Tuesday, December 24, 2019

December 24, 1886 -- Chicago Federal Building Smells Trouble


December 24, 1886 – More trouble at the Federal Building and Custom House, the Neo-Classical pile sitting in the block with Dearborn Street and Clark Street on the east and west and Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard on the north and south.  Maligned from the get-go, the James G. Gill design, completed in 1880, was beautifully proportioned and built of the finest materials, but “Its weight was too great for the soil, and there has always been an uneven settlement, destructive in character, and at time dangerous to the occupants.  To hold it together, heavy rods have been run through the upper walls.”  [chicagology.com]  In addition, the space allocated to the post office – at the time the city’s main post office – was inadequate for its rapidly expanding operations.  Estimates had over 3,500 people working inside the building with 50,000 folks passing through it each business day.  The problem in 1886 dealt with the plumbing and sewage systems of the building, systems that “proved on a thorough investigation to be much worse than was supposed ….”  [Chicago Daily Tribune, December 24, 1886]  In this respect buildings are like people ... you can be handsome as handsome can be, but no one will love you if you stink.  It seems that the main sewer line, running under the center of the building from Adams to Jackson, is more than three times two large – two feet in diameter – while the city sewers on Dearborn and Clark Streets are only one foot.  Every two weeks it is necessary “to use an engine and a great hose … to flush the sewer and keep things sweet.”  Collecting basins beneath the sidewalks on Adams and Jackson Streets “are said to be veritable cess-pools,” and “the condition of things beneath the building is said to be deplorable.”  Improvements are expected to take six months to complete at a cost of $16,000 (a little over $437,000 in today’s dollars).  In 1898 the government gave up trying to fix the old building and began construction on a new facility designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb.  It was completed in 1905.  That building was demolished in 1965, making way for the three federal buildings that surround today’s Federal Plaza.  The 1880 building is pictured above.

December 24, 2015 –The Eastland Disaster Historical Society announces that the last survivor of the disaster on the Chicago River that claimed 844 lives on July 24, 1915 has died.  Marion Eichholz, 102 years old, was only a toddler of three years when her father jumped with her in his arms into the river to escape the sinking ship.  Eichholz’s testimony, recorded by her sister, Shirley Eichholz Clifford, provides a powerful look into the horror of that day on the river.  “People began to panic, and women were running and screaming. Dad picked me up in his arms, stood on the railing, and jumped into the river,” she said.  “I remember Dad swimming with me in one arm.  I was crying, and my strap slippers were dangling from my ankles.  We were picked up by a tugboat and brought to shore.”  Eichholz’s niece, Kathleen Kremholz, says, “What she always remembered is she had new shoes on … What she always talked about was seeing all the babies underneath the water who had drowned in baby buggies.”  Eichholz, on the left, is pictured in a childhood photo with her younger sister and her parents in the above photo.

December 24, 1887 – With the completion of an electricity generating plant at Washington Boulevard and Clinton Street, 100 “brilliant lights … blaze out on the Chicago River”. [Chicago Daily Tribune, December 24, 1887] It is hoped that the illuminated river will eliminate river traffic having “the necessity of keeping up constant whistling.” Ten miles of cable have been laid, covering all the bridges from Polk Street on the south to Indiana Avenue on the North Branch and out to the mouth of the river.  Four lights are placed on each bridge, two at each end, with a 2,000-candlepower capacity for each lamp.  The 150 lights will be the equivalent of 10,000 gas lamps.  The above photo shows the river in the 1880's ... imagine the traffic moving up and down the river at night, each boat whistling shrilly in the middle of the city to indicate its movement.

December 24, 1961 – The Chicago Daily Tribune tells the story of the first Christmas tree in Chicago, cut down somewhere near today's Division Street in 1804.  According to the paper’s account the commander of Fort Dearborn, Captain John Whistler, “decided his garrison should have a holiday tree to lift morale.  His men and their families were weary of the bitter cold and the ice on the lake to the horizon.”  The tree was dragged across the frozen river to the garrison that stood at what is now the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue.  “On Christmas day, with a few feeble candles glowing on the tree, the garrison sat down to its first Christmas dinner,” the article continues.  Guests included John Kinzie and his family and another trapper who lived across the river, Francis Ouilmette.  In the middle of the celebration a friendly group of Indians, led by Chief Black Partridge, made a visit and the group was invited to stay and “partake of the feast.”  Imagine those first inhabitants of what would become this great city, huddled together dozens and dozens of miles away from anything remotely resembling civilization, sharing a quiet communal moment in the darkness and cold of the wilderness night.  It’s enough to make us thankful for what we have.  

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