Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 65-71
Thomas Barbour Bryan was born in Alexandria, Virginia, 22d December 1828. His father, Hon. Daniel Bryan, was for many years Postmaster of that city and for some time represented his district in the State Senate, besides holding other positions of public trust and honor. His mother, Mary T. Bryan, is the only surviving sister of Governor James Barbour, of Virginia, formerly United States Senator, Secretary of War and also Minister to England and of Hon. Philip Barbour, who was at one time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and subsequently one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States. Preparing himself for college in the best schools in Virginia, he entered Harvard University, in Massachusetts, maintaining a high position as a devoted and successful student throughout his entire course in that institution, graduating with honor and receiving his diploma from the Law Department in 1848. While in the University he gave especial attention to the study of the German language, for which he had a great admiration and in which he became a ready speaker and writer; indeed, whilst prosecuting his college studies, he wrote a book in the German language, the aim of which was to facilitate the acquisition of our own tongue by the Germans. The book was a marked success. It passed through several editions, being first published in Boston and afterwards, at their own solicitation, by Appleton & Co., of New York. There is probably not a more thorough German scholar in America than Mr. Bryan. He reads, speaks and writes that language almost as readily as he does the English. In the dead languages and in French and Italian he is also proficient. In 1849 he settled in Newport, Kentucky, opposite Cincinnati and in the succeeding year was married to Miss Jennie B. Page, daughter of Rev. C.H. Page, Chaplain of the United States Army, a most gentle, accomplished and excellent lady.
After several years’ successful practice of his profession in Cincinnati, in partnership with Judge Samuel M. Hart, Mr. Bryan in 1853 removed to Chicago, with the view of investing his income in the rapidly enhancing real estate of this, at that time, young and thriving city. Not only were his investments in his own behalf highly successful, but he soon built up for himself an extensive business as an agent for others, in the purchase and sale of real estate, large sums being confided to him for this purpose by clients in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, etc.
For years past, Mr. Bryan has been regarded as one of our chief and most trustworthy authorities in real estate matters and the business of his agency (now known as the firm of Thos. B. Bryan & Co.) amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Being a well-versed lawyer, familiar with all the legal forms and technicalities, as well as the routine of the real estate business, being thoroughly acquainted with the value and character of all the lands in and around the city and his fidelity to trusts being proverbial, clients have always felt that whatever proceeded from Mr. Bryan’s office, whether a title deed, an abstract of title, or words of advice, was not to be questioned. Mr. Bryan, it is safe to say, has more warm personal friends than any other prominent citizen of Chicago. None know him but to love him. Never, in respect to any man, has this been more true than it is in his case. From the time of his first arrival here, fourteen years ago, he has been a leader in all good works, an ever liberal friend of the poor, favorable to every public enterprise that was calculated to benefit the city and ensure the welfare of the community, a champion of progress, a patron of art and popular education and an exemplar of human refinement and Christian magnanimity and charity. Of no living man can the words of Shakespeare be more aptly quoted, that
- He hath a tear for pity, and a hand
Open as day for melting charity.
He combines in himself those noble and commendable qualities of heart and soul which make up the true Christian gentleman. Scrupulously conscientious, naturally of a cheerful spirit, in disposition liberal, generous and forbearing and in his manners uniformly gentle and courteous and yet gracefully dignified, he draws all good men to him, as if by magnetic agency and it can truly be said that the entire community respects, admires and loves him.
Mr. Bryan was a leading and active member of the Chicago Young Men’s Library Association when it was in its infancy and was one of its first Presidents. It was during his term of office that the association, with its then growing library, removed from its narrow limits in Warner Hall to its more capacious and appropriate quarters in Portland Block. He was elected President of the Graceland Cemetery Company, when that association was first organized and it was through his energetic individual efforts and under the inspiration of his wise judgment and good taste that the ground occupied by this Cemetery was changed from an area of desert and state of nature into a magnificent garden, with its ornamental grounds, its beautiful shade and shrubbery and its well-arranged surroundings. Mr. Bryan, while freely enjoying and at proper times expressing his political opinions and convictions, has never had an inclination to mingle in the active strife of party politics. He has been frequently importuned to accept the candidacy for official positions, but has never willingly consented to do so. In 1861, some of his friends prevailed upon him to allow his name to be used for Mayor on what was called The People’s Ticket, in opposition to Hon. Julian Rumsey, the regular Republican candidate. Had he been aware, at the outset, that he would thus be placed in the position of opposing the Republican Party, he would not have accepted the nomination; but neither he nor his friends, when he accepted the offer, anticipated that the contest would assume the shape it finally did. He was defeated at the polls and he himself appeared to be gratified at the result. He had no desire to be Mayor of the city, neither did he wish to disorganize or break up the Republican Party, which, at that time, with the Southern rebellion against the Government just assuming formidable proportions, was a national necessity. In 1864, again contrary to his desire, he was placed in nomination for Mayor—this time by the Republican Party—in opposition to Hon. Francis C. Sherman, the Democratic candidate. He was defeated by a very small majority. The opinion was quite general at this time, that he had really received a majority of the legal votes polled and his friends urged him to contest the election, but he answered them, that he was not sufficiently anxious to possess the office to do so and the legality of Mr. Sherman’s election was therefore never tested.
Mr. Bryan, although a native of Virginia, with many valued friends and precious associations in the South, voted for Abraham Lincoln for President and was a strong and ardent supporter of his administration and of the cause of the Union and Freedom, from the beginning to the end of the war and when the Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, on his return to Illinois, after denouncing the secessionists in the Senate of the United States and pledging his support to the cause of an undivided Union, was honored by a public welcome from his fellow citizens of Chicago, Mr. Bryan was designated as the speaker of the occasion. He delivered the welcoming address to the great statesman and patriot, uttering warm words of greeting and commendation and expressing, in eloquent and affecting language, the sentiments of the vast multitude of patriot citizens then assembled under the broad and rude canopy of the Republican Wigwam in which Mr. Lincoln had been nominated. It was an occasion to be remembered by all who witnessed it. Mr. Douglas there and then made his last great speech. It was his last appearance before the public. In a few weeks afterwards, the loyal people of the Republic mourned his death.
Mr. Bryan was active, devoted and self-sacrificing, during the war, in all those stirring and memorable events in our city, attending the enlistments, equipment and sending forth of volunteers, the feeding and caring for regiments in process of formation, or in transitu through the city and the measures of relief for the sick and wounded soldiers on the field, in camp and in hospital. He was one of the most prompt, energetic, liberal and conspicuous of the many men of Chicago, who, during that severe ordeal of the Union, demonstrated, by acts as well as words, the sound and precious metal that true patriotism is made of. He was chosen President of the Soldiers’ Home, which was established here by the loyal men and women of Chicago, for the entertainment and comfort of soldiers temporarily in the city and which is now a permanent institution for the care of disabled veterans of the war. He was also a prominent and spirited member of the Union Defense Committee, an organization of citizens of Chicago which accomplished much for the Union cause and the army, by expediting enlistments, equipping companies and regiments and hastening them forward to the field. When the last great Sanitary Fair was held in this city, for raising funds for the relief of disabled soldiers, Mr. Bryan was President of the Executive Committee and the active Superintendent of that remarkable and successful exhibition. To these patriotic movements he gave nearly all his time, relinquishing his personal business to the care of others. Besides contributing generously and frequently from his individual purse, he sacrificed private interests and even impaired his health in his efforts for the public welfare. At the first Chicago Sanitary Fair, he purchased the original draft of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, paying $3,000 for the document. He then donated it to the Soldiers’ Home, which realized thousands of dollars from the sale of lithograph copies. After four years of almost incessant labor for the cause of the Union, peace having finally been declared, Mr. Bryan determined to leave his affairs in charge of his nephew and partner, Bryan Lathrop and, in company with his wife and two children, go abroad for the purpose of re-establishing his own health and that of his wife. They are still sojourning in delightful seclusion, on the banks of Lake Geneva, at Montreux, the Nice of Switzerland— famous for its healthful climate and the surpassing beauty of its scenery.
Two incidents of his boyhood, related to us by one who was a member of the family of Mr. Bryan’s father at the time of their occurrence, are characteristic and show how truly sometimes the boy is father to the man. When he was but twelve years of age, he was visiting a relative in the country and accompanied the family to hear an itinerant preacher. After returning to the house, he was asked how he liked the sermon. He replied, that he thought the preacher did not understand the meaning of his text and that almost any intelligent child could preach a better sermon on that text. His relative then said, laughingly, Well, Thomas, since you think it so easy, suppose you try it. The boy smiled, but said nothing. After dinner he went to his room and was not visible till supper time, when, on being questioned as to his occupation during so many hours, he blushingly replied, I was writing a sermon. The family, of course, requested to see it and on reading it, were astonished and so delighted, that they circulated it among their friends. It finally excited so much interest, that they prevailed upon him to read it in the public meeting-house, in the presence of quite a large congregation, who expressed themselves as amazed at the wisdom from the mouth of a babe. We do not know that Mr. Bryan has ever written a sermon from that day to this, but we have listened to many excellent sermons, which he has translated from the German and delivered in his cozy little chapel at Cottage Hill1 (the place of his charming summer residence,) to the members of his family and those of the neighborhood, who are in the habit of assembling on the Lord’s day, when he is at home, for the purpose of joining him in religious worship.
The other incident related to us, was an almost equally important event in his youthful history. When he was only seventeen years of age, he, with one or two others, was invited to address a popular meeting during the military excitement attending our war with Mexico. Volunteers were wanted, but the enlistments were slow. He was not notified of what was expected of him, until two or three hours before the meeting assembled and had, therefore, only that short time for preparation. The place of meeting was thronged to its utmost capacity. After his name had been several times called by those present, he blushingly emerged from the crowd, advanced to the front and ascended the rostrum, pale and trembling. At first, his voice faltered so as to be almost inaudible, but gradually gaining self-control and confidence, he warmed up with his subject and thrilled all present by his impassioned appeal to the men to come forward and enlist in the cause of the nation, in that time of need. So effective was his boyish eloquence, that many additional names were immediately added to the muster roll.
How vividly do many of our citizens and war-worn veterans remember the earnest, eloquent words of Mr. Bryan spoken to the troops on leaving or reaching our city, or at war meetings, during our late struggle against rebellion. Fortunate were those soldiers who followed the good advice he gave them on the eve of their departure for the field. He counseled them with tears in his eyes and in a manner and language that evinced how deeply his heart was in the cause they had enlisted to maintain. Chicago volunteers never allowed an opportunity to slip by without expressing their gratitude for his devotion to their welfare and his untiring efforts and munificent contributions in their behalf. While the war was in progress he received numerous testimonials of thankfulness and affection from the army, which he retains and prizes as above value. How true it is, that generosity of soul and genuine patriotism are inseparable elements of human nature. We desire no more marked illustration of this fact than that found in the person of Thomas B. Bryan.
Several years ago Mr. Bryan erected and opened to the public a large and elegant concert and lecture-hall on Clark Street, opposite the Court House. The building has since been devoted to mercantile purposes. Until the completion of the Crosby Opera House, all first-class entertainments were held in Bryan Hall. He opened it for the free use of war meetings and it was the scene of many an exciting rally for the country’s defense, of fairs for the aid and relief of the soldiers and of the entertainment of departing or arriving regiments. He, also, many a time and oft gave its free use for church fairs, religious gatherings and charitable purposes. Indeed, we may state in few words a truth which is proverbial in this community, that Mr. Bryan is never so happy as when he is making others so, either by kindly deeds or friendly words. And here we may leave him, with an earnest expression of hope that a long career of continued usefulness and prosperity may still be in store for him.
Mr. Bryan hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition commissioners at his Byrd’s Nest estate in Elmhurst.
Thomas B. Bryan
Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1906
Thomas B. Bryan, one of Chicago’s pioneer citizens and a leader in all public enterprises from the civil war until world’s fair days, died last night in Washington, D.C., of heart trouble. At the time of his death he was visiting at the home of a relative at 1601 I street. He was 78 years old.
During the last ten years Mr. Bryan had been living a more or less retired life either at his beautiful country residence at Elmhurst or with friends and relatives at the capital. His wife died seven years ago.
His son, Charles Page Bryan, is at present United States minister to Switzerland.
Saw Growth of Chicago.
Mr. Bryan saw Chicago grow from a town of 30,000 people to a city of 2,000,000. He settled here in 1852. He was a native of Alexandria, Va. His father and his mother’s brothers had all been prominent in public life. He himself graduated from Harvard college in 1848. Coming to Chicago, he took a residence in Michigan avenue, near Madison street, in what then was the fashionable neighborhood. A little later he built a house at the northwest corner of Wabash avenue and Jackson street. His wife was Jennie Byrd Page, daughter of an Episcopal clergyman.
From the first he was interested in real estate investments, and four years after his arrival here he bought a 1,000 acre property at Elmhurst, which he named Byrd’s Nest. He was a persistent planter of trees, and he developed the place into a fine estate, where throughout his later years many men eminent in politics, art, and literature were entertained.
Mr. Bryan’s Byrd’s Nest in Elmhurst
Chief Public Service.
Chief among Mr. Bryan’s public services were his work in the union defense committee during the civil war; his work as president of the northwestern sanitary fair held in Chicago during war time, and which netted more than $300,000 for the support of the union cause; his service as commissioner of the District of Columbia under President Hayes; and, lastly, his work as head of the committee of congress as to the location of the World’s Columbian exposition.
In arguing for the location of the fair in Chicago before the senate committee he was pitted against Chauncey Depew, who spoke in behalf of New York and argued against the feasibility of holding a great international exposition in a city 1,000 miles inland.
Later, as special commissioner-at-large for the exposition, Mr. Bryan traveled throughout Europe, gained audiences with the pope and with many sovereigns, and won from all their indorsement from the project.
Once Was Worth $2,000,000.
At one time Mr. Bryan’s wealth was rated at $2,000,000, but lost heavily by the fire of 1871 and during the panic of 1873. In recent years he was in moderate circumstances financially. Some persons have given him credit for being the originator of the world’s fair plan, but he himself granted that service to others. However, he was a prime mover in the enterprise and at one time was head of the organization having it in hand. He was a patron of art and was noted as an after dinner speaker.
Once when asked to give advise to a boys’ club he wrote this for them:
- Take care of details;
Beware of cocktails.
Besides Col. Bryan, there was one other child in the family, Jennie B. Bryan, a well known artist.
1 Mr. Bryan settled with his family in Cottage Hill in 1856, where he built an estate on 1,000 acres at the corner of York and St. Charles Roads and called it Byrd’s Nest after his wife’s family. As a result of the Chicago Fire in 1871, Bryan lost $2 million when Bryan Hall, a political and social gathering place on Chicago’s Clark Street, was destroyed. A number of refugees from the Chicago Fire were welcomed at Byrd’s Nest, and many resettled near there permanently. Just prior Bryan had persuaded the town fathers to change the name to Elmhurst, in recognition of the trees that graced the area. Mr. Bryan has used the name “Elmhurst” in a Chicago Tribune advertisement published on December 12, 1868, while the post office name was changed from “Cottage Hill” to “Elmhurst” on January 7, 1869, and the town’s name was changed on March 1, 1869.