The first Postmaster of Chicago was an Indian trader named Jonathan N. Bailey, who was appointed March 31, 1831, and opened the post-office in a log house occupied as a store by John Stephen Coates Hogan, near the present corner of Lake and South Water streets. Some idea may be formed of the limited accommodations that were ample for the post-office of those days, when it is stated that the store only occupied an area of forty-five by twenty feet. In the summer of 1834, John L. Wilson became second assistant Postmaster, and about July of this year, the post-office was moved to near the corner of Franklin and South Water streets.
In the Log Building in the Foreground, at What Today is the Intersection of Lake and South Water Streets, Chicago’s First Post-Office Was Established in 1831
From a Painting Owned by the Chicago Historical Society
March 3, 1837, Sidney Abell was appointed Postmaster, and in May of this year, to accommodate the large increase in the business, the post-office was removed to Bigelow’s Building on Clark, between Lake and South Water streets, where it remained for some time and then removed to the noted Saloon Building.
July 10, 1841, William Stuart erroneously spelt Stewart in official records—the editor of the American, was appointed Postmaster, and by him the post-office was removed to the west side of Clark street, on the south side of the alley, next to the Sherman House, and is numbered 50 Clark Street in the directories of this period, and specified as being at that number in the several directories until 1852-53 ; when it is designated as ” upon Clark, between Randolph and Lake,” and in the directory of 1853-54, as on the east side of Clark Street, between Lake and Randolph. Hence the precise date of its removal from the west, to the east, side of Clark Street is undeterminable.
In the spring of 1855, the Government building on Monroe Street was commenced, and to the advocacy of John Wentworth, while a member of Congress in 1853, the appropriation for its erection is due; until its occupancy, the post-office occupied the ground floor of Nos. 84 to 92 Dearborn Street.
This building was described in detail in the February, 1866 issue of Chicago Illustrated.
Custom House & Post Office
John Carbutt, Photographer.
In 1871, the Chicago Post-office became the second in the United States in respect to the volume of business transacted. In 1879, the business showed an increase of nearly twenty-five per cent, over that of the preceding year, and as the average yearly increase is nearly as great, it is fair to presume, now that extra working facilities have been perfected and the force of clerks and carriers is larger than ever before, that the Chicago Post-office will keep steadily on the progressive inarch until it outstrips its only rival, New York. When the great fire of 1871 occurred, Colonel Frank A. Eastman was postmaster, and he served until December 20, 1873, when General John McArthur succeeded him.
Chicago Post Office and Custom House
Adams, Clark, Jackson, and Dearborn streets
The removal of the Post-office, after the fire of 1871, to Burlington Hall, and thence to the Wabash-avenue Methodist Church, have already been chronicled. The Post-office has passed through more ordeals by fire than any other of the Federal Departments. It was burned out in the July fire of 1874, and the business was removed to the West-side Station, at the corner of Halsted and Washington streets, where it remained forty days. On August 23, 1874, it was established in new quarters in the basement of the Honore Building, at the corner of Dearborn and Adams streets. On January 4, 1879, it was again burned out, and working quarters were then secured in the basement of the second Singer Building, later Marshall Field & Co.’s retail store, at the corner of State and Washington streets. There was but one entrance to the basement, and the quarters were cramped, unhealthful, and inadequate for the needs of ‘the service. On April 12, 1879, it was removed to the basement floor of the new Government building, which had hastily been put in readiness. Here the Post-office enjoyed the comparatively long rest from its travels of eighteen months, when its belongings were transferred up stairs to the main floor of the building, and it formally took possession of these quarters which had been provided for in the original plans of the building. During the period of the Honorè Block fire and the subsequent removals, Frank W. Palmer was postmaster, he having succeeded General McArthur on February 26, 1877.
This building’s weight was too great for the soil, and there has always been an uneven settlement, destructive in character, and at times dangerous to the occupants. To hold it together, heavy rods have been run through the upper walls. The material entering into the construction of this fabric is of the best—Buena Vista sandstone, steel, cement, terra cotta, brick, and marble. The heavy stone walls rise to a height, with their roof, of 102 feet, and there are 4 stories and basement. On the three upper floors are 65 rooms, occupied by 8 divisions with 20 different departments of the Government service. On the main floor, surrounded by a great lobby, is the Post Office. In the building are 3,500 employes, who use 1 freight, 10 mail, and 4 passenger elevators. Into this house, which never closes, it is estimated that 50,000 persons go every day.
Temporary Post Office
Washington and Lake Front
In 1905, it moved into an even more monumental Beaux-Arts edifice. Long a Chicago landmark, this building was hailed at the time of its construction as one of the largest and most expensive structures ever erected in the city. It was demolished in 1965, 33 years after the post office had moved out.
Chicago Post Office
The next Chicago Main Post Office is a nine-story-tall building designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White and built in 1931. The original structure was a brick-sided mail terminal building, still sited just east of the main building that engulfs the Eisenhower Expressway as it turns into Congress Parkway. Major expansion in 1932 added a total of nine floors for more than 60 acres, or 2.5 million square feet of floorspace. Its footprint, as initially designed, would have blocked the proposed Congress Parkway extension. As a compromise, a hole for the Parkway was reserved in the base of the Post Office and utilized twenty years later.[
This Chicago Post Office was the largest in the world, but it was designed to handle mail by rail; it did not have sufficient docking space for trucks, which began carrying more of the load in the 1950s. In 1966, delays in unloading trucks led to a massive logjam of mail that made national news headlines and grabbed the attention of Congress, ultimately resulting in legislation that transformed the Post Office Department into the United States Postal Service, an independent, self-supporting federal agency.
Sources: History of Chicago by Andreas. 1884
United States Postal Service