The City Transformed

Railroads and Their Influence on the Growth of Chicago in the 1850s

Copyright 1995, Benjamin W Dreyfus

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In 1850, Chicago was a city of 30,000 people. By the end of the decade, its population had more than tripled to 109,000.1 The entire state of Illinois, which by 1860 had become the fourth most populous state in the Union, experienced explosive development during the decade of the 1850s. This development was felt most in and around the city of Chicago, which became a transportation and commercial center almost overnight. A British visitor, referring to Chicago as "the lightning city," wrote that "[t]he growth of this city is one of the most amazing things in the history of modern civilization."2 In 1852, one pamphlet asked: "Can it be wondered at, that our city doubles its population within three years; that men who were trading in small seven-by-nine tenements, now find splendid brick or marble stores scarcely large enough to accommodate their customers?"3 The extraordinary growth of the city in the 1850s can be attributed to the proliferation of railroads and their effects.

In 1850, only one railroad passed through Chicago. The Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, which never actually reached Galena, was opened in 1848. The Galena's president was William Butler Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago, who would acquire many railroads during the 1850s. The opening of the Galena had an immediate impact, and by 1852, over half of Chicago's wheat arrived via the Galena.4 Although only one railroad served the Chicago area in 1850, it caused railroads to be one of the primary modes of transportation for Chicago. The Chicago Tribune's "Annual Review of Commerce" for 1850 stated: "The three great sources and avenues of [Chicago's] commerce abroad are the Lakes, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, and the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad."5

Chicago's transformation into a railroad capital was aided by the national trend of the time, in which the general direction of trade had shifted from north-south to east-west. Prior to the advent of railroads, the major mode of transportation had been the steamboat, which caused the building of canals and the commercial predominance of southern river cities, such as New Orleans. Canals declined in the 1840s and became regarded as "an old fogy institution—one of the things that were, to be superceded [sic] by new inventions."6 They gave way to railroads, most of which ran east-west.

At the same time, the Northeast was becoming heavily industrialized, and easterners invested in cities such as Chicago, causing these cities to become transportation and commercial centers. One investor, Everett Chamberlin, said in 1873 that Chicago was built by "a junction of Eastern means and Western capital."7 The success of the early railroads caused investors to invest in new railroads: "The Galena road first demonstrated that owing to the cheapness with which railroads could be built ..., and the further fact that the resources of the country would at once furnish them with an immense business, railroads in Illinois would pay a large profit to the stockholders, and hence Eastern capitalists were willing to invest their means in these public improvements."8

In 1848, the same year that the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad was opened, another achievement took place which helped Chicago to displace the river cities. The Illinois & Michigan Canal was completed, connecting Chicago to the Mississippi River, so that trade that had previously gone through St. Louis went instead to Chicago. Chicago was also in a strategic geographical position due to territorial expansion. The United States acquired the Oregon Territory and the Mexican Cession during the late 1840s, moving the frontier westward and causing many people, headed for the new western territories (motivated by such events as the California gold rush of 1848-49), to pass through the Midwest.9 These factors led to Chicago becoming a transportation center.

Although Chicago was already spoken of as a railroad center in 1850, there remained only one railroad which passed through the city. However, Chicago was heralded by many as a future commercial center. The Chicago Tribune's aforementioned "Annual Review of Commerce," which spoke of "the future commercial importance of Chicago" and "the brilliant prospect of its future greatness" said that the railroads

which will undoubtedly be constructed, will give to [Chicago] an importance, in a commercial point of view, second to no city of the west. Within two years time we shall command the trade of both the Illinois and upper Mississippi River. A little later, the Chicago and Cairo road will pour the teeming products of central Illinois into our market. In the mean time we shall have secured railroad connection with the Eastern Cities by some two or three different lines of road, and the right of a free egress and ingress through the St. Lawrence to the markets of the world. These improvements will result in drawing to Illinois a large addition to her present population and productive industry—her immense resources, agricultural and mineral, will be developed at an early day, and Chicago will be made the commercial centre of a numerous, wealthy, and prosperous people.10

This vision began to be realized during the short period between 1850 and 1852. The change occurred very rapidly. By 1852, Chicago's single railroad had increased to five, and by 1856, Chicago had ten railroads, totaling over 3000 miles of track.11 "Prior to [1852], ... when strangers visited Chicago and asked of her sanguine citizens what was the basis of her predicted prosperity in time to come, no one thought of pointing to her manufactures as forming any part of it."12 The railroads would bring about a change in this attitude.

One such railroad was the Illinois Central. After many years of planning, the Illinois Central Railroad received a federal land grant in 1850. This railroad was unusual in being a north-south railroad, in addition to being the first land-grant railroad. The land grant was approved by Congress due to the influence of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and of former Chicago mayor "Long John" Wentworth in the House of Representatives.13 The grant was justified by the argument that the potential farmland of central Illinois would be inaccessible, and therefore without value, in the absence of such a railroad. Sen. Henry Clay said that "by constructing this road through the prairie, ... you bring millions of acres of land immediately into the market which will otherwise remain ... entirely unsalable."14 "The idea was that the railroad could sell the lands granted to it and use the proceeds for construction. The land thus sold would presumably be settled and thus add to the taxable wealth of the State of Illinois."15 This land was sold immediately, and the railroad was completed in 1856.

Railroad "warfare" caused competing railroad companies to construct rail lines rapidly. Two eastern railroads, the Michigan Central and the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana, competed to be the first eastern railroad in Chicago. The Michigan Southern succeeded in 1852 because of a deal with another railroad company, the Chicago & Rock Island.16 Thus, Chicago had five railroads in 1852: Galena & Chicago Union and the Chicago & Rock Island to the West, the Illinois Central to the South, and the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana and the Michigan Central to the East. There was another railroad, the Aurora Branch, built in 1850, which began as a branch of the Galena. The Aurora Branch went westward to its namesake, and eventually became the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad.17

By 1852, Chicago's dream of becoming a railway hub was a reality. "In 1852 the Chicago system of railroads commenced attracting attention from abroad, ... and our city received that impulse forward in every department of its business which is still carrying her on at such a rate of progress as to have acquired for her a world-wide celebrity."18 The Chicago Tribune's "Annual Review of Commerce," which in 1850 had devoted five times as much space to canal and lake commerce than to the railroad, said in its 1851 edition that railroads were "essential to the prosperity of cities ... It matters but little how great the natural advantages with respect to a location upon navigable water, if [cities] fail to avail themselves of this new element of power, a decline is inevitable."19 By 1852, it seemed that the railroad had replaced these "natural advantages." People "seemed to see it less as an artificial invention than as a force of nature."20 The Chicago Daily Democrat, in a special section now entitled "Chicago: Her Commerce and Railroads," wrote: "With the use of a map, any person can see that all the [rail]roads and branches that we have noticed, aim at Chicago. From the east and west, north and south, it is the great center which they all seek."21 In the same year, the Chicago Tribune printed an article which spoke of "the future commercial importance of Chicago" and of why Chicago was destined to surpass all other areas of the country. However, the article did not attribute this transformation solely to the railroads, as had been done the previous year, but rather, said that the railroads were simply a catalyst which speeded up the process: "The effect would have been the same, but by a slower process, without the aid of the railway, but with the railway, the general progress will be vastly more rapid."22 One explanation of this change in attitude is that once the railroads were physically in place, the need for railroads was perceived as less urgent.

One means by which the railroads contributed to Chicago's transformation into a metropolis was their purchase of land in the city and the subsequent development of that land. When the Illinois Central was constructed in 1852, the railroad needed a route by which to enter the city. It was unable to follow through with the western route which it had planned originally, because this land had been bought out by the Rock Island during the "railroad war" between the Michigan Central and the Michigan Southern. The Illinois Central's other option was to run along the shore of Lake Michigan, but there was opposition to this on aesthetic grounds. However, the city had had problems with flooding along the lakefront, so it allowed the railroad to enter along the lakefront so that it would "be compelled, for its own protection, to build and maintain breakwaters, dikes, and other such devices, all of which, in the bargain, would protect city streets and houses from regular inundation."23 "The railroad had to give up its hope of entering the city near the industrial section farther west, and the city would later try to recover the valuable lake-front property ceded to it."24 However, the railroad's presence in the downtown area had effects that no one had planned. The railroad stations and facilities dominated their areas, leading to industrial and commercial growth in these areas. The first railroad building in Chicago was an engine house built by the Galena & Chicago Union in 1848. The Galena also built a smith shop, a car shop, and a wharf on the Chicago River.25 Each new railroad would add to this construction.

The opening of railroads created at once a necesity [sic] for locomotive, car, and car wheel manufactures. This want was promptly supplied, and, as the result shows, by an addition to our manufacturing capital of nearly two millions of dollars, and an addition to our population of at least ten thousand souls. This result, be it remembered, has been accomplished in less than four years time.26

But the majority of buildings that were built due to the railroads were built not for the trains themselves, but for Chicago's new influx of people and commerce. An 1852 report to Congress concluded that a farmer would save a large amount of money by shipping his goods by railroad, rather than by steamboat or ordinary roads. He would also be able to ship his goods a greater distance.

It is well known that upon the ordinary highways the economical limit to transportation is confined within a comparatively few miles ... Upon the average of such ways, the cost of transportation is not far from 15 cents per ton per mile ... [T]he value of [wheat] would be equal to its cost of transportation for 330 miles, and [corn], 165 miles. At these respective distances from market, neither of the above articles would have any commercial value, with only a common earth road as an avenue to market. But we find that we can move property upon railroads at ... one-tenth the cost upon the ordinary road. These works, therefore, extend the economic limit of the cost of transportation ... to 3,300 and 1,650 miles, respectively.27

As a result of the economic efficiency of the railroad, Chicago became a major marketplace, surpassing cities such as St. Louis, which depended on the steamboat. "[E]ach year the city was the market for vast amounts of corn, wheat, and lumber. Chicago was having to expand to keep pace with the flood of traffic. Five- and six-story warehouses were common, and in 1853 the city had seven daily papers as well as other weeklies and monthlies."28 The six-story Richmond Hotel, one of fifty hotels in Chicago in 1855, was built to accommodate the travelers who came to Chicago. Many of the railroads began passenger service following their successful freight business. The first passenger service was on the Galena between Chicago and St. Charles, Illinois.29 The railroads offered passenger service for the commuters in the suburban communities around Chicago, as well as for longer routes to the east, west, and south. In 1855-56, a huge passenger station was built for the use of the Illinois Central, Michigan Central, and Burlington railroads. The Chicago Democratic Press wrote at the time that "[w]hen we consider the hight [sic] of the stones, the massive character of the solid masonry and stone work, the capacious areas for office purposes, the vast space enclosed by the walls and roof, ... we begin to feel some conception of the immense business that is being provided for by this building."30 Upon visiting this station, the president of the Erie Railroad remarked: "What under heaven were you westerners thinking ... when you put such a monstrous depot out here in Chicago? You'll never use half the room ... in this building."31 The station soon became overcrowded.

Whenever new railroads were built, the surrounding land soon became developed. The Michigan Southern and Rock Island railroads built depots in 1852. The Democratic Press wrote: "A year since, there were only a few ... buildings in that neighborhood, and it was considered far 'out of town.' Now nearly the whole of Clark Street is built up as far south as the depot, and there has an important addition been made to the city where, a year since, it was open prairie."32 The area of the south side of Chicago near Lake Calumet was a wasteland before 1852, but Sen. Stephen Douglas saw the land's potential for industrial development, and purchased 6000 acres from the Illinois Central. Factories were built, and the area became a major industrial zone, due to the railroad, which is ironic, since the Illinois Central built on the eastern route as a last resort.33 The railroad's presence had a similar effect in downtown Chicago. In the mid-1850s, the downtown land values increased at an extraordinary rate. A lot bought for $13,000 in the summer of 1855 was worth $20,000 in January 1856.34 A railroad president estimated that "the increased value of a belt of land ten miles wide, lying upon each side of its line, is equal to at least $7.50 per acre, or $96,000 for every mile of road, which will cost only about $20,000 per mile."35

Chicago's transformation into a metropolis was accompanied by the arrival of urban crime—acts of vandalism were committed on railroad switches, endangering passengers. Benjamin Johnson, the assistant to a railroad president wrote: "Like all fast growing cities we have a full supply of desperate characters by which the peace and safety of the city is endangered."36

The railroad also aided Chicago's growth in conjunction with the telegraph. Judge John D. Caton, president of the Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company, made an arrangement with the Illinois Central railroad, under which a telegraph line would be strung along the railroad routes, the railroad agents would man the telegraph, and the railroad and telegraph companies would split the profits. The telegraph assisted the railroad by facilitating the rapid transfer of train schedules and the tracking of lost baggage.37

These new developments contributed to the railroad's expansion. As has been stated above, the railroad took business away from the steamboat, since the shipping of freight by railroad was substantially less costly than by steamboat. By 1857, seven railroads had reached the Mississippi. The result of this was the decline of the steamboat and the predominance of the railroad, and consequently of Chicago, as a railroad town.38 In 1860, Chicago's population was 109,000,39 more than three times its population in 1850. In 1870, it would triple again to 300,000.40 Chicago's significant expansion was a result of its status as a railroad capital. "It is not yet twenty years since the City Government was first organized. Then it contained four thousand inhabitants, now it has one-hundred thousand. Then there was not a canal, railroad, or plank-road leading out of the city ... The changes which have been wrought in twenty years are truly amazing. The question naturally arises—what will the next twenty years accomplish?"41

Appendix 42

Population of Chicago: 1845-1855



1 John F. Stover, History of the Illinois Central Railroad (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), 5.

2 Harold M. Mayer & Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 35.

3 An address to the merchants of the N. West, setting forth the advantages of the city of Chicago, as the central mart of the Union: also contains full statistics of the railroads centering in the same (Chicago: William Jones, Jr. & Co., 1856), 3. [Hereinafter referred to as An address to the merchants.]

4 William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), 67.

5 Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1850.

6 Cronon, 70.

7 Ibid., 63.

8 An address to the merchants, 13.

9 Richard C. Overton, Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 6.

10 Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1850.

11 Mayer & Wade, 35.

12 An address to the merchants, 4.

13 Mayer & Wade, 38.

14 Carlton J. Corliss, Main Line of Mid-America: The Story of the Illinois Central (New York: Creative Age Press, 1950), 18.

15 George H. Douglas, Rail City: Chicago USA (San Diego: Howell-North Books, 1981), 27.

16 Ibid., 32.

17 Overton, 8-9.

18 An address to the merchants, 5.

19 Cronon, 71.

20 Ibid., 72.

21 Ibid., 71.

22 Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1852.

23 Douglas, 34.

24 Mayer & Wade, 38.

25 Douglas, 22.

26 An address to the merchants, 5.

27 "Economic Effect of Railroads"(1852) in The Annals of America, vol.8, "1850-1857: A House Dividing" (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1968), 178.

28 Stover, 5.

29 Douglas, 22.

30 Fourth Annual Review of the Commerce, Manufactures, and the Public and Private Improvements of Chicago, for the year 1855, with a full statement of her system of railroads: and a general synopsis of the business of the city, Copied from several articles published in the Daily Democratic Press (Chicago: Democratic Press Steam Printing House, 1856.), 49. [Hereinafter referred to as Annual Review for 1855.]

31 Stover, 75.

32 Chicago: Her Commerce and Railroads: Two Articles published in the Daily Democratic Press (Chicago: Democratic Press & Job Steam Printing Office, 1853), 11.

33 Douglas, 35-36.

34 Stover, 78.

35 "Economic Effect of Railroads," 179.

36 Stover, 77.

37 Ibid., 78-79.

38 Ibid., 79.

39 Ibid., 5.

40 Mayer & Wade, 35.

41 An address to the merchants, 5.

42 Annual Review for 1855, 22.