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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p69  Section Two
The Challengers

These machines are but just being brought into use; and he is a bold man who, casting his eye 100 years into the future, shall undertake to tell the present generation what will be their effect on our North American valley, when their energies shall be brought to bear over all its broad surface. . . .
— Jessup W. Scott in the Toledo, Ohio, Blade (1850)

 p71  Chapter VI
Chicago's Reach

The train calls at stations in the woods, where the wild impossibility of anybody having the smallest reason to get out is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in. It rushes across the turnpike road, where there is no gate, no policeman, no signal; nothing but a rough wooden arch, on which is painted "When the bell rings, look out for the locomotive." On it whirls headlong, dives through the woods again, emerges in the light, clatters over frail arches, rumbles upon the heavy ground, shoots beneath a wooden bridge — dashes on haphazard, pell-mell, neck-or‑nothing. . . . Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842).

"Chicago on the beam," a deck hand bellowed one summer afternoon in 1851. Grenville Dodge hurried to the railing for a first look. South, a ridge of sand hills blended enticingly with the bright blue sheen of Lake Michigan. Dodge felt a twinge of homesickness for the sand beaches and piney headlands around Salem. The nostalgia deepened as his eyes moved north across a gloomy bog to the cluster of unpainted grain elevators and hound-yellow brick warehouses dead ahead.

The Indians called the spot Eschikagou. The translation varied with the mood of the translator. The word could mean  p72 Place of the Chief. It could also mean, avowed linguists, Smells-like-a‑skunk or Wild Onions. All three definitions were appropriate. Strategically, the murky inlet at the bog's center was the best throughway between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Exalted by the title of Chicago River, it oozed southwest​a toward a clay ridge that marked the westernmost rush of Lake manage's storm waves. An Indian portage trail crossed the ridge to the Illinois River; the Illinois roiled almost due west for 50 miles, then veered southwest to join the Mississippi 15 miles above its Missouri River junction.

Chicago was a stepchild of the Erie Canal. As Secretary of War in 1819, John C. Calhoun had urged construction of a Lake Michigan-Illinois river canal as an "urgency of the national defense." The canal company was incorporated in 1829 when only 25 or 30 families lived on the miasmic claybank alongside Fort Dearborn. Four years later Congress granted $30,000 to dredge a sloop channel up the Chicago River. The village attracted speculators who began to ballyhoo it as "the Garden City."​b In 1836, when there were 3,820 residents, construction started on the Chicago River-Illinois River Canal.

Muck and sand tossed up from the dredging enabled bog fill for new homesites. Engineers recommended that the swamp be filled in with rock and soil to a level of at least 6 feet above Lake Michigan's spring-freshet tides. The prospect of hauling fill 4 or 5 miles by oxcart brought grunts and headshakes from most settlers; the town was too much of a gamble for all that work. Milwaukee, 100 miles up the lake, was a "boomer" too; so were half a dozen other communities on the Indiana and Wisconsin shores. Any of them might start a settlers' rush that would spell "bust" for Chicago real estate. The boardwalks that began to hammer out from South Water Street and North Water Street in the 1840s had to arc like chute-the‑chutes: up to a store built on a 6‑foot fill; down to a cabin (with front-room grocery) built on a 2‑foot fill; back up to a false-front harness shop built on a 4‑foot fill.

 p73  The whole crazy patch might have been abandoned to the skunks and wild onions during the Van Buren depression of 1837‑40, if the prairie plow hadn't come to the rescue. Intensive crop farming was impossible in Illinois and much of Wisconsin and Iowa until John Deere and other frontier blacksmiths developed plows with sheet-steel faces. The early ones were usually made from old saw blades, heat-molded to a wood or cast-iron base. These enabled the first crops of corn and wheat. In 1839, sloops at the Chicago piers loaded 4,000 bushels for Detroit and Buffalo, plus 3,000 grain-fat cattle driven in from prairie farms. In 1842, almost 600,000 bushels of wheat hissed into ship bottoms from raw-wood bins along Water Street. The population, now under city charter, passed 6,500. The first markethouse went up at Lake and State Streets. The Illinois-Michigan ditch was halfway through the ridge toward Joliet. Wheat, corn and cattle fixed Chicago's destiny. Plank roads were built south and west over the Indian portage trails, north toward Milwaukee, northwest to the Rock River-Mississippi junction at Rock Island.

In 1846, Chicago's first mayor, William B. Ogden,​c resurrected the decade-old plan for a Chicago and Galena railroad. Ten miles of track into Chicago were ready for grain shipments during the fall of 1848; the line averaged a gross revenue of $2,000 a month during its first year. Ogden raised funds to build on west toward Elgin. At Aurora, 38 miles out on the prairie, businessmen organized the Aurora branch to build a 12‑mile spur to the Galena & Chicago Union's line. By the fall of 1850, the two roads operated three locomotives: the Pioneer, 10 tons; the Whittlesey, a 12‑tonner with four drivers, built by Norris and Brothers of Philadelphia; and the Pigeon, a 14‑tonner built by Josiah Baldwin in 1837 for the Detroit & Pontiac.

Grenville Dodge, conditioned to Boston and the North Shore, plus the bumptious four years at Norwich University, must have reacted to Chicago that afternoon of 1851 much as young William Corkran would in 1868 when he arrived  p74 from New York City to begin his duties as librarian of the Chicago Historical Society:

The city of Chicago [Corkran wrote] was laid out in three great divisions or sides. These were the North Side, South Side and West Side, so‑called from their being divided by the Chicago River, a dirty narrow stream emitting an effluvium that would have puzzled any scientist to analyze. We were assured however that this vast sink of black greasy waters was not unhealthy and that we would soon become so accustomed to it as not to mind it at all.

To a new arrival, a walk through the streets of Chicago was anything but agreeable. So long as he kept in the great thoroughfares it was well enough, but if it was necessary to go through any of the side streets, then began a system of clambering up or down six or seven little steps, or running down a plank or up another. This system was called grading or levelling, or in other words, when you stood below, you stood just two feet above the original level of Chicago, but when above, the proper level of six feet.

The main thoroughfares such as North and South Clark Street, which was the vertebraº of Chicago running from one end to the other of the city, and changing names it was separated by the river, was a broad street whose wooden pavement, when not broken, was pleasant to drive upon . . . The stores on either side of the street were mostly low wooden houses whose fronts were anything but prepossessing, whilst their rears were utterly miserable. This street was the great center for lager-beer saloons, Turner Halls, concert rooms, small groceries, drug stores, and numerous other stores, kept mostly by Germans, of which Jews predominated. It was a thorough Western street in every sense of the words, for here were found numerous small dealers in every branch of trade, running a business on small capital, sleeping and living in the rear of their stores, whilst the upper floor was rented to boarders and lodgers, and as prices were generally as high as in the first stores of the city, it is no wonder that a great number of these people succeeded soon in buying up a house and lot of their own, and becoming property owners."

Chicago, under a coppery midsummer sky in 1851, was smaller, smellier and dirtier — with more hogs, cows, geese and chickens wallowing in the streets.

 p75  Stephen A. Douglas, five years wiser than he had been in the harangue with Asa Whitney, had recently secured a land grant of 2,200,000 acres from Congress for construction of an Illinois Central Railroad that would cross the 440 miles of prairie and coal-rich hillocks between Galena and the Ohio-Mississippi junction at Cairo. (Thomas Benton voted "aye" on the bill because it would open all of Illinois to St. Louis merchants. Henry Clay voted for it because it bode new outlets for Kentucky tobacco, whisky, sorghum and hardwood. The Southerners didn't pay it much mind; it was intrastate and evinced no ambitions of snooping across the Mississippi.)

State and Federal legislation specified that the Illinois Central was to build its high iron as its name implied, down the center of Illinois. But Stephen A. Douglas had become a resident of Chicago and an enthusiast about its future. He persuaded Illinois Central's directors to approve a branch line from the Illinois River crossing at La Salle into Chicago.

Meanwhile, Chicago's City Council debated tax assessments to finance construction of a stone breakwater south across the bog from the Chicago River, thus enabling more muckland to be filled in as lakefront properties. During the spring of 1851, the council offered Illinois Central a right of way up the lake-shore to a South Water Street terminal, if it would also build the stone breakwater and haul in clay and black prairie earth for bog fill. Illinois Central's directors accepted; their engineers and bogtrotters created the land that, under the title of "Michigan Boulevard," would rank with New York City's Grand Central Terminal area as the most valuable real estate in North America.

To Grenville Dodge and other young engineers debarking at Chicago that summer, the breakwater project and the vision of a railroad operating 440 miles across the Prairie State were symbolic of opportunities in the New West. The prairie was a railroader's dream land; gradients to Rock Island, to Quincy and even to remote Council Bluffs would be almost as simple as Illinois Central's clang to Cairo. Dodge stared down the  p76 wharf at a family of Germans squatting patiently atop their baggage. Beyond them, six flaxen-haired Swedes pushed their cartload of trunks and boxes toward the canalboat that would float them through the new Summit Lock and down the Illinois to a Mississippi steamer connection for St. Paul. Thousands of Germans, Swedes, Hollanders and Finlanders trekked West each year now. Many were refugees from that savage 1848 Revolution against Germany's Junkers; others were lured by descriptions of the land being offered for $1 an acre in Wisconsin and Minnesota Territory. The Finlanders, like the Cornish and Welsh, sought the $30‑a‑month jobs and homesteader privileges promised by the lead-mine, coal-pit and rock-quarry operators in the upper Mississippi Valley. This was a type of gold rush as positive and passionate as the Forty-Niners' roar toward California. And, as any twenty-year‑old engineer could sense, it was more durable than California's. The "gold" sought here was the good earth and an opportunity to wrest a living plus 5 per cent from it, in fee simple, without quitrents or military conscription.

Lumber, cheese, butter, beef, pork, leather and grains would flood out of this Midwest when these North Europeans began to apply their historic land skills. Then they would be a market for plows, reapers, barn tools, seed, twine, wagons, cloth and such ready-mades as their frugality permitted. Neither steamboats nor the Erie Canal would be able to handle such vast two-way traffic; the railroad would be — must be — the lifeline of the New West.

These were the urgencies that had drawn Grenville Dodge to Illinois two months after his graduation from Norwich. His engineering instructors there, Dodge would recall in his autobiographies, were "filled with enthusiasm for steam transportation and expansion of railroads from the Atlantic to the Pacific." During the fall of his senior year Dodge wrote in his diary: "Forty-three years ago today, October 12, 1807, Fulton made his first steamboat trip up the Hudson River. How wonderful has been the effect of his discovery. In the short space  p77 of forty-three years steam power has revolutionized the world."

The predestiny of motherly interest by the widow of Colonel Trueman B. Ransom sent Grenville Dodge to Illinois, just as the interest of the Widow Lander had stimulated him toward Civil Engineering. Colonel Ransom had initiated the Civil Engineering course while president of Norwich University, but led the school's Cadet Brigade off to the War with Mexico and was killed in the assault on Chapultepec. The era of Federal pensions was a generation away; his widow began to take in university students as boarders. Grenville Dodge boarded at Mrs. Ransom's during his junior and senior years. She urged him to join her sons on the land survey being directed by her brother George W. Gilson at Peru, Illinois. Gilson, a State Senator and land agent, was developing home and factory sites for the "boom" bound to occur in the Illinois River's midvalley when the Illinois Central Railroad pushed through. He predicted that Peru, with its sister community La Salle, would soon surpass Chicago in population.

Grenville Dodge took a canal packet from Chicago to La Salle, witnessed his first gun fight, and reported for duty at Senator Gilson's office. A few weeks later he wrote his father: "I can double any money you've got within six months. To start with, buy up a couple of Mexican land warrants, send them out and I'll locate them in places where land is selling at this minute for $2.50 an acre. The warrants are for a quarter-section each and can be bought back east for about a dollar. Now this is no gun-game, but the truth. They will pay better than all the post-offices and book stores in the kingdom." But by snowfall he was applying to the Illinois Central for assignment to a survey crew.

Thomas C. Durant promoted stock sales in New York City to launch the Michigan Southern Railroad's race toward Chicago. John B. Jervis signed on as chief engineer. Henry Farnam and Joseph Sheffield shipped to Chicago during the spring of 1850, leased a carriage, and explored the swamps, creek  p78 channels and sand hills of Lake Michigan's South Shore before bidding for the contract to build the 200‑mile extension to a Chicago River terminal.

The Michigan Central Railroad operated between Detroit, Ann Arbor and Jackson. When Michigan Southern announced award of its contract to Farnam and Sheffield, the Boston bankers backing Michigan Central decided to extend its trackage to Chicago too. (Robert Casement's son Jack went with the Michigan Central as a trackhand shortly after the family moved from Geneva, New York, to a farm near Ann Arbor, Michigan. But the line's decision to build on to Chicago came too late for Jack Casement to participate in the race. In the spring of 1850 he went to Cleveland as the twenty‑one-year‑old foreman of a track gang on the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad.)

Samuel B. Reed, the young Vermonter who had worked as a location engineer on the Erie Canal's deeper channel through the Montezuma Swamp, was one of the first location engineers hired for Michigan Southern by Jervis. The line, having pacified the Indiana Legislature by adding "& Northern Indiana" to its title, hammered track to the Illinois state border in the late fall of 1851, then when the Calumet swamp froze up, built willy-nilly on by laying ties and track on the ice and frozen muck. On February 20, 1852, Michigan Southern's first passenger train to Chicago tied down the whistle while it chuffed up Clark Street. The Michigan Central wailed into town a few weeks later.

Farnam and Sheffield, like the contractors for Michigan Central, regarded Chicago as a steppingstone toward the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys. It was good sense to "be at the gate with the wagon hitched" whenever Congress compromised the slavery and States'-rights snarl and made the essential $50,000,000 to $100,000,000 appropriation for a Pacific railway. Meanwhile the prairie farms guaranteed a brisk freight and passenger business; enough, anyway, to pay stock dividends. Also, land inflation along the rail lines was  p79 proving a rich bonus. Durant, Farnam and Sheffield bought the charter for a La Salle-Rock Island rail route. Michigan Central made a stock swap with The Aurora Branch. Consequently the La Salle & Rock Island became the Chicago & Rock Island, while The Aurora branch merged with other charter dreams into the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. John Jervis became the chief engineer for the Chicago & Rock Island, with Samuel B. Reed as one of his location engineers; Farnam and Sheffield assumed the contract for construction to the Mississippi-Rock River junction.

During 1852, then, Chicago — the lake and canal terminal — became Chicago — the railroad center. During the next five years another dozen railroads entered its roller-coaster bog from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Grenville Dodge's offer from the Illinois Central came in January, 1852. He worked on a survey for a month or two, resigned, and went back with Gilson's house-lot crew. "A dispatch was received here," he wrote in explanation to his father, "with the important intelligence that the Rock Island Railroad, 200 miles long, and separate from the Illinois Central is to be built . . . We will have direct communication by the Rock Island with Iowa and the far west; for this is the true Pacific Road and will be built to Council Bluffs."

He guessed correctly. Farnam, Sheffield and Durant made plans early in 1852 for a gradient survey across Iowa to Council Bluffs. Again there was a six months' wait for Engineer Dodge until the call came from Peter A. Dey, the chief surveyor hired by Farnam, Sheffield and Durant. Dey recalled the incident nearly forty years later: "Dodge made application to me and I took him into one of my parties. That was in the fall of 1852. Very soon I discovered that there was a good deal in him. I discovered a wonderful energy: for instance, if I told him to do anything he did it under any and all circumstances. That feature was particularly marked. In the spring of 1853, I made a survey of what was called the Bureau Valley  p80 & Peoria, and I gave Dodge the use of one instrument. He then developed a great deal of energy and so enhanced my opinion of him that in May, 1853, when I came out to Iowa City to make serveysº from Davenport west, I took him with me."

When Chicago mushroomed as the terminal for the rail gambles out of Detroit, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, three new villages on the Missouri River became potential terminals for a Pacific railway over the California-Mormon Trail. In Iowa, Council Bluffs was the sole candidate. St. Joseph clung on the Missouri's east bank bluffs 150 miles south. West, the Kansas plains tilted generally up the 500‑mile hill to the Continental Divide. Justice John Clemens and his Hannibal neighbors had visualized this portal route when they drew up a charter for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Company in 1847. But Justice Clemens died a few months later; the charter was still tucked in a lawyer's strongbox. Another 50 miles south, where the Missouri curved its mud southeast to the Ozark foothills, the hamlet of West Port sat on the cliffs. It also offered access to the Santa Fe Trail, via Independence, Kansas Territory. Council Bluffs and St. Joseph became the terminal goals for railroads keening west out of Chicago, with tiny West Port as a third choice.

The Michigan Central's backers, by developing the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, were building toward all three of these Missouri River terminals. The Chicago & Quincy branch, arching southwest beyond Aurora, reached the Mississippi's shore only 20 miles north of Hannibal; a train ferry and spur track down the west shore would connect with the Hannibal & St. Joseph route. The Chicago & Burlington branch, veering through Galesburg, reached the Mississippi's shore opposite Burlington, Iowa. Burlington's businessmen were as ambitious as Hannibal's. In 1851, they built a plank road 28 miles over the bluffs to Mt. Pleasant, and resolved during the celebration ceremonies that "while we regard our plank roads as emphatically the farmer's highway to market and prosperity, yet we ardently look for the time when the Mississippi shall be connected  p81 with the Missouri by railway, thus facilitating communication between remote points and constituting a part of the railroad to the Pacific Ocean through Southern Iowa."

During the months that Farnam, Sheffield and Durant reached the decision to jockey with the Iowa legislators and peddle bonds for a Rock Island extension toward Council Bluffs via Davenport, Iowa City, and Fort Des Moines, the Michigan Central — Chicago, Burlington & Quincy strategists maneuvered incorporation of a Burlington & Missouri Railroad and began negotiations with the consular owners of the Hannibal & St. Joseph.

The Rock Island incorporated in Iowa as the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad, then allied with a chartered, but unbuilt, Davenport & Iowa City Railroad Company. Farnam, Sheffield and Durant pledged to lay trackage between Davenport and Iowa City before 1855. Other trans-Iowa competition developed. Promoters bought the decade-old charter for a Lyons & Iowa Central line, reorganized it as the Iowa Air Line, and announced plans to run surveys on to Council Bluffs. Grenville Dodge and Peter Dey reached Iowa City in May, 1853. Dodge learned that the race with Iowa Air Line across the prairie would have an element of intramural rivalry; the chief surveyor for Iowa Air Line was a Norwich University alumnus too. Dodge wrote his father:

Yesterday I started my line west of Iowa City and tomorrow I leave for good. Today I bought a saddle horse for $125.00. I have one wagon for camp chest and provisions and one for stocks and baggage. We have in all, six horses and fourteen men, including the cook and hunter. The season is late and we cannot look ahead without seeing hardships and exposures never experienced by any of us. The snows on the Missouri are unusually severe, nor can we expect to arrive before they come on. There is also a probability, after arriving at Fort Des Moines, of our locating several hundred miles in order to keep ahead of the so‑called Lyons road which is nearly parallel with ours west of Iowa City. The projectors have no money but they are pushing lines through the state and making a cry to get the counties to  p82 take stock. We have moneyed men to back us. My expenses reach $1,000 a month. Oh, that you could come out and overtake me on the prairies of Iowa and take a week's trip with us, look at the country and see how we live. We shall make an examination of the great Platte as far into Nebraska as we think fit.

Dey now had complete confidence in his tall and scowlingly serious Yankee assistant. He stayed in Iowa City for the word battles with legislative committees, while Dodge wigwagged transit sightings and drove flagged stakes toward the crest of the ridge that divides the Cedar and Des Moines river valleys. On this summit, near the end of September, Dodge ordered a tall flagpole to be erected. A year later he suggested to the consumptive New York preacher, J. B. Grinnell, that the summit would be ideal for the farm colony and agricultural institute that Grinnell wanted to locate in the Iowa wilderness. This survey flagpole became the site of Grinnell College.

Sumac shrilled fall's approach with scarlet leaves when the crew's wagons crunched down the Des Moines River bank. Dodge paused long enough to lay out a forty-acre site for a station, roundhouse and wagon park, then ordered his chainmen to route due west; word came through from Peter Dey that they were running a week ahead of the Iowa Air Line crews. In the Raccoon River country, with hoarfrost on the buffalo grass and the oaks massive flames of gold, some of the crew came down with "the chills." Dodge arranged bed and keep for them at cabin homes, then scouted the valley to hire substitute axmen and drivers. One youngster he signed on was "a strong axman, well up in all woodcraft and a bee hunter. He could follow a bee to its hive in a tree, so he kept us in honey all the way to Missouri."

Peter Dey rode in one November afternoon. The Mississippi & Missouri was holding its lead over the Air Line. "Let's keep it that way. Don't take time to revise the line now. Just beat them into the Bluffs." They did. On November 22, Dey and Dodge took alternate whacks at the stakes on the Missouri's brown bank. The townspeople cheered and led the way to  p83 the nearest tavern. The Iowa Air Line crew reached town a week later. Everybody shook hands, and there was another rousing party. A Burlington & Missouri team, it was reported, was working up the flats, somewhere across from the Platte's mouth.

Back across Iowa, Henry Farnam began work on the great wood and stone bridge scheduled to straddle the Mississippi via Rock Island. Antoine Le Claire, a half-breed of the Sac-Foxes, stopped grumbling about the Palatine line for it that Grenville Dodge and Peter Dey had run through his Rock Island apple orchard. In 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson would report, after an Iowa lecture tour, "Le Claire chose his lot 30 years ago, and now the railroad to the Pacific runs directly through his log house, which is occupied by the company for wood and other purposes. His property has risen to the value of five or six hundred thousand dollars."

In Chicago, when ice closed the Mackinac Strait to steamboats again, the lobbyists and bond salesmen for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Chicago & Rock Island could all smile. The Rock Island was surveyed through to the Missouri Valley; its Pacific wagon was hitched. Chicago, Burlington & Quincy had quietly arranged owner­ship for more than half of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad's stock among "friends," and planned to start trans-Missouri construction in 1856. The North's railroads, at long last, were invading the New West.

In Washington, Secretary of War Davis studied the packets of charts couriered back by the Pacific Road Survey and Exploration teams.

Thayer's Notes:

a A big mistake here: the Chicago River flowed northeast, emptying into Lake Michigan. The river flow was reversed in the last years of the 19c as part of the development of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

b In 1837, when it incorporated, the City of Chicago put this view of itself into Latin for its motto, which it remains today: Urbs in horto — as inappropriate in the 21c as it was in its pioneer days, if for different reasons. Amusingly, "Urbs in Horto", a blog with various plant and garden photographs citing in its masthead this Chicago motto, is largely given over to the Chicago Botanic Garden, which despite the name, is not in Chicago but in Glencoe, a northern suburb; not even a contiguous one.

c This reads as though he were still mayor at the time, but his only term had expired in 1838: he was a private citizen.

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