People & Events: William Butler Ogden (1805-1877)
"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..."
William Butler Ogden, like many great early Chicagoans, was an easterner. Born in 1805, he grew up in western New York and first came to Chicago in 1835 to supervise the sale of land that his brother-in-law, a Wall Street investor, had bought as part of the new town's first speculative real estate boom. As soon as he got to Chicago, he wrote that his sister's husband was "guilty of an act of great folly in making [this] purchase."
Still, he did the job asked of him, draining the land, laying out streets and dividing up lots. When the lots went on sale, a third of the property went for $100,000 -- the price his brother-in-law had paid for the total. The money to be made in Chicago convinced Ogden to move out there permanently in 1836.
Ogden did not seek to merely make a profit on speculating, however. He made improvements on the land to increase the true value of his holdings. He was one of the prime movers that organized the digging of a canal from the Chicago River to Lake Michigan. He was part of the committee that drafted a city charter to submit to the Illinois legislature. And when Chicago became a city, he became its first mayor. Ogden firmly believed that business and government could and should work together, and that businessmen were obliged to -- and could only benefit from -- serving in local government.
As the city's mayor and as an alderman, Ogden taxed residents to raise money for streets, sidewalks and bridges. When the struggling city could not afford some of these improvements, Ogden and his partners back in New York paid out of their own pockets. New York money built much of Chicago in its first decades.
Ogden ran the Chicago and Michigan Steam Boat Company and a local brewery, was president of Rush Medical College, and financed local banks as well as Cyrus McCormick's new reaper factory. When his secretary told him he was worth more than a million dollars, he responded, "By God... that's a lot of money!" Ogden also donated the land on which Holy Name Cathedral was built, but true to form, he made sure that Catholics voted for his plan to build the first drawbridge over the Chicago River -- allowing the development of more land that he owned.
In 1847, Ogden announced a plan to build a railway out of Chicago, but no capital was forthcoming. Eastern investors were wary of Chicago's reputation for irrational boosterism, and Chicagoans did not want to divert traffic from their profitable canal works. So Ogden and his partner J. Young Scammon solicited subscriptions from the farmers and small businessmen whose land lay adjacent to the proposed rail. Farmer's wives used the money they earned from selling eggs to buy shares of stock on a monthly payment plan. By 1848, Ogden and Scammon had raised $350,000 -- enough to begin laying track. The Galena and Chicago Union Railroad was profitable from the start and eventually extended out to Wisconsin, bringing grain from the Great Plains into the city. As president of Union Pacific, Ogden extended the reach of Chicago's rail lines to the West coast.
Not all of Ogden's activities were entirely beneficial, however. After the canal was redredged, he dug a ditch to drain land he owned, and made a profit while the sludge from his property emptied into -- and nullified the good effects of -- the city's work project. When he bought lakefront land, he evicted the poor neighbors who refused to sell by chaining their shacks to horses and tearing them down.
Ogden lived with his mother and sister, and together they threw the best parties in the city. He hired a New York architect to build him a Greek Revival house on four acres of land. Among the guests at the house were Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglas, William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to Ogden's neighbor, visitors "always found good books, good pictures, good music, and the most kind and genial reception." An avid gardener, he helped found the Chicago Horticultural Society.
By 1871, the year of the Great Fire, Ogden had retired to an estate in New York. When a telegraph informed him of the disaster, he returned by express train the day after the fire. He hired a driver to take him to his house, but he found himself "lost among the unrecognizable ruins and could not tell where I was; not a living thing was to be seen." Finally, "I came to the ruined trees and broken basement wall -- all that remained of my more than 30 years pleasant home." His rail yards, lumberyards and shipyards were all destroyed. His only remaining property in Chicago was the land that he owned. That land must have looked much like it did when he first set eyes on it, 35 years before.
The rebuilding effort was directed by the next generation of Chicago businessmen, less civic-minded than Ogden and his cohort. Ogden returned to his New York estate and a comfortable retirement, recalling, "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, never a City so lamented and grieved over as Chicago."
Ogden died in 1877. The Chicago Tribune wrote of him: "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."
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