Chicago’s First Post Office
By J. Seymour Currey, Author of The Story of Old Fort Dearborn
Fort Dearborn Magazine December, 1922
There was no post-office at Chicago when Cook County was organized, March 8, 1831. On the 3lst of the same month the United States government established a post-office at Chicago and jonathan N. Bailey was appointed post master. The office of the postmaster was situated in a log building about where South Water street intersects Lake street near the east end of the bridge. John S. C. Hogan kept a store there. He was a son-in-law of the postmaster.
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
Before the post-office was established the mail was brought to Chicago by a half-breed Indian once in two weeks from Niles, Michigan, at town on the route from the east to Chicago, says Governor Bross in his history. The trip was made by the carrier on foot and usually took a week. There were then in Chicago, says Bross, only about a dozen families which, with the officers and soldiers of the garrison at the fort, constituted the entire population of the place. The Indians who resorted to this point for trading are not, however, included in this enumeration.
The arrival of the mail was naturally considered an event of greatest interest to the inhabitants, and the carrier was the most popular man of the day. Ft. Wayne was an important station in this service and Daniel McKee, who was for some years employed as carrier on this route, made a trip once a month between these points occupying fourteen days in doing so. A mail route extending from Detroit to Green Bay was in use during the winter season passing around the southern end of the lake, on which Chicago was a way station. The northern part of this route ran through a wild country without trails and having only its natural features to serve as landmarks. “Trusty carriers were hard to find,” says Mrs. Neville in her history of Green Bay, “although the pay was ample according to the scale of wages in those days—$45 to Milwaukee and return (from Green Bay) and $65 to Chicago and return.”
“The mail-carrier,” says Mrs. Neville, “was necessarily a man of tough fibre and strong nerve, for, burdened as he was with his pack, mail pouch and loaded musket, he was forced to keep on his feet day and night wading through snow so deep at times as to require snow shoes. When overcome with sleep be wrapped himself in his blanket and lay down in a snow-bank, taking such rest as he could with the wolves howling around him.” In E. O. Gale’s book of reminiscences he relates that Alexis Clermont, a famous mail-carrier of that time, on one occasion took breakfast with his father’s family the morning after his arrival at Chicago with mail, and it was noticed that he seemed anxious to start off on his return trip. The elder Gale asked him why he was in such a hurry and he replied that he slept better out of doors than in a cabin.
In M. H. Putney’s “Historical Notes” is given the following information regarding the movements of mail-carriers:
In 1831, the mail was carried on foot once a month
In 1832, on horseback once a week
In 1833, by wagon once a week
In 1834, by stage semi-weekly
In 1835 and 1836, by stage tri-weekly
In 1837, by stage daily: and after that time at in creasingly short intervals.
Bailey served as postmaster until November 2, 1832, when he was succeeded by his son-in-law, John S. C. Hogan, who moved the post-office to the south west corner of Franklin and South Water streets.
The Illinois and Michigan Canal Commissioners hired James Thompson, a surveyor from Kaskaskia in downstate Randolph County, to create Chicago’s first plat in 1830. He laid out the town with straight streets uniformly 66 feet wide (the length of a surveyor’s chain) with alleys 16 feet wide bisecting each block.