The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago
A Biography of
William Butler Ogden
(From Chapter 6: Mister Mayor)
Along with his furniture and personal possessions, Ogden had shipped his favorite riding horse Paddy to Chicago from Walton. In early April 1837 he and Paddy cantered from his house on the North Side down muddy, rutted Dearborn Street, clip-clopped across the floating three-hundred foot wooden Dearborn Street drawbridge and stopped in front of Cook's Coffee House on the southeastern corner of Dearborn and Lake Street. Draymen rattled by, their low wagons piled high with goods, and the muddy street bustled with men and women carefully picking their way across, trying to avoid the wagons, horse droppings and mud puddles. The small building had been one of the town's earliest hotels, but was now a favorite gathering place for town leaders.
Ogden went inside and entered a small room facing Lake Street. A light but cold breeze was blowing off the lake, and the white curtains at the open window billowed out like a spinnaker. There were three other men present. Francis Sherman, from Connecticut, had a prosperous brick-making business; and Ogden had met him during his first visit. Sherman was running for the new city's Common Council in the first ward. Peter Pruyne owned the town's drug store, and was running as a Democrat for the State Legislature. Then there was "Long John" Wentworth, all 6'6" of him, the editor of the town's first newspaper, the Chicago Democrat.
Wentworth was at once both Bunyanesque and Runyonesque, huge in stature and just as large and colorful in life. He was one of those characters that Chicago became famous for, and if he hadn't already existed, some creative journalist would have invented him. It was said of Wentworth that he had walked into Chicago barefoot, boots in his hand, so they wouldn't get caked with mud. Over his shoulder was slung a jug of whiskey to bathe his sore feet. He hailed from Sandwich, New Hampshire, and it was said that he didn't have a humble bone in his body.
All four men had one thing in common: they were Democrats in a town that was fast becoming Whig territory.
Wentworth got right to the point. He told Ogden the men would like to run him for mayor of Chicago. Though Ogden had only been in town for a little over a year, this was a city of newcomers like himself. He disliked politics, but he realized that politics and business were inexorably intertwined on this western frontier, and it would be to his benefit to be the city's first mayor.
The Whigs would be running John Harris Kinzie, son of one of the town's earliest settlers. Kinzie was a good man, but he believed Chicago would be best served by building more plank roads out into the countryside. The other men were all convinced the "iron horse" was Chicago's future.
Wentworth vowed he would throw the support of the Democrat behind Ogden's candidacy. It's likely he warned them that T. O. Davis, owner of the Chicago American, the town's second newspaper, would back his fellow Whig, Kinzie.
When Ogden accepted the men's offer, they laid out a bare-bones strategy for the next four weeks. Most municipal elections were ideologically non-partisan; the parties sought victory primarily to enjoy the spoils that went to the winner and his friends. The Whigs promptly dubbed Kinzie "the first born of Chicago," a campaign slogan they were confident would insure his election. That it was untrue was but a minor point. Kinzie did have the backing of most of the "Old Settlers," as the old-timers were known, including the popular and influential Gurdon Hubbard. He had served as the second president of the town board, ran a successful hardware/variety store, and had been popular years earlier with the fur traders, the Fort Dearborn crowd and the Indians. At first blush, it appeared the Whigs had a big edge.
Fortunately, time was too short and relationships too tight in the small city to make this the kind of acrid political race for which Chicago later became infamous. The Whigs did take one serious shot at Ogden in the American, calling him "a transient speculator," a strategy that ultimately backfired.
There were six wards in the city, thus six polling places. Three inspectors were appointed for each. Voting was done viva voce with each person approaching the table where the votes were recorded and announcing his choice for all to hear. When the final tally was made, Ogden won handily, 489 to 217. He had won the count in all six wards, even Kinzie's own ward, where he won by one vote. However, future friends J. Young Scammon and Walter Newberry both cast their ballots for the losing Kinzie. The low vote count was due partially to the fact that only men could vote, and also because many men were newcomers and had yet to take a civic interest.
On May 3, 1837, William B. Ogden took the oath of office as the first Mayor of the City of Chicago: "I do hereby swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, the constitution of the State of Illinois, and I will fully discharge the duties of the office of Mayor for the City of Chicago according to the best of my abilities."
On May 10, New York City banks suspended payment on specie. Banks around the country followed suit, and U. S. financial markets went into a tailspin. Banks immediately restricted credit and called in loans; depositors rushed to their banks to withdraw their funds. This run on the banks would eventually force forty percent of the nation’s banks to fail, and another ten percent to approach failure.
Ogden and his constituents were dazed. Real estate prices plummeted and eastern capital dried up immediately. Land that had been valued at one thousand dollars before the collapse was now worth fifty dollars, yet the speculator’s debt on the near-worthless property remained at one thousand dollars. Ogden tried to move forward with some of the more important civic projects. When his term began, the city had $1,993 in the treasury. He applied for a twenty-five thousand dollar loan from the State Bank of Illinois for a street drainage project and additional fire equipment; but the request was denied. He went ahead with the plan to purchase the fine engines anyway as they were desperately needed in the growing city. In a letter on July 5th to the supplier, Seely & Porter of Rochester, New York, he wrote in spectacular understatement, “would not larger wheels . . . be better for us as our streets are not paved and are often muddy.”
Ogden’s friend Martin Van Buren won the election to the Presidency later that same year. Both men must have questioned the wisdom – or at least the timing – of their run for public office.