CHAPTER 4. THE 1873 PANIC AND THE 1874 FIRE

(In Volume One we saw how Chicago, after the Civil War, eventually overtook first Cincinnati, and then St. Louis to become the largest city in the West.  Lincoln’s decision to run the transcontinental railroad starting in Omaha, rather than St. Louis, (with a little push from the Civil War) would establish Chicago’s dominance in the rail network to the West.  However, Manifest Destiny didn’t stop on the shore of Lake Michigan but continued marching ever westward.  What Chicago had inflicted upon its older rivals, new cities such as Kansas City and Minneapolis/St. Paul would soon challenge Chicago’s dominance in meat packing and wheat shipping.  In fact, following the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing and the resulting politically charged trial and executions that, for all practical purposes, halted all speculative construction in Chicago for almost two years, it was in Minneapolis, and not New York or Chicago, where the first twenty-eight story skyscraper was proposed by Leroy Buffington in 1887.  The story of the Twin Cities’ skyscrapers begins with the Northern Pacific Railroad…)

4.1. JAY COOKE AND THE NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD

On Thursday, September 18, 1873, amongst all the planning for the 1876 World’s Fair going on in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s largest investment bankers, the city’s own Jay Cooke, declared bankruptcy that marked the beginning of the economic depression of 1873-78. During the Civil War, Cooke had emerged as the nation’s leading banker, having been personally responsible for selling the vast majority of the Federal government’s bonds that had financed the war effort.  While it took a herculean effort to market the debt, he had been financially rewarded quite handsomely, as had been the case with almost everyone involved with the government’s war business.  Meanwhile, the country’s planned second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific, had been formally approved by Congress on July 2, 1864.  The route from Duluth to Puget Sound had been one of the five surveys conducted under Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1853 (see Volume One), and William Ogden’s Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac had originally chartered a Northern Pacific Railroad on March 31, 1856, whose objective was to link Puget Sound in the west with the Great Lakes at Duluth, MN, at the western tip of Lake Superior. 

1870 Map of the Proposed Northern Pacific Railroad. (Online)

Duluth’s potential threat to Chicago was clearly evident: the geographic distance overland between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans was significantly shorter via Duluth and Lake Superior (and, therefore, potentially quicker and more economical), than it was via Chicago at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and this route could also completely bypass the monopoly of Chicago’s Great Lakes port and transfer facilities.  Anyone who looked at a map could appreciate this, but what stood in the way of Duluth, to Chicago’s early economic benefit, had been the 20 feet high Falls of St. Mary’s on the St. Mary’s River, at Sault Ste. Marie, that joined Lake Superior to Lake Huron.  Until a man-made route could provide a navigable route around these, lake traffic either had to be portaged around the falls, or cargo had to be transferred by hand from one side of the falls to the other.  Either method was expensive, so Duluth had slumbered while Chicago began its economic expansion.  This began to change, however, in 1855 with the completion of the first lock at Sault Ste. Marie that circumvented the falls and allowed through traffic between the lakes (which is when Ogden had first shown interest in the route’s potential with the chartering of the Northern Pacific).  First the Panic of 1857, and then the start of the Civil War had put any further planning for the road on hold, until Congress had finally approved a second transcontinental railroad.

Initial construction of the route, however, had languished as there was little interest in financing such a questionable business venture, that is, until the Union and Central Pacifics were on the verge of connecting their tracks for the original transcontinental railroad.  I have already noted in Volume One that Ogden had been enticed by the northern route’s original developer, J. Gregory Smith, to lend his name and expertise to the project as early as January 1867.  Duluth was the projected northern terminus for Ogden’s Chicago & NorthWestern Railroad (that at the time was the country’s longest railroad), so a second transcontinental route commencing there would only generate more business for his beloved company.  Ogden had resigned as the president of the C&NW on June 4, 1868, so that he could devote more time to assist the financial start-up for this new project from his new residence of New York.  His action may also have been spurred by a vote on December 11, six months earlier, that made Cornelius Vanderbilt the President of the New York Central.  Ogden had been somewhat aware of the Commodore’s plans to control the railroads in New York as early as April 1867, over a year before his final departure from the C&NW, for he was listed among the charterers petitioning the New York legislature for the charter of the somewhat mundane-sounding Spuyten Devil & Port Morris Railroad, that eventually proved to be the linchpin Vanderbilt would rely upon to connect his various roads to where he wanted to build Grand Central Depot.  By this time, Ogden understood that the Union Pacific’s vice-president, Thomas Durant’s corrupt objectives (that is, the Crédit Mobilier) gave a second, competing route a chance for success.  Ogden’s intuitive knowledge of railroads may have also allowed him to perceive the Commodore’s overall intentions and vacate the Chicago market before the first skirmish and begin planning for the northern route that would completely bypass Chicago and Vanderbilt’s control, for within a year of Ogden’s stepping down from the C&NW, Vanderbilt had bought the Michigan Southern, the first of his lines to Chicago.

In New York Ogden delivered what was required of him for the start of the Northern Pacific: J. Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania, George W. Cass, president of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago (that Ogden held a large share of its stock), and Robert H. Berdell, president of the Erie, all lent their names and prestige to the project, that was what was needed for Congress to pass the necessary Federal legislation on March 1, 1869 (within two months the Union and Central Pacific would join up at Promontory Summit, Utah, so it finally had seemed “safe” for Congress to charter a second route).  On May 29, 1869, only nineteen days after the driving of the last spike, Ogden announced the new project in New York City as the keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the American Geographic and Statistical Society, as one that “from Lake Superior through Missouri and across the Plains to the Columbia river [will bring] us 800 miles nearer the Empire of Japan than the present Pacific Railroad.”  He also mentioned that negotiations with Jay Cooke to be the company’s financial agent were almost concluded.  The following year, Ogden traveled with Cass (who had Ogden’s ear and would be made the president of the NP in 1872) to the Pacific Coast to survey possible routes for the new line.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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