J. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) Currey.

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powering the Board of Trustees of the Town of Chicago to dispose of wharfing priv-
ileges was inconsistent with the authority that should properly be vested in the
Canal Board. The legislature passed an act to amend the section previously quoted
The effect of this amendment quite altered the situation, and naturally gave rise
to much litigation. It provided "that so much of the sixth section of the act to which

his is an amendment, relating to the powers of the trustees of said town to lease
the wharfing privileges shall not be so construed as to empower said trustees to

Mate or make any lease of said privileges for any one term longer than five years-

nor shall any lease as aforesaid be so construed as to give any lessee power to erect

any building, store house or other buildings than a wharf for loading or unloading

ds, wares, merchandise or other articles on said wharfing privileges, and all

uses, buildings, stores and out houses heretofore erected upon any ground or land

situate, lying and being between the south line of South Water street and the north

line of North Water street, in said town as laid out by the commissioners of the

linois and Michigan canal, shall be deemed nuisances, and may and shall be

The mischief had been done, however, and there could not fail to be a crop of

lawsuits to follow the contradictory legislation above quoted. Within a decade

lost of the property, much of which had already changed hands, was in dispute

ther between private parties and the City of Chicago, which had meantime been

corporated, or between the city and the Board of Canal Commissioners "The

ties," says Andreas, "rightly decided that something must be done and


done quickly, to settle the validity of titles, as on account of the bitter disputes,
some of the property had been abandoned completely, and the benefits were being
derived to a great extent by non-owners."


Accordingly an act was passed February 27th, 1847, which was entitled "An
act to adjust and settle the title to the wharfing privileges in Chicago." The pre-
amble of this act states the condition of affairs in clear language. "Whereas,"
it says, "those portions of land, or parts of South Water, North Water, West Wa-
ter and East Water streets, in the original town of Chicago (on the sides of said
streets nearest the river) which lie eighty feet distance from the lines of the lots
laid out on the sides of said streets furthest from the river, sometimes known as
the 'wharfing privileges,' are now, and have been for a long time past, made the
subject of much controversy between different persons and corporations claiming
title to the same; and whereas, as they are now situated, neither the city of Chi-
cago, nor any person or any body incorporate, derives any benefit from the same,
except the persons who are occupying them, but they are a fruitful source of dis-
cord, dissatisfaction and illegal violence; and whereas, it is for the benefit of all
parties claiming an interest therein, that the questions arising as to the title to the
same shall be settled and determined as speedily as possible; now therefore,

"Be it enacted by the people of the State of Illinois, represented in the General
Assembly: That the Common Council of the City of Chicago shall have full power
and authority to discontinue and vacate any part or portion [of the streets previ-
ously named] . . . and to compromise, adjust and determine all conflicting
rights or claims arising between the city and any or all persons and corporations
who are or may be claimants of such portion of said streets or wharfing privileges."

It was in consequence of the act just quoted, and of an amendment to the same
some years later, and the adjustments effected under their authority, that the titles
to the "wharfing lots and privileges" were eventually settled, so that owners went
on and placed upon them the buildings that we see today along the water fronts
of the Chicago river.


When Joliet, on his world-renowned voyage of discovery in 1673, passed over
the Chicago portage from the west to the waters of Lake Michigan, he became im-
pressed with the importance of a waterway to connect the Mississippi and its tribu-
taries with the great lakes. "There would be but one canal to make," said he, "by
cutting only one-half a league of prairie to pass from the Lake of the Illinois [Lake
Michigan] into St. Louis river," referring to the Desplaines and Illinois rivers. But
when La Salle passed that way, in 1682, he took an unfavorable view of Joliet's
suggestion. Among the difficulties would be, he said, that there was not water enough
either at the entrance to the Chicago river or in the channel of the Desplaines river;
that vessels could not resist the spring freshets in the Chicago river, "much heavier
than those in the Rhone," and that periods of low water and freezing up in winter
would render navigation impossible for the greater part of the time during the re-


inaiiider of the year. He further said that he would not have mentioned the matter
in his letter "if Joliet had not proposed it without regard to difficulties." 3

This view was confirmed by Father Hennepin in his account of a visit made about
the same time to this locality. "The country between the said creek [the Chicago
river] and the Divine [Desplaines] river [is not] fit for a canal," he wrote "for
the meadows between them are drowned after any great rain, and so a canal will be
immediately filled up with sands. And besides it is impossible to dig up the ground
because of the water, that country being nothing but a morass."

For more than a century the struggle for existence smothered all dreams of com-
mercial possibilities. Indian wars, wars between the French and English, and be-
tween the English and Americans, prevented consideration of improvements in the
waterways. The Treaty of Greenville, in 1795, provided that a tract of lan'd six
miles square, "at the mouth of the Chikago river," be ceded to the United States
by the Indians, and that the tribes allow "the people of the United States a free
passage by land and by water through their country, along the chain of posts
from the mouth of the Chikago to the commencement of the portage between that
river and the Illinois, and down the Illinois river to the Mississippi." * "This
clause," says Brown in his "Drainage Channel and Waterways," "may be considered
the first official suggestion of a canal across the Chicago Divide."

During the following years the feasibility of building a canal was frequently
mentioned in Congress. The plan was referred to in the issue of the Miles' Regis-
ter for August 6, 1814, as follows: "By the Illinois river, it is probable that Buf-
falo, in New York, may be united with New Orleans by inland navigation, through
Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, and down that river [ic] to the Mississippi.
fhat a route! How stupendous the idea! How dwindles the importance of the
artificial canals of Europe, compared with this water communication! If it should
ever take place (and it is said the opening may easily be made), the territory [of
[llinois] will become the seat of an immense commerce, and a market for the com-
modities of all regions." We have already referred to the Treaty of 1816, by which
the Indians ceded a tract twenty miles in width at the lake, that is, ten miles each
way from the mouth of the Chicago river, and extending a distance of some forty
miles in a southwesterly direction, thus including what would inevitably be the nat-
ural route for a canal.

The Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, made a report to Congress in 1819, in
which he mentioned the proposed canal from the Illinois river to Lake Michigan
"which the growing population of the state renders very important," and which
would be "valuable for military purposes." 5 On March 30th, 1822, Congress passed
an act "authorizing the State of Illinois to open a canal through the public lands
to connect the Illinois river with Lake Michigan," at the same time granting a strip
containing ninety feet of land on each side of the canal. The state legislature in
the following year provided for a board of commissioners to devise a plan and adopt
such means as might be required to build a canal between the Illinois river and
Lake Michigan. Engineers were employed who examined the route and estimated
the cost at seven hundred thousand dollars, an absurdly low estimate.

3 Cited by Brown. "Drainage Channel," p. 115.

4 "Indian Treaties," p. 187.

5 Moses. "History of Illinois," Vol. I, p. 462.
Vol. 114



This led to the passage of a law by the General Assembly in 1825, to incorporate
the "Illinois and Michigan Canal Association," with a capital of one million dol-
lars. 6 It was soon seen, however, that this being a corporation for pecuniary profit
to its prospective stockholders, assistance could not be expected from the general
government as was hoped for, and the act was repealed. In 1827 Congress granted
to the State of Illinois, "for the purpose of aiding her in opening the canal," the
alternate sections of the public lands on each side of the canal for five miles in width
along its entire route. 7 A new board of commissioners was provided for by the leg-
islature, and a new survey made which resulted in an estimate of four million dollars
as the cost of construction.

This staggered the promoters of the canal, and the project slumbered for some
years. In 1833 the legislature abolished the board of commissioners, thus undoing
its work for the second time. Finally, in 1835, it was again decided to go ahead
with the work, and on January 9th, 1836, the legislature passed an "act for the con-
struction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal," and ordered an issue of stock to the
value of half a million dollars, for the payment of which the faith of the state was
irrevocably pledged. It was also provided in the act that "the commissioners shall
select such places on the canal route as may be eligible for town sites, and cause them
to be laid off into town lots, including the canal lands in or near Chicago." The
revenue from the canal when completed and that from the sale of the lands granted
by Congress was also pledged for the payment of the interest on the stock, and for
the reimbursement of the principal. 8


The commissioners appointed were William F. Thornton, Gurdon S. Hubbard,
and William B. Archer. They determined, on the advice of the chief engineer, Will-
iam Gooding, to adopt the plan of a lake-fed canal sixty-feet wide at the water level,
thirty-six feet wide at the bottom, and having a minimum depth of six feet of wa-
ter. 9 Gooding had been formerly an engineer on the Erie Canal, completed in 1825,
which had a depth of only four feet, and convinced the commissioners that New York
had made a mistake in constructing a canal inadequate to its rapidly growing traffic.
The first plan under consideration had provided for a depth of four feet, and the
commissioners adopted the plan of a six foot canal, as advised by engineer Gooding,

6 J. W. Putnam. "Journal of Political Economy," 1909, p. 273.

7 The act of Congress, passed March 30, 1822, had granted to the state, for the purpose of
opening a canal "to connect the Illinois river with Lake Michigan," a strip containing "ninety
feet of land on each side of said canal," for the use of the state in building a canal, and "for no
other purpose whatever." The grant of "one-half of five sections in width, on each side of said
canal," under the act of March 2, 1827, was in addition to the "ninety-foot strip;" but with power
under the later act, "to sell and convey the whole, or any part of the said land," for the purposes
aforesaid, namely: "for the purpose of aiding the state in opening a canal to unite the waters of
Illinois river with those of Lake Michigan." Thus while the "ninety-foot strip" could not be
alienated, but must be used for a canal, the alternate sections five miles each side of the canal
could be sold to aid the state in building the canal and a title in fee-simple given therefor."
(Laws Relating to Illinois and Michigan Canal, p. 4.)

8 Brown. "Drainage Channel," p. 158.

9 Putnam: "Journal of Pol it. Econ." 1909, p. 277.

From ths Chicago American.



C A ]* A & BILL.

is with feelings of no ordinary pleasure that
lave received the intelligence of the passage ol
2anal Bill. We were not a little surprized from

By courtesy of Chicago Historical Society


Cut taken from Chicago Democrat for January 20, 1836

'", /^"'/Jr'r'/"' '"'"''""''/'"'*"*" ' ">'"'* "'"""/^ts' ""/"f. "".

By courtesy of Chicago Historical Sooietv



"because they were convinced," says Professor Putnam in his "Economic History
of the Illinois and Michigan Canal," "that the increased utility of the larger canal
would more than counterbalance the increased cost of construction."

These two plans were referred to in the discussions regarding the proposed canal,
one as the "shallow cut," the other as the "deep cut." It began to be realized by
the commissioners that the old estimate of four million dollars as the cost of the
proposed canal was entirely too low, but relying on the great and increasing value
of the land grants, reinforced by the pledge of the state's credit, they boldly went
ahead and let contracts for a portion of the "Summit division." Under the condi-
tions of the act of January 9, 1836, the six per cent canal bonds had become market-
able securities, and a loan of half a million dollars was readily negotiated in New
York, at a premium of five per cent. 10


There was great rejoicing in Chicago when the news was received that the
legislature had passed the law which authorized the beginning of the work on the
canal. There was now a good prospect that at last the dirt would begin to fly, and
that the hopes cherished through long years of anxious waiting were to become ac-
complished facts. The population of Chicago at this time was about 3800, and
the town was growing fast. The construction of a canal had been the subject of so
much discussion during the previous thirteen years, that great numbers of settlers
from the East had been attracted to this spot and the neighboring territory; the
prevalent belief being that here was to be the gateway of an extensive commerce,
and that the canal would be its principal artery.

When the construction of the canal was at length assured, western immigration
received a new impetus, ll every avenue of approach and every means of comr
munication being taxed to its utmost capacity. There were, indeed, other reasons
for the great influx of new arrivals in this city and its vicinity, such as the settle-
ment of the Indian troubles, the cheapness and fertility of the lands, and the
convenient access by lake to eastern markets now that the Erie Canal was in opera-
tion. But the canal at this period was uppermost in the thoughts of the people of
northern Illinois, just as a few years later the railroads became the object of their
hopes. "The Canal, which had excited public attention for fifteen years," says the
Democrat, "was to be commenced. . . . The cares, labors, anxieties and disap-
pointments of the past were forgotten in the joyful anticipation of the future." 12
It is to be noted that the initial letter of the word "Canal" was always printed with
a capital letter in the newspapers of that time.


The act was passed January 9th, 1836, and on the 13th the news reached Chi-
cago. A meeting was held at the Tremont House, with Colonel Richard J. Hamil-
ton in the chair. The object of the meeting was "to take into consideration the
propriety of making some public demonstrations of joy on account of the passage

10 Putnam. "Jour. Polit. Econ." 1909. pp. 277, 280.

11 Brown. "Drainage Channel," p. 151.

12 The Chicago Democrat Jan. 20, 1836.


of the Canal bill," and it was resolved "that a committee of ten be appointed to
make arrangements for carrying into effect the objects of the meeting." The chair
appointed to this committee H. Pearsons, J. H. Kinzie, G. W. Snow, J. C. Good-
hue, A. Garrett, G. W. Dole, G. Kercheval, G. H. Walker, E. Peck and J. L.

It was also resolved that a gun be fired for each of the members of the legis-
lature who had voted for the bill; and that the editors of the two weekly papers,
the Democrat and the American, should be requested to publish the names of the
"Ayes" and "Nays," as given on the final passage of the bill; and that the "Ayes"
be printed in capital letters, and the "Nays" in small italics. 13 The American
complied with this request in its issue of the 16th, and this amusing specimen of
typography is reproduced herewith for the entertainment of our readers. By this
it will be seen that the names of the unfortunate minority were not only printed in
small italics, but that even the initial letters of their names appeared in the same
ignominious type. The Democrat, whose day of issue was on the 20th, did not
print the names as requested in the resolutions, evidently regarding it as a need-
less repetition of what had already been printed in the other paper.


The day appointed for the beginning of the work on the canal was the fourth
of July, 1836. On that day there was the usual Fourth of July celebration and
the occasion was taken advantage of to combine with it the ceremonies of breaking
ground on the canal. A procession of leading citizens was formed, and the signal
for the start was given by firing three cannon shots from the fort. Some of the peo-
ple went by boats; others on horseback, in wagons, or afoot, followed the newly
opened Archer road to Bridgeport, where the celebration was to be held. After all
had assembled the Declaration of Independence was read and suitable addresses de-
livered. Colonel William B. Archer had the honor of turning the first spadeful of
earth. 14

It is related by Gale, in his "Reminiscences," that some of the irrepressible
youngsters in the crowd nearly robbed their elders of the glory of performing the
first act in the construction of the canal. Young Fernando Jones and another lad
filled the waiting wheelbarrow with "sacred earth," apparently when no one was
looking, and it was presently discovered that they had actually begun the work
themselves. But the boys, not being on the program of exercises, were quietly
ignored, and thus the records fail to recognize their presence.

One of the boats while on its way to the place of meeting, it is also related
by Gale, passed a party of Irishmen employed in a brickyard on the east bank of
the river at Adams Street, who insisted on being taken aboard. The boat being
crowded no stop was made. At this they were highly incensed, and upon the return
of the boat they assailed the excursionists with brickbats. But the party afloat,
filled with Independence Day enthusiasm, resented the attack; and the boat being
stopped some of the offending Irish were gathered in and later placed in the
"Watch House."

13 The Chicago American. Jan. 16, 1836.

14 Andreas. "Hist. Chicago." Vol. I, p. 168.



During the remainder of the year little actual progress was made, as roads had
to be built, houses for laborers erected, and machinery procured. Laborers were
hard to be found, so that it became necessary to insert advertisements in eastern
papers offering wages of from twenty to twenty-six dollars a month for hands. Va-
rious acts of the legislature were passed to provide funds as the work made progress,
as it was soon found that the original amount of stock was inadequate. In 1837 the
great financial panic occurred which embarrassed the work. The State Bank of
Illinois suspended specie payments, thus tying up a large amount of canal money
which had been realized from the sales of securities, and from sales of land at Chi-
cago and along the line of the canal. Further loans were authorized, but the fact
that at about that time the state, in its efforts to finance a vast scheme of internal
improvements, had become deeply involved in debt, rendered it increasingly difficult
to make further sales of canal securities.

Under an act of the legislature, passed March 2d, 1837, the canal board became
elective by the General Assembly, and subject to its control, instead of receiving its
appointment from the governor and being subject to his control, as its predecessor
had been. A new board was created consisting of W. F. Thornton, Jacob Fry and
J. A. McClernand; and Benjamin Wright was appointed special engineer. 15 Wright
made a report strongly supporting the plan previously adopted. "The Illinois and
Michigan Canal, as now projected and under construction," Wright reports, "may
truly be considered as one of the greatest and most important in its consequences
of any work of any age or nation. . . . It is the shortest artificial work with
the least lockage. The climate, soil, and the capability of productions of the coun-
try which will be benefited by the construction of this work, will certainly equal, if
they do not exceed any other part of the United States ; and when I view it in this
light, I think it justly merits to be executed upon the best and most permanent plan,
and will justify by its revenue any outlay which may be put upon it in reason." 16

Thus encouraged the commissioners continued the work with the means at their
command. From the proceeds of the earlier sales of bonds the board had, by the
end of the year 1837, expended $390,000 in work on canal construction. Meantime
Chicago had become incorporated as a city (March 4, 1837), and its population had
increased to 4,180. It was now the largest town in the state. 1T There was also a
sudden increase of transient population along the route of the canal where work was
going on, and great numbers of these "transients" became permanent settlers. The
Indians had been removed to their new reservations in 1836, and the people of Chi-
cago regarded matters as greatly improved by their removal.

A traveler passing through Chicago in August, 1838, kept a journal in which
he recorded some of his observations. This traveler was Dr. William Blanding of
Philadelphia, "a genial, cultured gentleman," and a copy of his journal in manu-
script is now in the possession of the Evanston Historical Society, through the cour-
tesy of W. J. C. Kenyon, Esq., of Chicago. "The Illinois Canal," he says, "is a
work of no small labor, level as the country is. Twelve miles from Chicago is the
deepest cut, which is thirty-two feet in limestone, of a good quality for building and

15 Putnam. "Jour. Polit. Econ." 1909 p. 279

18 Report of Canal Commissioners, 1838, p. 80.

" Moses & Kirkland's "Hist. Chicago," Vol. I, p. 102.


burning. ... By sinking the canal thus deep the water from the lake is used,
and, strange to tell, falls into the Mississippi. ... But for this rocky barrier,
Lake Michigan would soon find its way by the Mississippi to the ocean and rob
Niagara of part of its waters."


"It was a Herculean task that the young state had set for itself," writes Profes-
sor Putnam, "but, led on by that large optimism which has ever been characteristic
of the continually advancing West, the people of Illinois were not dismayed by the
magnitude of the undertaking. With prophetic vision they beheld the completed
canal bearing on its placid waters the products of the East, the West, the North,
and the South; they saw the cities, villages, farms, and factories which would ul-
timately come into being along its course. . . . For ten years the commercial
and industrial importance of the Erie canal had been a familiar story to the people
of Illinois, and they confidently expected to see that history repeated in their own

state." 18

Governor Thomas Ford in his inaugural message to the General Assembly, De-
cember 8, 1842, said, "if the canal progresses to completion, the lands and lots and
water power will be quadrupled in value, and the tolls alone would in a short time
pay interest on all the debt contracted for its construction." 19 The committee, to

Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.1) → online text (page 30 of 59)