The nation network of railroads laid from 1848 through the Civil War, and
the steam powered locomotives that traversed them, supplied Chicago with
vast new markets, resources, and people who quickly transformed it from a
quiet Frontier village into a highly populated industrial powerhouse. The
Chicago of 1830 was hardly a city at all. Fort Dearborn located near the
fork of what is now the Chicago River was bogged down with mud and
tormented by disease and Indian wars. By the 1833 when the city was
incorporated, a warehouse, dry good’s store, and hotel had all been built.
William B. Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago was also the first to attempt
to give Chicago a railroad. He chartered the Galena and Chicago Railroad
in 1836, but it collapsed with the economic disaster of 1837 (Berger 3).
Ogden tried again in 1846, and on October 22, 1848 Chicago’s first
locomotive, “Pioneer”, was loaded onto the tracks (Casey, Douglas 59). In
retrospect, “Pioneer” turned out to be a fitting name for the city’s first
train, because by 1866 there were more than forty railroads serving
Chicago and the city’s population had skyrocketed to just under 300,000.
There were many problems that needed to be resolved starting in the 1830s,
before a railroad could become a versatile enough to be a cost effective
carrier of freight and people. The nation’s original tracks had been
built mainly of wood, although cheaper than iron, it was quickly decided
that iron’s durability was well worth the extra cost. Another development
was the placement of ballas, or pebbles, that covered the bottom of the
tracks and added weight and stability along with drainage to the tracks.
Also, the trains were known to collide head on into grazing animals. The
problem lay in how to keep the animal from being pulled under the train
and causing it to derail. This answer came with the placement of a hood
plate on the front of the locomotive so that whatever hit the train would
be pushed harmlessly in front of it and could later be cleared without
endangering the train. Other major safety issues found solutions with the
utilization of lights and horns (Gordon 27-33). By 1848, when Chicago was
ready to start building railroads, the technology had already been
developed enough to conduct real business.
Charters for railroads leading to Chicago soon began to pour in.
After the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad was completed shortly after
1853, it merged with the Chicago and Northwestern Railway which began its
long march to Greenbay WI. Soon came the Illinois Central, the Chicago
Rock Island and Pacific, and the Chicago Burlington and Quincy. Many more
came and connected Chicago to nearly every part of the US (Gordon 151).
If one looked at a map of all the major trunk lines that stretched over
the United States, he would see “a wheel with Chicago as the hub” (Berger
22). The busy development of all these new railroads furnished the
developing Chicago with huge markets, to both the east and the west.
Chicago’s destiny as center of industry was set, but it would still take
some time for Chicago to take advantage of its potential.
The first of the markets was the ever-expanding frontier with its
agricultural surplus that lay to the west and north of Chicago. In the
frontier, a town’s distance from a railroad determined what its cost for
trade and travel would be. To minimize these costs, new cities and farms
popped up very close to the railroads (Martin 81). Train loads of New
Englanders came to these new villages in search of the free homesteads
that they saw in newspaper advertisements and pamphlets back home. These
men and women became the farmers who ended up producing surplus crops
which they desired to sell (Gordon 35). According to Mayer, as they
looked for their most profitable course of action, their goal was a
destination with the most choices of routes, the highest competition, and
therefore the lowest rates (Growth 122). With connections to many of the
nation’s railways, Chicago marked the spot to the farmers of the West.
Chicago was the perfect outlet to sell their heavy and relatively
inexpensive crops. The railroads in Chicago had laid the foundation for
its success limited only to the ingenuity of the capitalistic market.
To the east lay Chicago’s second market, New England. By the
1850s, this region was industrialized and was producing vast quantities of
manufactured goods. Facing much the same dilemma as the West, New England
realized that Chicago was a perfect spot to export its goods. A majority
of these “manufactured goods” was “through” traffic for Chicago and after
a short layover was loaded onto other trains to continue on west (Casey,
Douglas 122). These manufactured goods included building materials,
industrial tools, and hardware. Liking what they saw, the frontier
farmers became increasingly enticed to send their wheat, hay, cement,
lumber and wool to Chicago in exchange for money they spent purchasing
goods from back east. So began a cycle of trade between the East and West
on railroads that all went via Chicago.
Partially because of its central geographic location, but mainly
because it had so many railroads blossoming from it, Chicago became the
middle man between the East and the West, ensuring its future economic
success. Chicago provided markets where western settlers could buy
Eastern manufactured goods and sell farm produce, lumber, and other
Western products. By 1968, McCormick, a Chicago based firm was producing
over 10,000 soil-breaking implements annually (Mayer, Growth 46). But
manufacturing finished products was not the most logical calling for the
city that received ever-rising quantities of unfinished goods by rail. In
the mid 1850s, Chicago’s industrial sector found the city’s niche in
increasing the value of the products that it imported before sending them
out to market.
Starting in the 1850s, new industries took hold as Chicago began
to harness the vast quantities of raw resources obtainable by the
trainload and increase the value per pound to make a profit as it is sent
off on another railroad. According to Mayer, the needs of these companies
and not the plans of the city determined the pattern of railroad
development (Growth 44). The railroads had brought the resources that
finally ignited into the industries of Chicago. This industrialization
caused explosive growth in the building industry. From the first census
of 1837 the number of buildings had grown from under 500 to around 60,000
(Badger 4). As fast as industries could develop, railroads were laid with
door to door service, carrying with them the raw materials and shipping
out the end products. Nineteenth century Chicagoans were very supportive
of industrial development in Chicago. They viewed the smoke and pollution
outside as a signs of progress. In the early 1850s, Chicago’s iron
industry was still in its youth, but was able to grow with help from the
railroads. All three of the iron mill’s needed materials were hauled in
by train. The ore came from the Lake Superior Region, the fuel was found
in the coal of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Southern Illinois, and the limestone
was mined in Michigan. The belt line railroad which made one giant loop
around the city and connected to as many trunk railroads as possible
brought all three ingredients to their meeting places near the fork of the
Chicago River (Growth 52). Opening in 1851, the first mill was the North
Chicago Rolling Mills. In 1865, it was the first mill in the nation to
produce steel rails. This industry was so well suited for Chicago that by
1875, Chicago rolled more rails than any other American city (Berger 157).
Like the raw materials shipped by train for steel, grain became a
resource that Chicago needed for storing large quantities for use in the
livestock industry. The first steam-operated grain elevator was built in
1848 on the lakefront and in just four years, railroads accounted for the
majority of grain received in Chicago (Martin 166). By 1870 almost 60
million bushels arrived in Chicago annually. Chicago’s seventeen
steam-powered grain elevators could “pump or dump” an entire train’s load
worth of grain in just a few minutes time (Growth 46). The huge amount of
business regarding the buying and selling of the grain took place a few
blocks away at the Board of Trade, “the altar of Ceres,” where some became
rich and others poor. The large scale at which the grain came into
Chicago allowed Chicago’s largest industry to take hold.
Before 1864, most of the livestock coming to Chicago came by way
of cattle drives thus prohibiting the feasibility of wide scale
slaughtering in Chicago. On June 1, 1865 nine railroads with enough
interest in connecting branches to the stock yards put up enough money for
a consolidation project that was completed by Christmas of that same year
with a capacity to deliver over 1,000,000 cattle and hogs annually (Growth
44). The entire livestock industry was described by Mayer in Growth as a
process where “grain is condensed and reduced in bulk by feeding it into
an animal form, more portable (48). In this sense, very bulky and
inexpensive and animals arrived in Chicago and much more valuable pieces
of meat were packaged and placed on trains to be sold across the country.
By the mid 60s, Chicago’s slaughtering industry had grown to eight
stockyards, and Chicago was home to a third of all the slaughtering in the
nation (Stover 79). Opened in 1865, the Union stockyards were Chicago’s
largest and could hold 25,000 head of cattle, 80,000 hogs and 25,000
sheep. By 1867, the meat from these stockyards was being processed by
twenty-six packers who processed at least 5,000 hogs annually. Philip
Danforth Armour was opened in 1867 and could butcher 30,000 head a year.
Until the refrigerator car was developed in 1869, butchered hogs were
usually packed into wooden barrels to cure and then sent abroad aboard
numerous train lines. After 1869, meat-packers such as Gustavus Swift
revolutionized the meat industry by sending fresh meat across the nation
over rail (Stover 200). Beside the actual meat, many “by-products” soon
developed large markets of their own (Growth 52). One worker at Armour’s
was interviewed and exageratingly said “a cow goes lowin’ softy in and
comes out glue, gelatine, fertylizer, celoolid, joolry, sofy cushions,
hair restorer, washin sody, soap, … and bed springs” (Qtd. In Growth
54). The railroads in Chicago increased the numbers of factories,
elevators, mills, and depots. As Chicago continued to develop, its
expanding population would have to find new places, outside of downtown,
to live. The first to leave were the rich. These were the men who saw
light at the end of the tunnel, the railroad tunnel to be precise. They
opened their own businesses profiting on the production of new raw
resources that Chicago received as freight aboard trains. The mansions of
Marshall Field and Phillip Armour were the first on the South Side while
the West Side also provided new land for wealthy merchants, lumber
dealers, and manufacturers to build their homes. The North Side found
itself more isolated from the city as the river was always difficult to
cross due to the constant use of the numerous draw- bridges. Because of
the obstacle north of the North Branch of the Chicago River did not
attract many buyers and therefore retained an “aristocratic aura” to it
(Port 137). As Chicago grew into the new role as a commodities center, a
strong middle-class of shopkeepers, speculators along with doctors,
lawyers, and skilled artisans developed. These people lived in growing
communities of single-family homes on the outskirts of better
neighborhoods (Berger 66). Also much of the middle-class migrated to the
newly developing suburbs which popped up like beads around a string on the
railroad lines leaving the city” (Martin 67). The railroads provided
depots and daily passenger service that allowed these people to commute
into the city to their jobs. The Chicago and Northwestern Railway, with
its main line of 242 miles from Chicago to Greenbay was the route that
allowed Northern suburbs from Evanston to Lake Forest to become part of
the greater metropolitan Chicago. The working class, Chicago’s blue
collared labor supply, was also growing at a very fast rate. A portion of
the working poor initially came to work on the railroads and decided to
stay. Many were immigrants new to the country, while others had traveled
to Chicago in hopes of cashing in on its success. These men were the
longshoremen who unloaded cargo from trains, the warehousemen who moved
the grain to elevators, and the millers who ground the wheat down to flour
(Casey, Douglas 342). What they all shared were “the avenues” or the
small lots where several families live together in houses no bigger than
four rooms (Growth 54). Many of the streets remained littered and
unpaved, and the mortality rate was very high. At such close quarters,
different ethnic neighborhoods began to form. In the mix of their harsh
environment, close knit communities of Irish, German, Indians, Blacks,
Jews, Poles, and Swedes all were formed. In approximately twenty years
from the arrival of trains, Chicago found itself the forefront of industry
and the second most populated city in the country. The train along with
the need of the country for a central trade route had allowed Chicago to
form industries which continued to exist solely because of the continuous
support they received from the railroads. Chicago and the people who made
fortunes from industry located within Chicago had a lot for which to thank
the railroads. Like the locomotive’s successful ascent of a mountain in
the story of the Little Engine that Could, so did the little village of
Chicago grow to the top of the nation.
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of Chicago P, 1969.
—. The Port of Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago P, 1957.
Casey, J. Robert, and W.A.S Douglas. Pioneer Railroad: The Story of the
Chicago and Northwestern System. New York: Whittlesey House, Inc., 1948.
“Rail Center of the Nation.” World Book Encyclopedia. 1959 ed.
Stover, F. John. History of the Illinois Central Railroad. New York:
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975.