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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester


Chicago

Chicago.—I arrived at Chicago on May 7, 1872, on my way across the continent. In frequent previous visits I had learned to know the city thoroughly, and cavilled less and less against the self-asserting spirit of her citizens, who are usually accused of rather frequent proclamations of her greatness. They boast of her as the prodigy of the Western World; and, even in her destruction by the conflagration of October, 1871, they seemed to forget their misfortunes in exulting that it was the greatest bonfire on record. Now, a few months after the fire, I often lost my way while wandering through the ruins of streets once perfectly familiar to me. I could not but pay hearty tribute of admiration to the astonishing energy and hopefulness of a people who had evidently recovered so promptly from the shock of their heavy calamities, and were already busily occupied in clearing away the wreck of one city in order to. build a new and finer. One of their first resolutions after the fire was to re-arrange the various business districts, to assign for the more important purposes of shipping and jobbing houses valuable spaces which had previously been occupied by long rows of private residences studded with churches, to bring ships and stores, railway-stations and warehouses, as close together as possible, and generally to reform errors incident to the early spasmodic and irregular growth of the city. Next, they determined, in rebuilding, to build better than before, to consider rather how to render their houses absolutely proof against future fires than to dazzle the beholder with merely elegant exteriors. These resolutions, mind you, from a people supposed to be overwhelmed by financial losses! I had the evidence of my own eyes as to the seriousness of their intentions, and as to their own confidence, and the confidence of the capitalists of the Eastern States, in the future of the city; for, while remnants of the fire were still sullenly smouldering beneath masses of débris in some quarters of the city, the stately fronts of permanent new buildings were already rising in, more eligible locations. There is no lack of goods and supplies to fill the new buildings; for, though Chicago had no money to buy with, the Eastern merchants and manufacturers freely credited her, and the abundant agricultural products of the North-West flowed still, as a matter of course, and in unabated streams, to her ample wharves and storehouses. Among changes in business locations, which I observed with interest, and which may be equally interesting to anyone who has ever visited Chicago, was the removal of the principal dry goods houses to places farther from the Lake by half a mile or more—the congregation of the banks in State Street—the appropriation of Wabash Avenue, throughout its extent of almost three miles, for business houses instead of residences and churches, giving it a relative importance greater than that of Oxford Street and Holborn in London, and only comparable with that of Broadway in New York—and the occupation of all the streets running west between Lake Street and Van Buren Street by magnificent and substantial trade structures, instead of unsightly frame dwelling-houses. The astonishing growth of Chicago does not appear to have been checked by its recent disaster. Its population is now 400,000, spread out over a perfectly flat area of 223 square miles (nearly twice as large as the area covered by London), and with a surface which is but a few feet higher than the level of the Lake.

The visitor to Chicago should not fail to see the great hotels; the tunnels under the River, the stockyards, a regularly laid-out and well-built wooden city, the inhabitants of which are vast droves of cattle, sheep, and hogs; the immense storehouses and ‘elevators,’ which are planned upon a scale worthy of the greatest grain market of the world; the water-works, the reservoir of which is the cool and pure depths of Lake Michigan itself, beneath which, to points about two miles from shore, two tunnels have been dug and protected from within with brick and cement so as to serve for water-pipes for the supply of the city; and the various fine suburban parks and drives. An added pleasure in sight-seeing at Chicago is derived from the fact that the whole city is laid with wooden pavements, on which vehicles pass swiftly and almost noiselessly to and fro. The greatest marvel of Chicago is, however, the people themselves. They have need to work fast to accomplish so much as they do, and to the eye of a stranger they seem to carry even into their pleasures their habits of rapid execution, manifesting everywhere a restless indomitable spirit.

The ‘North-West,’ a section of rather indefinite boundaries, but generally understood to include the states of the Upper Mississippi Valley, is rapidly becoming the most populous portion of the Union. Illinois now disputes with Ohio the position of third in rank as to population among the States. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota are growing at an equal pace, and to their vicinity the ‘centre of greatest population’ is tending. In the recent new apportionment of representation in the American Congress, the North-West was declared to be entitled to some twenty more representatives than before.

 

Amazed and delighted with the prodigious increase in population, power, and wealth of this region which has so lately been reached by the tides of civilisation, I would gladly devote more space to the multitude of easily-ascertained facts, which even the transient visitor soon acquires, concerning the country and people. It will suffice, however, if I succeed in inducing my reader to inquire further, either by making the tour himself, or by referring to works designed especially for the description of these states. We are now to enter upon the second stage of our journey—that from Chicago to Omaha, ‘the gateway to the Far West.’



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