HARDLY fifty years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth white men found their way to the site of the great city of the West. A small river flowing into Lake Michigan, and the short portage connecting it with a tributary of the Mississippi, had long afforded the natives their best communication between the Father of Waters and the Great Lakes. Hither, in 1673, they led Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, returning from their famous discovery of the Upper Mississippi, who doubtless thus became the earliest of Europeans to behold the stretch of sand and swamp at the mouth of the little stream. The word “ Chicago ” probably appears first in Marquette’s journal of his visit to this region the following year, in the term ” Chieagou-essiou,” the title of an Illinois Indian who was, he says, much esteemed in his nation. This may have been the noted chief who, according to the tradition of after years, was drowned in the Chicago River, and whose appellation was given to it and to its shores. The place certainly was known by its present name to the great La Salle, who dated a letter written June 4, 1683, at “ Portage de Checagou.” Soon after its discovery it became the objective point of the fur traders, missionaries, travelers, and colonizers who followed hard upon the footsteps of the first explorers. As early as 1685 a fort was built there, commanded by an officer in the Canadian service, and before the end of the seventeenth century the Jesuits made it the site of a mission. Such were the beginnings of Chicago.
For many years little change occurred. French settlers on the Mississippi sometimes communicated with Canada by the Chicago route. But Indian hostilities interfered with this line of travel, and the few notices of the place in the first half of the eighteenth century relate mostly to expeditions against savage tribes. At the close of the old French war the territory ceded by France to England included Chicago, and in the war cf the Revolution it was once, at least, the point of assembly for forces menacing the posts held by Virginian troops in the Illinois country. When that contest ceased, it became a place of refuge for a family or two who had removed here from more exposed portions of the border. It seems to have had a certain prominence in the minds of those who knew anything of the West in the early day, and by the treaty of Greenville, in 1795, Anthony Wayne expressly stipulated for the cession to the United States of the Indian title to a piece of land, six miles square, at the mouth of the Chicago River. Yet in that year, so far as we now know, there was but one settler on the site of Chicago, aside from the Indians, a negro from San Domingo, engaged in the fur trade. A hundred years and more had passed since the discovery of the place, and this was all the promise it gave of future greatness.
Early in the present century our government established there a frontier post, which did not withstand the Indian allies of Great Britain in the war of 1812. Its evacuation was closely followed by the massacre of its garrison, which seemed to quench the tiny spark of civilization at this point forever. Yet it was very soon rekindled, and gradually a little village began to straggle over the prairie, but so forlornly that a distinguished engineer officer of our army, who visited it in 1823, was of the opinion that Chicago offered no inducement to the settler, and could hardly become of any commercial importance. It continued to grow, however, and in 1835 attained a town organization. Two years later, or fifty-five years ago, it became a city, though then, perhaps, the smallest in the land. To-day it is second only to New York in population, which has increased from four thousand in 1837 to twelve hundred and fifty thousand in 1892, while its area has been enlarged from the ten square miles of its first city charter to the one hundred and eightytwo square miles of to-day.
The causes which have led to this marvelous growth may well attract attention. They are not far to seek. The same reasons which induced the natives to erect their wigwams there controlled those who followed them. It was the point at which the passage from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi was easiest and most direct. Its little river furnished the only harbor for many miles along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, and for those journeying by land around the southern end of the lake it was the natural halting-place. When the fur trade began, the bateaux followed the route of the canoe, and came there to make the portage, or in time of high water to dispense with it. When the need for better communication arose, the canal took the place of the portage and the river, and commerce adhered to the ancient lines. When railroads were built from the eastward, this was the terminus to which they were obliged to come, after winding around Lake Michigan. The first vessels found there a haven where cargoes could be discharged and loaded along its river banks. By its geographical position, Chicago has become on the one hand the port of the great inland seas, and on the other the distributing centre of the vast and fertile Northwest. There is a power in its situation which is far reaching and irresistible. This is well illustrated by the fact that important railways, originally constructed to carry business past Chicago, have been turned by this compelling force into tributaries to it. It is also shown by the significant circumstance that not a dollar of the city’s money or credit has ever been given or pledged to any railroad company, an instance unique in the history of Western cities. Chicago never sought a railroad ; all of its thirty-one lines of railway sought it. The natural advantages of the location, first of all, have made Chicago what it is, and they are as potent to-day as ever.
To these must be added the climatic influences, which have played no mean part in this development. The great isothermal line which is the high-water mark of trade and commerce in the leading marts of the world passes through Chicago. That American atmosphere, which always changes men of European race into a different people from their ancestors, is here intensified by the proximity of the broad inland seas on the one hand, and the boundless prairies on the other. Of this are born the energy, the hopefulness, and the enterprise that have been powerful factors in the city’s expansion. The healthfulness of its climate, which, notwithstanding the adverse conditions produced by the suddenness of its growth, keeps its death - rate, as a rule, lower than that of any other great city in the world, is also in its favor. Nature, with her lake winds and prairie breezes, maintains the purity of the air, despite man’s devices to the contrary. To these circumstances add an unequaled summer climate, which permits business to proceed at its normal rate, when impeded in other cities by the heat, and we recognize the beneficial effect of atmospheric causes upon the life of Chicago.
Another element to be taken into account is the composite and remarkable make-up of its people. Let it be remembered that for half a century men have been attracted to this place by its unrivaled opportunities for the transaction of business. It is not too much to say that they have been, to a great degree, picked men, and in their youth, and this concentration of young blood has been a fountain of energy. The city comprises in its manifold population natives of every region under the sun ; but it is not simply that there are so many names upon its muster roll from so many different climes, but that these are the selected men of their various races, animated by a common purpose, and working together for those things which make their city great in more ways than one.
Such being some of the causes, it may be well to consider what they have produced. The result has been a community which, though still in its youth, has become a unique entity, possessing certain well-defined characteristics of its own. The untiring energy of its people is that which is most apparent. It is noticeable in the very appearance of the throngs which fill its streets, in the rapidity with which its buildings and business undertakings are completed, and in the promptness with which all work is done. Whether by example or by atmospheric effect, it is contagious, so that the new-comer soon feels himself borne along by the rush, and instinct with a new vitality. This quality has inspired the grappling with grave problems concerning the city’s welfare, and their solution, regardless of all considerations of expense. It has accomplished great works; it will accomplish still greater ones in the future.
Without doubt the leading trait of the citizens is their public spirit, their desire and intention to do in many ways the best for their city as a whole. A signal instance of this, and upon a large scale, was the change of the level of the city. Built originally upon the flat prairie, its elevation was not sufficient to secure proper drainage. When this became patent to the community of not more than eighty thousand souls, in 1855, all agreed that a sufficient remedy must be found at once. By a simple resolution of its common council, the grade of the whole city was raised seven feet, and the streets were brought with great rapidity to the changed level. A novel industry sprang up, by which whole blocks of buildings and large hotels were successfully elevated to the new grade, while business went on in these structures almost without interruption. Again, the water system became insufficient, and straightway a tunnel, two miles long, was driven under Lake Michigan, to obtain an abundant supply of the pure element; later it was continued under the whole city to a distributing point nearly three miles inland, and to-day new tunnels, four miles long, are burrowing under the lake to increase and better the supply. At the present time the drainage problem has again presented itself, to be met by the legislation of the State and city, involving the expenditure of many million dollars, to restore for this purpose the prehistoric connection of Lake Michigan with the valley of the Mississippi, and to compel the Chicago River to reverse its course.
The unconquerable determination of the typical Chicago man has been repeatedly shown, but most grandly in the rebuilding of the city after its well-nigh total destruction by fire, twenty years ago. A conflagration which destroyed the business centre and swept over an area of more than three square miles, annihilated property of the value of two hundred million dollars, and rendered a hundred thousand people homeless seemed a calamity from which the city could not recover. But its people, their immediate needs supplied by the world’s generosity, began the work of reconstruction while the embers were glowing, and carried it to such swift completion that within three years buildings were erected of greater capacity than those burned, and of more than twice their value.
Mention should also be made of the remarkable prevision of the city’s future which has led its citizens again and again to provide in advance for the demands of its growth. When the first water tunnel was constructed to a point then sufficient for the needs of the people, another section was built still further into the lake and temporarily closed, ready for the commencement of the extension which the expected increase of population would render necessary. So, too, when attention was directed to the importance of beautifying the city and of furnishing driveways and breathingspaces, a system of parks and boulevards was forthwith adopted by popular vote, on a scale large enough for a million souls, although the census then gave Chicago a population of but two hundred and fifty thousand. These great works, commenced in the outlying prairies, seemingly too far away to be of any avail for a century to come, now comprise a grand total of twenty-two hundred acres of pleasure-grounds and seventy miles of drives, all in use by the people of the city which they girdle with a zone of beauty. The perfection of this grand system, and the readiness with which its enormous cost has been met, are alike remarkable.
All these characteristics are supplemented by the feeling of pride in their city which leads the best citizens of Chicago to labor unselfishly for it when the occasion demands. This feeling set on foot and perfected the organization which made known to the country the advantages of Chicago as the site of the World’s Fair, and won for it that honor. In obedience to it, men of the highest standing in business and the professions laid aside all other duties, and made the round trip of two thousand miles, to and from the national capital, to advocate the choice of their city as the fitting place for the celebration of the discovery of America. It has harmonized all local differences, provided more than Chicago’s promised contribution, and inspired the unanimous determination of its citizens that this celebration shall be all it should be, for the sake of Chicago. This splendid civic pride is moving the very men who have the responsibilities of this great undertaking upon their shoulders to begin to plan for the city a permanent memorial of its connection with the World’s Fair, worthy of the success which they know it is to have. It has been asked recently whether diligent search would discover in either New York or Chicago anything of the devotion to the city as a personality which distinguished the people of Florence and Venice. It may be truly replied that there is something of this spirit in the Western metropolis, and, though it may fall short of the mediaeval ideal, its existence is surely a good omen.
These natural causes and personal characteristics have led to grand material results. Their union has made Chicago, in various departments of business, the most important market and the principal railway centre in the world. They have given it a system of docks comprising thirty-five miles of frontage, and a lake commerce of ten million tons burden annually. They have created in different lines of trade the most extensive establishments anywhere known, and they have afforded the opportunities for a remarkable number of instances of marvelous financial success on the part of men who began poor and alone, at the foot of the ladder, and now stand on its topmost round. Their ceaseless operation adds annually to Chicago a greater number of buildings than the whole city comprised thirty years ago. There is apparently no limit to this wonderful development. To the question whether there are any indications of its proceeding at a less rapid rate than heretofore, the current report of the Commissioner of Public Works makes answer. It states that twelve thousand buildings, occupying a frontage of fifty-three miles and costing fifty-five million dollars, were erected during 1891, and that the population is increasing at the rate of more than one hundred thousand a year.
In all communities material prosperity precedes great results in other directions. With such a history of business success, what is Chicago’s record on the moral side ? Its six hundred churches speak well for the zeal of its religious denominations ; its public school system, providing for one hundred and fifty thousand children, at an annual expenditure of more than four million dollars, is one of the best in the country; and its fine hospitals and other charitable institutions are worthy of the age in which we live. Some of them are founded by the noble bequests of individuals, and some by those who prefer to be their own executors. A signal example of the latter class is that of one man who is doing the work of a thousand, and is expending under his own eye a million or more upon an institution for the public good, comprising a free dispensary, readingroom, mission and manual training school, and a square of apartment buildings which furnish the income to maintain the several departments, and are a model object lesson to all desiring to bring the comforts and graces of life within the reach of those of small means. While it may not be said that the city’s moral progress is commensurate with its material advance, and much remains to be done, yet such instances are a promise and an inspiration for the future.
The city has developed intellectually in a ratio not disproportionate to its material growth. Some of the outward and visible signs are its great libraries, which bid fair to make it a city of books. The Chicago Public Library, supported by general taxation, has accumulated one hundred and seventy-five thousand volumes, increases at the rate of twenty thousand annually, has a general circulation of twelve hundred thousand, and is the seventh in size in our country. The new Chicago University Library takes rank in a single day as the third of our great libraries by the purchase of three hundred thousand volumes at Berlin. Other institutions were preparing to negotiate for this collection, when a few citizens of Chicago subscribed the requisite sum, and secured the prize by cable. The Newberry Library, of recent organization, already comprises eighty thousand volumes, is about to be housed in a superb library building, and has an endowment of three million dollars. The Crerar Library is soon to be established, with a fund of the same amount. Some of the rarest literary treasures in books and manuscripts are in the possession of the private collectors of Chicago. Its bookstores and publishing houses show the concern of its people for other than things material. Its many literary organizations are proofs of the general interest in literature in a wide sense, and the welcome which men of intellectual eminence receive is that of a community in touch with what is best and newest in science and letters. In the sphere of art good work is going on, and rapid progress has been made. Flourishing classes and schools provide instruction for more than eight hundred students. In many private houses works of art are treasured, and the collections of the Art Institute are well worthy of note. This institution has outgrown its present very creditable building, and is soon to remove to a magnificent structure in the heart of the city. In the domain of music Chicago is prominent. It has drawn from many lands those who have made it one of the homes of the divine art. The numerous associations devoted to its culture and enjoyment reveal a music-loving community that rejoices in the success of the effort which has established the Thomas Orchestra in its midst. An event of special moment in the intellectual history of the city is the founding of the new Chicago University by generous gifts from abroad, well supplemented by aid at home. Its organization is hardly yet completed, but it already numbers among its corps some of the most eminent instructors on either side of the Atlantic, and fifteen hundred students have applied for admission to its classes before the opening of its doors. A university cannot be built in a day, yet certainly this is a notable beginning.
In the daily life of the citizens, among the matters worthy of notice is the course of their principal clubs. Though established largely for social purposes, these associations recognize and perform a duty toward the public. The Union League, with more than a thousand members, is a leader in municipal reform and improvement, and has instituted an annual celebration of Washington’s birthday which arouses and strengthens the feeling of patriotism in the community. The Commercial Club, composed of sixty or more of the leading business men, who dine together monthly and discuss some topic of public interest, has founded a manual training school, and given largely to other good works. The influence of such organizations is most beneficial. They inspire individuals to undertake the accomplishment of important works for the public good, and assure the support which may be needed. It may fairly be said that Chicago is distinctly an American city. American ways and ideas are dominant, partly for the reason that so many of its citizens are native born, but also for the reason that men of other countries, coming here, seem to leave behind their national beliefs, and to conform readily to those of the great republic. The prevailing sentiment among them is that their children shall become American citizens. At the centennial of Washington’s inauguration, the committee in charge of the celebration in the public schools was asked to print copies of the programme of exercises in foreign languages. Although, as it happened, the members were all of foreign birth, they nevertheless resolved with one accord that none but the English tongue should be used on that occasion. This is one indication of the depth and unanimity of the national feeling in the city which made its commemoration of the birth of our nation one of the most memorable in the whole country.
With so much to be proud of, it is not remarkable that boastfulness should be attributed to the citizens of Chicago. It is the fault which arises most naturally, in such a state of things. It has been suggested that it will cure itself by its inability to keep pace with the city’s expansion, or because, as a recent visitor puts it, “ Chicago beats its own brag.” But its correction should result from its citizens becoming thoughtful and silent in presence of the new responsibilities which come with this unprecedented growth. Another fault, undoubtedly, is the disposition to assume that the near future will right whatever may be wrong, and to leave the present to take care of itself. This accounts in part for the lack of finish which prevails, and the tendency to overlook the little things, which, after all, are a large part of life. To this is due the unkempt appearance of many of the streets, the toleration of the grievous smoke nuisance, and the uncleanly condition of the city. It is a reproach to its people, who make light of great undertakings and are ready to do so much on a large scale, that they willfully neglect those lesser matters which are in their way as important as the greater ones. The incongruity between fine structures and their surroundings, and the sharp contrasts between the new and the old which occur in the same neighborhood, offend the eye and mar the general appearance of the city. Time may bring a remedy, but concerted effort should be directed to the removal of these blemishes.
The chief defect of Chicago is in the matter of its local government, which is in especial disrepute just now. Its valuable franchises, which should have paid its municipal expenses, have been parted with for a song, and a number of its aldermen are under indictment for corruption. It is true that this evil is more or less general in our land, and high authority has pronounced the government of cities the one conspicuous failure of this country. But there is less reason for this in Chicago than in other large cities, and therefore its people are the more to blame. It is too new a place to be under the influence of tradition or long habit. It does not spring from roots struck into colonial soil, but is a city of to-day, with almost unlimited power over its own present and future. Its people, moreover, have shown again and again that they can stand for and accomplish the right, if they choose. When a ring of rascals possessed themselves of the taxing power in one large division of the city, a monster mass meeting compelled their resignation. When both political parties made unfit nominations for important local offices, an independent ticket was put in the field, at a day’s notice, and elected. When the foes of law and order became dangerous, they were throttled with an iron grip, and on the spot where the demon of anarchy was quelled a statue was placed in honor of the valiant defenders of law and order, bearing the memorable inscription, “ In the name of the people of Illinois, I command peace.” The indictment of its present unworthy servants is another manifestation of the same spirit, and it has repeatedly happened that the people, after enduring abuses in the good-humored American fashion, have arisen and punished the wrong-doers. But these spasms of virtue do not remove the vice, and the need of more radical reform is apparent.
It is the more remarkable that there should be any toleration of such evil in Chicago while its citizens have constantly before them examples of what local government should be in their own park commissions. The contrast between their work and that of the common council ought to cause the most thoughtless citizen to pause and consider the reasons for the difference. The park commissioners, appointed upon a non-partisan basis and following good business methods, have wisely expended twenty million dollars with the most admirable results, and administer their great trusts so perfectly as to leave no room for criticism. The aldermen, for the most part the creatures of local politics, uphold the spoils system and mismanage the city affairs.
The New York Municipal Commission of 1876, whose very able report is a document not without honor save in its own country, agreed upon certain requisites for good municipal government. Some of these Chicago already possesses. It is entirely free from interference by the state legislature, and there is a constitutional limitation upon its power to incur indebtedness. It has no financial burden, since its total debt of but fifteen million dollars is not as much as its annual expenditure for city purposes. It is possible that it could adopt other remedies suggested, such as the election of a part or all of its common council upon a general ticket, and the creation of a second municipal board, to be chosen by taxpayers alone. But most of all it needs what this commission very earnestly recommended, the elimination of party politics from its local government. To this add the application of civil service reform rules to all of its municipal departments, and the city will be saved from its greatest danger.
It is strange indeed that a people so successful in all other spheres of business should permit mismanagement in that which concerns them more nearly than any other matter, and is more exclusively their own affair. There are, however, signs of the times which are encouraging. The formation of a Smoke Prevention Association and of a City Cleaning League, and the increase in the numbers of the independent voters, tell of an awakened public spirit which may lead to the best results. This typical American city, in which, more emphatically than elsewhere, democracy and civilization are both on trial, cannot afford to let either lose its cause. If its people will be true to what is best in its record and what is most characteristic of themselves, they will have a future of which others may boast, and a city of which the whole country may be unreservedly proud.
Edward G. Mason.