Tuesday, March 29, 2011

This Yankee Rebel was Repulsed by Chicago in 1857 - Perhaps One Reason he Later Chose the South

Henry arrived in Chicago in the evening of March 11, 1857.  He was on his way to Milwaukee, where his employer, A. P. Marshal, had set up a new engineering office, after closing out his business in Portland, Maine. Henry had left Springfield, MA more than two days before on a cold and uncomfortable trip over four different railroads, so he was happy to find a bed in a hotel. 

Even after a refreshing night of sleep, Chicago in the light of day turned out to be Henry's first big disappointment in the West:

As the train did not leave until half past nine, I had some little time to walk about.  I was going to say look about, but that you can't do - that is to any great extent, the whole city being "flat as a flounder" in fact a miserable filthy, dirty, swamp of a mud hole.  I would not wish to live there on any account.  I did not see it in its worst phase though for it was mostly frozen up, it being as cold as Labrador that morning.  I believe that city to be a God-forsaken, Mammon-worshipping, Devil-serving, unchristian, abominable filthy sink of iniquity in a most superlative degree.

Chicago must have been a mess in March 1857.  The city had been growing on marshy soil only a few feet above the level of Lake Michigan.  By 1855, six successive years of cholera epidemics convinced city and state officials that they would have to establish a regular sewer system.  Chief Engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough determined that the city was indeed so flat that sewage would not drain adequately into the Chicago River.  He convinced the Board of Sewerage Commissioners to lay out the sewer system, as well as gas and water mains, above the existing streets, and raise the grade level of the streets from six to ten feet throughout the city using fill dredged from the Chicago River.  Existing buildings were either jacked up to the new level or modified so that an original upper floor became the new ground floor.  This ambitious project had no doubt made Chicago even muddier than usual in 1857, but Henry apparently did not stay long enough during this first visit to appreciate the magnitude of the sewer project.

The expression "sink of iniquity" also suggests that he was shocked by the laxity of public morals in this relatively new city. He had been raised in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire, under the kindly but watchful eye of his father, a Congregational Minister.  Perhaps Henry had even been approached by a prostitute, an experience much more likely in Chicago than in Portland, where he had finished high school and served his apprenticeship. In any case, he had little desire to learn more about Chicago at this time, and hurried to take the first available train to Milwaukee.

After this experience, Henry never did learn to appreciate Chicago.  I seem to have inherited this attitude, but to overcome my prejudices about the city, I am reading William Cronon's excellent book, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which I heartily recommend, and about which I may have more to say in a later installment.

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