A builder and a booster

William Butler Ogden seated center in a group portrait. 
Like many states west of the Appalachians in the early 19th century, most of Illinois’ early leaders were born elsewhere and then came to the western frontier to find new opportunities.

Our state’s first governor, Shadrach Bond, was born in Maryland. Our first senators, Jesse Thomas and Ninian Edwards started out in Virginia and Maryland respectively, and our first congressman, Daniel Pope Cook, was born in Kentucky.

They were not the only early Illinois leaders who made their way west in those days. Another such traveler who came to Illinois and became an early leader was the Walton, New York-born William Butler Ogden, who in 1837 became the first mayor of Chicago.

“I was born close to a sawmill, was cradled in a sugar trough, christened in a mill pond, early left an orphan, graduated from a log schoolhouse and, at 14, found I could do anything I turned my hand to and that nothing was impossible,” he would later write.

It was that kind of spirit that came to characterize many of Chicago’s founders.

Ogden was born on June 15, 1805, and when his father died in 1825 he became the head of his family’s real estate business. He was appointed local postmaster by President Andrew Jackson and served in the New York State Senate before departing for Illinois.

He moved to Chicago at the age of 30 chasing an opportunity presented to him by his brother-in-law who had bought some land near the small town on Lake Michigan. This piece of land might have played a role in his support of infrastructure improvements in New York during the 1830s, including his backing of a railroad project to connect New York with Chicago, a project he hailed as, “the most splendid system of internal communication ever yet devised by man.”

Arriving in Chicago, Ogden quickly came to think that he had been had. The promising land was actually a swamp, and he wrote to his sister that the investment had been a “great folly.” But William Butler Ogden wasn’t easily deterred from a goal. He drained the swampland, divided it up and began reselling the smaller lots at a huge profit.

Like several before him, Ogden could see the potential in the town by the lake. Its geographical position astride the main trade arteries of the northern United States gave it the capacity to become the dominant city of the region, possibly the entire interior of the nation. Someone just had to step up, lead and make sure things were done the right way.

William Butler Ogden believed he was just the man for the job.

As a successful land speculator who had turned swampland into fruitful property, Ogden had caught the attention of other leaders in the growing community. Within months he was helping with the Illinois and Michigan Canal and was on the committee which was drafting a city charter for Chicago.

The Illinois General Assembly formally granted Chicago its city charter on March 4, 1837. The first order of business was selecting an inaugural mayor for the new city. Backed by many of the growing crowd of fellow transplants from the east coast, Ogden decisively defeated another city founder; John Kinzie, who had served as town president before the charter was granted; and became the first mayor of Chicago.

Ogden showed the way for a legion of future Chicago mayors who wished to go down in history as among the greats: he was a builder. In Ogden’s case, he was largely building from scratch.

Upon assuming office he set about creating or expanding some basic services like sidewalks and water infrastructure, later he would move on to attracting industry. A city with Chicago’s waterways would need many bridges to prosper, but would also need to ensure that they did not inhibit river commerce. To solve the problem, Ogden designed the first swinging bridge in the city.

Ogden had a vision of constructing great works, and he wasn’t one to let anything stand in his way. At times his methods were outright cruel: when a reluctant lakeside landowner refused to sell his property for one of Ogden’s projects he hitched a team of horses to the buildings and tore them down anyway.

Sketch of Ontario Street.
Image from the Illinois State Archives. 
He pushed through the taxes needed to fund his projects, and if they came up short he was known to reach into his own pocket to make up the difference. If that still wasn’t enough he would get the funds from New York investors, convinced by Ogden that the enormous potential of Chicago was well worth their investment.

Ogden served two years as mayor, then went to the city council. In his time in city government he helped to build up local industries and institutions. Among these were the McCormick Reaper Works, the factory which was helping create the equipment that a growing number of Midwestern farmers were using to make the region the nation’s breadbasket. The fact that their products needed to come through Chicago’s ports and rail yards in order to make it to faraway markets only served to further enhance the city’s stature.

He also backed the Rush Medical College, eventually becoming its president, and helped start the Chicago Board of Trade. One story indicates that Ogden had a good understanding of the kind of horse-trading that would characterize 19th century Chicago politics: he is said to have donated land for the city’s Holy Name Cathedral in order to secure the support of aldermen for his bridge projects. Whatever the reason, both the cathedral and the bridges got built.

Ogden left his mark on the city’s rivers as well, constructing a canal around a bend in the Chicago River. The North Branch Canal came to be known as Ogden’s canal. The island created from the canal wrapping around one side and the river around the other, near the present day intersection of Halstead and Division, is Goose Island, one of the city’s many industrial and transportation hubs.

Not long after leaving the mayor’s office, Ogden served as president of the Chicago and Michigan Steam Boat Company. The company’s ships carried passengers and freight throughout the Great Lakes and combined with rail lines to cut the travel time between Chicago and New York to less than a week by 1840. He founded one of the city’s first breweries in order to compete with more expensive eastern beer. By 1848 Ogden was possibly the city’s first millionaire.

Generations later, Chicago would earn the nickname “the Windy City,” not from its weather but from the long-windedness of its boosters who were constantly talking up the city to gain more investments. Mayor Ogden might have therefore been the original Windy City booster. But late in Ogden’s career this windiness was leading some eastern investors to be wary of the big claims coming from the city and its leaders. Ogden ran up against this impediment in 1847 when he sought to build a railroad west from the city to Galena, then a thriving Mississippi River port in an area with many profitable lead mines.

Chicago in 1857 

Failing in his mission to gain financial backing from the east, Ogden was not discouraged. He turned to the farmers of northern Illinois who would benefit from the easier farm-to-market possibilities of the rail line. He and his partner in the enterprise, J. Young Scammon, sold stock in the new Galena and Chicago Union Railroad to raise the $350,000 needed to start construction of the line.

It was the beginning of Chicago’s days as the rail hub of the Midwest. The railroad would eventually become part of the Union Pacific, which would eventually connect east with west – through Chicago, of course. Thanks in part to his role in the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, Ogden became Union Pacific’s first president.

Ogden was one of the founders of the Chicago Horticultural Society, and the home he constructed in the city was known for “good books, good pictures, good music and the most kind and genial reception.” Guests included such mid-19th century luminaries as statesman Daniel Webster and writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Cullen Bryant.

But tragedy was on the horizon. Retiring from politics, Ogden returned to New York, only to race back to Chicago after receiving word of the great fire in 1871. The fire had devastated rich and poor alike, and Ogden was no exception. He sought to determine if his home in the city had survived.

William Butler Ogden 
“I came to the ruined trees and broken basement wall: all that remained of my more than 30 years’ pleasant home,” he wrote. It wasn’t just his home that was claimed by the fire, but many of his business interests in the city had been reduced to ashes as well.

“Never before was a large and very beautiful and fortunate city built by a generation of people so proud, so in love with their work,” he wrote in the days after the fire. “Never a city so lamented and grieved over as Chicago.”

Six years later William Butler Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor and one of its greatest early boosters died, on August 3, 1877. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York. An Ogden Avenue in the Bronx was named for him, as was Ogden Avenue in Chicago.

His obituary in the Chicago Tribune recalled that “no one else in the history of the city better understood its prime commercial position, and no one did more to influence the world to appreciate it.”