a reminder of just how quickly this monumental event came together.

A board of four men – Daniel Burnham, John Root, Frederick Law Olmsted and Abraham Gottlieb recommended four plans for choosing the designers for the fair’s grand buildings.  The first three names are legendary, but it took a lot of searching even to find Gottlieb’s first name.  It turns out that he served as the Chief Engineer of the American Bridge Company and the director of the American Society of Civil Engineers form 1872 until his death in 1894.

Abraham Gottlieb
As an aside, Gottlieb died in a way that an architect or engineer could not have scripted any more fittingly.  On February 9, 1894 at the age of 57 he attended a meeting at the office of the Illinois Steel Company in the Rookery on LaSalle Street.  After the meeting he took the elevator to the ground floor, where he “fell unconscious and died before medical aid could reach him.”  [Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies, Vol. XIII, May 1894]  

Interesting . . . that out of the four men who met this day in 1890, two of them, Gottlieb and John Root, would not live to see the completion of the fair.  John Root had only another month to live after this December meeting, dying of pneumonia on January 15, 1891.

In any event, the men recommended four possibilities for the selection of architects for the fair.  They were:

(1)   The selection of one man to whom designing of the entire work should be entrusted.
(2)   Competition made free to the whole architectural profession.
(3)   Competition among a select few.
(4)   Direct selection.

The first option was ruled out even though it would allow a coherent and uniform design of the many buildings that would be at the heart of the fair.  The conclusion was inescapable, though, that no one man could design what was needed in the time that remained before the fair was to open.

The question of time also ruled out for the second alternative.  Setting up a competition, naming judges, allowing time for the preparation of proposals and plans, and the actual judging would consume far too much time.  Moreover, it was uncertain that any architect of merit would enter a competition in a project that many viewed as preposterous, if not impossible.

Even a limited competition – the third proposal, basically, ran into the same set of time constraints.

Almost by default, the fourth proposal was recommended and accepted and a process was begun almost immediately “to select a certain number of architects, choosing each man for such work as would be nearly parallel with his best achievements . . . The honor conferred upon those selected would create in their minds a disposition to place the artistic quality of their work in advance of the mere question of emolument; while the emulation begotten in a rivalry so dignified and friendly could not fail to be productive of a result which would stand before the world as the best fruit of American civilization.”  {Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1890]

With $987,560 in the bank the process of building what would become the greatest fair in the history of the world in Chicago began in earnest on this date.  Dedication Day, October 21, 1892, the date marking discovery of Columbus was less than two years away.

Dedication Day parade, October 21, 1892

Friday, December 11, 2015

WCFL, the Voice of Labor, Dedicated -- December 11, 1926

It was on this date, December 11, in 1926 that the only labor radio station in the world was formally dedicated, and WCFL, owned and operated by the Chicago Federation of Labor, began broadcasting.  The opening program included an address by William Green, the president of the American Federation of Labor as well as remarks from Chicago’s Mayor Dever. Paul Ash and the WCFL orchestra provided the musical programming.

The Ashland Auditorium Building in 1928
The station started in a special studio at the headquarters of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, located on the corner of Ashland Avenue and Van Buren.  It’s still there.  If you happen past it some time, look for the big “AC” beneath the roofline on the Ashland side of the building.  The structure was the home of the Ashland Auditorium where many labor meetings and rallies took place in the strife-filled mid-years of the Chicago labor movement.

There is no longer a WCFL, of course, but its AM1000 bandwidth still exists as the present day ESPN radio’s WMVP.

Back in the 1960’s there were two stations that played rock and roll – WLS and WCFL.  Like Cubs or Sox fans, Chicagoans chose one or the other, the choice made mostly on one’s preference for the on-air personalities.  You liked Clark Weber and Ron Riley feuding with one another on WLS or you liked Ron Brittain or Barney Pipp on WCFL.

What won me over, though, was a short-lived, outlandish spoof that station manager Ken Draper asked a production director at the station, Dick Orkin, to come up with in early 1966, a 150-second comedy feature that ran on the morning show of deejay Jim Runyan.

Orkin came up with Chickenman, the white-winged warrior, a segment that lasted five or six months in 1966 and brought me and a lot of other listerners to the station to hear the corny episodes.  Orkin played the lead role as well as the part of Midland City Police Commissioner (Yes, I am) Benjamin Norton. 

The station’s traffic reporter, Jane Roberts, with an on-air name of Officer 36-24-36 (how times have changed!), played the parts of the Commissioner’s secretary, Miss Helfinger, who in one episode comforted Chickenman after he shot himself with his Geshtunkana Ray Gun, as well as the winged warrior’s mother, Mildred.  Runyan provided the narration.

In the summer of 1966 I took a summer school class in European History, and we stopped class each time a new episode was aired -- if I remember correctly that was right around 10:00 in the morning -- so that we could all listen.  By the end of that summer it was all over.  After that would come war, assassination, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  For a very short time, though, it was a lot of fun.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

First Performance at the Auditorium -- December 10, 1889

The Auditorium a year after it opened (Note that just to the south the residence that
the Auditorium Hotel would replace is still standing.)
On this date in 1889 the first opera, Romeo and Juliet, was held in Chicago’s brand new Auditorium Theater, which had been dedicated the preceding night.  One of the great sopranos in this country’s opera history, Adelina Patti, sang the part of Juliet.  Patti had only five or six more years left in her long career, and the critics were not kind. 

Adelina Patti
Wrote The Tribune music critic, “It is a matter of fact, however, that she does sing flat at times.  As regards the matter of warmth, which is so essential for the proper interpretation of the music assigned to Juliet, and so imperatively demanded for the delineation of the ardent character of the heroine, Patti never did possess it, so that even were her vocalization absolutely faultless there would still be left much to be desired.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1889]

it didn’t matter.  It seemed as if every member of the ranking social order in the city was in attendance.  “It was a magnificent crowd,” wrote The Tribune.  “Every one was in full dress, even those standing up.  It was the most brilliant audience probably ever seen in Chicago.”

And The Auditorium was the most brilliant thing that Chicago had ever seen.  As the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, said in his remarks at the dedication ceremony of the previous evening, “I stand in the grandest hall upon the face of the civilized earth.  Oratory never had such a magnificent scene . . . I wish this building . . . to be a light set on a hill, shining into human hearts to make them happier and better; shining out upon bad laws that good ones may replace them; shining out upon the public taste and teaching how it may be improved; shining in the homes of the poor and showing how them may be made better; shining into the homes of the rich and revealing the grace of the homely virtues; and wherever it shines, on high or low, on rich or poor, on hearts or homes, carrying healing on its wings.”

These days Chicago can use more words like those.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Chicago River, 1877

Chicago River, 1870's
(The Urban Wilderness, 1995)
On this day, June 3, way back in 1877, the Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial that praised the efforts to establish an intake crib far enough out in the lake to ensure fresh water to Chicago’s citizens while taking to task the businesses that made that effort so difficult.  Here in its entirety is that editorial:

Dr. Knox, who assists the Health Commissioner, has made a long, elaborate, and technical report on the condition of the lake water supplied to Chicago, which attests a careful investigation.  This makes especially valuable his assertion that the crib water is “the purest furnished to any city in the United States.’  He has discovered two things, however, or rather directed new attention to them, which will not admit of this assertion being made truthfully after a while, if measures be not taken to abate them.  One of the unfavorable conditions, and the principal one, is the Ogden ditch, which causes the Chicago River to empty into the lake whenever there are hard rains or a freshet.  Millions of dollars were spent in order to change the current of the Chicago River, so that the waters of the lake might wash it out with a reasonable current, and the failure to dam up this ditch occasions every once in a while an emptying of the filth of the river into the lake where the water supply is taken, or at best leaves the river stagnant and putrid.  A temporary dam could be erected at the cost of a few thousand dollars which would serve the purpose until provision can be made for a permanent stoppage of the ditch, letting the Aux Plaines River meander along in its own harmless way.  The other nuisance referred to is the practice of the distilleries located on the North Branch dumping the refuse of their business and cattle into the lake near the shore.  The slaughtering houses on the South Branch do the same thing; and Dr. Knox estimates that these establishments contribute a weekly supply of 500 tons of filth, garbage, and decaying animal matter to the water which the people of Chicago drink.  These people can be prevented from dumping their stuff anywhere within three miles of the shore, and stringent measures should be taken to enforce this authority over them.

The Ogden ditch was constructed across the extensive land holdings of one of Chicago’s earliest settlers, William B. Ogden, who also served as the city’s first mayor.  Constructed in 1868 about a dozen miles west of the city, its purpose was to drain a significant chunk of the Des Plaines river valley which otherwise lay under water for much of the year.  It achieved its purpose by connecting with the west branch of the Chicago River, so while city fathers were doing anything and everything within their power to limit the amount of river water flowing into the lake (something that was not achieved until January of 1900 when the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was opened) the Ogden Ditch, especially during heavy rains, frustrated these attempts.

As far as the distilleries were concerned, think about this – in 1878 the eight registered distilleries in Chicago produced 10,952,799 gallons of distilled spirits.  That’s a lot of booze that sucked up a lot of grain that used in its production.  In a seven year period between 1877 and 1885 Chicago distilleries consumed 16,884,364 bushels of grain, including 13,222,937 bushels of corn, 2,315,362 bushels of rye, 1,102,912 bushels of malt, 216,889 bushels of oats, 10,930 bushels of wheat, 3,141 bushels of barley and 2,193 bushels of mill-feed.

Welcome to Chicago (Chicago Daily News Photo Archive)
After the mash was created and the fermentation process completed, all of that expended mash had to go somewhere.  The distilleries solved the problem by keeping large herds of cattle next to their facilities along the river and fed the mash to the cattle.  All those cud-chewers obviously took the mash and created a by-product of their own, which went directly or indirectly into the river.  The mash that wasn’t consumed was dumped into the river as well.

And there were the great Union Stockyards on Halsted Street, 280 acres that held 2,600 cattle pens and 1,600 pens for hogs.  In 1877, the year that the Tribune editorial appeared, 1,033,151 cattle came through the yards, along with 4,025,970 hogs, 310,240 sheep and 7,874 horses.  According to the History of Chicago:  Volume 3, published in 1886, the system of drainage in the yards was “brought to a high state of perfection, and the sanitary condition of the yards insures the health of the stock.  Fifty miles of sewers have been laid, which carry all surplus water out into the Chicago River and thence into the lake.”

Chicago Stockyards (Chicago Daily News Archive)
Interesting phrase . . . a high state of perfection, a perfection that helped keep the stock healthy, but which didn’t do much for the 300,000 or so souls that depended on the quality of the water coming from the lake.  On the other hand, there was a lot of whiskey to take the citizens’ minds off things.

So that gives a fairly good idea of the indignities that the river suffered in June of 1877.  It would only get worse.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Medusa-Challenger Strikes Again -- June 1, 1969

Medusa-Challenger headed west (Google Image)
On this date, June 1, back in 1969 what was perhaps the most ill-fated ship ever to navigate the Chicago River struck one more time as the Medusa Challenger tied up traffic between Wabash and Wells Streets for over three hours.  The Wells Street bridge refused to open as the 562-foot steamship approached, leaving the powdered cement carrier’s stern beneath the LaSalle Street bridge.  Minutes before the Wabash Street bridge had been put out of operation by a power failure after it was raised to allow the ship through.  City electricians took close to three hours to get the bridges back in operation again.

At that point the Medusa-Challenger had been carrying freight for 63 years after being launched on February 7, 1906 by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan.  She was the William P. Snyder back then, bound for work carrying iron ore from Minnesota to the steel mills that lined the Great Lakes. 

William P. Snyder at Ecorse, Michigan in 1906 (Google Image)
 She gained her reputation in Chicago as the Medusa-Challenger because, through fault of her own, bridges ceased to function regularly whenever she entered or left the Chicago River. 

On May 31, 1968 traffic was halted on Clark, Dearborn and State streets as the Clark Street bridge refused to open and the other two bridges could not be closed because the ship was beneath them.  The Chicago Tribune reported that one gentleman, exasperated by the wait of over an hour, shouted, “You know what they should do with this river?  They should have it paved.”  [May 31, 1968]

On April 2, 1969 the big ship kept Chicagoans waiting for another hour as the LaSalle Street bridge tender was able to raise only one leaf of the bridge.  That kept the Clark Street bridge open, too, since the ship’s stern was beneath it.  “Electricians were summoned and went feverishly to work, while the ship’s crew and onlookers stared at one another and a traffic jam began to form on both sides of the bridge,” The Tribune reported.  [Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1969]

The Medusa headed toward the lake (Google Image)
It happened again less than a week later when the ship, outbound, was halted at the mouth of the river when the massive Lake Shore Drive span refused to budge.  After 45 minutes the bridge was raised, and the Medusa steamed into the lake.  Then the fun began.  A fuse blew, electricians worked frantically, and traffic was rerouted before the bridge was finally placed back in operation an hour after it had been raised.   The Tribune observed, “The ship’s crew members, who are getting used to staring at the Chicago river, took it all stoically.  The city’s bridge tenders, however, are becoming convinced that the Medusa is a jinx.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1969]

There was a relative period of calm until September 22, 1970 when the Lake Shore Drive bridge jammed six feet away from the closed position after the Medusa passed beneath it.  Disgusted motorists made U-turns and drove against approaching traffic as police worked to bring some sense of order to the scene, rerouting traffic onto Ohio and Randolph Streets.  Many impatient pedestrians walked to the middle of the bridge and jumped the gap between the two spans as the bridge tender shouted, “Get off my bridge!  It’s not safe!  Get off!”  [Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1970]

On October 19, 1972 a new bridge became rattled at the Medusa’s approach.  A blown electrical fuse kept the Michigan Avenue bridge in the upraised position while workers struggled to discover the source of the problem.  The Tribune reported that some motorists saw the Medusa and went out of their way to avoid the bridge even before it was raised.  One taxi driver said, “There’s going to be trouble.  The Medusa’s back.”  [Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1972]

The LaSalle Street bridge jammed on December 3, 1972 after being raised for the ship and beyond that the Lake Street bridge was closed to traffic for 40 minutes because the gates barring auto traffic from entering the bridge would not open.  It took work crews five hours, working in near zero-degree weather, to free the Michigan Avenue bridge a little more than two weeks later as the Medusa waited.  “The workers didn’t use any magic words as they went about their business,” wrote the Tribune.  “just your common, every-day, four-letter variety.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1972]

The Medusa steams past 330 North Wabash, heeded upriver (Google Image)
The ship’s ill-fated encounters with city bridges were so frequent that the Tribune actually ran a story on July 14, 1973 when the Medusa moved from the lake to Goose Island and nothing happened.  The steamer had tempted fate the day before by entering the river on Friday the Thirteenth, but except for a brief problem with the traffic gates at Lake Shore Drive the slow procession up the river was uneventful.

The good ship couldn’t catch a break.  On August 11, 1976 the Medusa’s owners, “perhaps hoping to erase the . . . animosities harbored by many Chicago motorists”  had the vessel tied up at Twenty-Second Street in front of McCormick Place for a University of Chicago Foundation fundraiser.  The event was poorly publicized, the night was unseasonably cold and gusty, and out of a thousand guests that were expected to attend, a generous estimate placed the actual head count at about 250.  One volunteer at the event said, “We’re going to have to drink a lot of martinis to keep warm tonight.”  [Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1976].

By the end of the 1970’s the Medusa-Challenger’s visits to Chicago were over, but before the reign of bad luck came to an end the ship became a movie star, giving its name to the first film in which Joe Mantegna appeared, a 25-minute short film that is in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. 

Renamed the St. Mary's Challenger, toward the end (Google Image)
And . . . the ship is still working.  In November of 2013 the 107-year-old ship, renamed the St. Mary’s Challenger, sailed out of Calumet Harbor, bound for Sturgeon Bay where she would lose her stern, pilot house and engine room in a conversion that would render her a barge with no power.   Appropriately, on her way out to the lake she was laid up for more than two hours.  A railroad bridge over the Calumet River refused to lift.