History of Chicago, Volume I, A. T. Andreas, 1884
By March, 1833, the State road leading from Chicago to the left bank of the Wabash River, opposite Vincennes, was completed, and during the spring and summer of that year, various minor roads were laid out. Thus, even at this early period, Chicago was becoming a road center. When, later, plank roads commenced to be built, Chicago also took the lead and drew in the trade of all the country around. In August the town of Chicago was incorporated, and one of the orders of the Trustees was given to the first official orders of the Trustees was given to the Surveyor to “pitch” South Water Street from the United States Reservation to Randolph Street, on or before April, 1834. In these days Benjamin Jones was Street Commissioner, and he and his successors were autocrats in their way. The law empowered them to call out anybody between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, to work upon the streets and bridges for three days per annum. The territory within which this law operated covered the country one mile from the center of the town limits. During July, 1834, the Surveyor was required to graduate South Water Street, so that “water should flow from each cross street into the river.” South Water and Lake streets were the two principal thoroughfares of the village, and therefore were early turnpiked and graded. Plank sluices were also built across Clark Street, to carry the drainage to the South Branch, and that street was somewhat improved in 1836.
In the fall of that year Canal Street was turnpiked and far north as Kinzie ; Lake Street similarly improved as far west as Desplaines, and Randolph Street from the river to the west side of Section 9. As late as July 9, 1836, the American calls attention to a pond of water on Lake Street, corner of La Salle, inhabited by frogs.” It smells strong now, and in a few days will send out a horrible stench.” By the winter of 1836 the leading thoroughfares were turnpiked. The next spring Hiram Pearsons commenced to improve his north addition to Chicago, advertising for proposals for ” clearing, grubbing and grading ” Market, Franklin, Chicago Avenue, La Salle, Clark and Dearborn streets also Union, Desplaines, Peyton, Canal, Webster, Spring, Harmon, Hamilton, George, Maria, Elizabeth, Catharine streets, and one-half of Division Street, in the same addition, making in all, fourteen and one-half miles of streets. Most of this work was accomplished before Mr. Pearsons went into bankruptcy in July, 1842.
For several years the work of grading, grubbing and crudely improving the streets went on, but it was not until 1849 that the authorities commenced to generally plank them. As a rule this work amounted to less than nothing, for when the heavy teams broke up the planks, and wet weather came, the pavement was a dangerous and active weapon, flying up into horses’ faces and dashing foot-passengers with mud. As late as 1868 relics of the broken plank could be seen on Blue Island Avenue, and as late as 1859 West Madison and State streets were laid with this planking. Descriptive of the “pavements” of these early days is the following paragraph taken from Brass’s History:
- I said we had no pavements in 1848. The streets were simply thrown up as country roads. In the spring for weeks, portions of them would be impassable. I have at different times seen empty wagons and drays stuck on Lake and Water streets on even” block between Wabash Avenue and the river. Of course there was little or no business doing, for the people of the city could not get about much, and the people of the country could not get in to doit. As the clerks had nothing to do, they would exercise their wits by putting boards from dry goods boxes in the holes where the last dray was dug out, with significant signs, as No Bottom Here,’ ‘The Shortest Road to China.’ Sometimes one board would be nailed across another, and an old hat and coat fixed on it. with the notice ‘On His Way to the Lower Regions.’ In fact, there was no end to the fun; and jokes of the boys of that were of larger growth—were without number. Our first effort at paving, or one of the first, was to dig down Lake Street to nearly or quite on a level with the lake, and then plank it. It was supposed that the sewage would settle in the gutters and be carried off, but the experiment was a disastrous failure, for the stench at once became intolerable. The street was then filled up, and the Common Council established a grade from two to six or eight feet above the natural level of the soil.
The planking of Lake Street, referred to above, was ordered by the Common Council January 22, 1849, and was from the west side of State to the river, through the center of the street, forty-eight feet wide. Prior to 1849 the attention of the citizens had been called to the fruitlessness of using stone pavements upon the streets of Chicago. It did not seem a profitable investment for the city to lay down a pavement which would sink out of sight in one or two years. The experiment of laying plank roads had proved a success in Canada and New York, and accordingly in 1849 the Common Council determined to plank the principal streets of this city. In 1849-50 Market, State, South and North Clark, LaSalle, Wells, East and West Madison and West Randolph were treated to a coating of this material (nearly three miles of pavements) at a cost of $31,000.
Soon after this was commenced a general numbering of the streets In the spring of 1848, Clark Street was numbered from South Water to Randolph. In July,
Chicago Chronicle, October 6, 1895
There is no other street in the world like South Water street in Chicago. Other cities that have fruit and produce markets have them scattered. In South Water street all of the fruit, melon and berry raising states, as well as produce, and the fruit countries from across the sea, on the Caribbean coast, come in contact. A man can gather, for cash, the grapes of Samaria in the same house where he can purchase onions, carrots, potatoes and chickens and geese. The street is not only sui geneneris in the respect cited; it is as cosmopolitan as the big bridge at Constantinople, where, it is said, one can meet an inhabitant from every country under the sun. From South Water street every house, hotel, cafe, restaurant and fruit stand in Chicago is directly or indirectly suplied with produce, fruit and game. From the same thoroughfare, running from Market street to Michigan avenue, in a zigzag line, nine block is supplied the homes and markets of towns within the radius of 100 miles.
The present is what the South Water street dealer calls his busy season. To the visitor it is always busy. But the dealer—the merchant—counts it busiest from June until November. That is the season when the earth appears to be unloading its fruit on South Water street.
Specialties of All Kinds.
It is not possible within the scope of an article like this to give an intelligent idea of the extent of the different lines of fruit shipped to Chicago and from here distributed. The sales of no houses on any line are alike. Every house has a specialty of some kind. There is one merchant there who makes a specialty of goose eggs. For the purpose of this article is only a generalization of the fruit feature of this market. At present the apple is in its glory, although the grape is what the sporting man would call a good second. The banana is like a poor relation. It is always with the market. It arrives every day in the year. The peach season is now in its decline. Housekeepers who have not yet “put up” pickles and preserves will pay dear for them from this on. The consumption of apples for the present season cannot be estimated, for the season is just at its zenith.
But one may judge of it in the same way that old Patrick Henry judged of the future—by looking backward. Last year about 1,500,000 barrels of apples were sold on South Water street. Of this quantity 30 per cent was sold for home consumption. This year, it is estimated, the sales will be larger. It all depends upon the season. This year there have been apples everywhere an apple can be grown, except in California. There the crop is a failure. But what has been a loss to the glorious climate is a gain to other sections. A South Water street merchant who has an agreeable and original way of expressing himself said:
- There are four counties in southern Illinois which will produce 1,000,000 barrels of apples this fall. They have apples to walk on down there.
And still there is always a demand for certain varieties. The general crop may be enormous, but some special variety will be short.
The apple season begins in South Water street in the latter part of May. The first crop comes from Tennessee. The latter part of July the crops from Illinois begin to arrive and in August those from Michigan and Missouri come in; later southern Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas contribute their quota. The New York crop is just now coming in, and will continue to arrive until December. Canada heretofore has sent in the last apples of the season, but the tariff has turned the crop the other way, until, according to one of the dealers of the street, a Toronto apple grower can deliver a barrel of apples on the Liverpool dock cheaper than he can to any point in the United States.
When the apple crop is landed in Chicago, at the various seasons for it, it finds its way, except the crop from California, to the dealer to whom it is consigned. The dealer is usually like the coal man—he knows where he is to deliver his consignment and for how much. He knows about how much he will sell to Chicago dealers, and sometimes the consignment is taken direct from the car by the consumer.
After deducting these sales from the original consignment the dealer knows, in a general way, about how many apples he will have to store for winter. Last winter there were in storage for consumption in Chicago 180,000 barrels of apples.
Left: The Fruit Trade in Chicago—The Wholesaler.
Right: The Fruit Trade in Chicago—The Retailer.
Bananas Always On Sale.
The banana leads in point of quantity in fruit sales in Chicago. One reason for this is that the banana comes in daily from Central America. It is the inexhaustive product of that country. As most people in Chicago have been told before, quite often, the banana is cut in its green condition, and, if the fruit has had proper care, it is green when it reaches Chicago. It is shipped from the vessels that arrive in New Orleans and Mobile, and is ripened here. Ten houses on South Water street make a specialty of bananas. Oe of these houses receives an average of 800 car loads of bananas each season. The others average 350 car loads. Two-thirds of the bananas received here are shipped to more northerly and northwestern points, and the remaining third, according to one of the big dealers, is sold to the retail fruit dealers and the men who have fruit stands on the corners. The latter sometimes club together and buy a car load of bananas, as well as other fruits, and divide the shipment. By reason of its quickness in ripening the banana is the most difficult fruit to handle from the standpoint of profit. The life of the banana is from fifteen to twenty days. The big houses that handle this fruit ripen it on order, provided the order is made in time.
Fruit From the Coast.
Most of California fruit sold in Chicago is sold at auction by the Producers’ association, at their agency offices in this city. The average number of cars knocked down is thirty per day. The cars are sold by catalogue. Fir example, the auctioneer shows a catalogue containing so many packages of different fruits, in each car. Every producer sends his own package. The purchaser buys according to catalogue and as soon as the sales are over the cars are opened and each purchaser takes out what he has bought. Most of this California fruit finds its way, after a second handling, to the fruit stands on the corners. The California varieties this year consist of peaches, plums, pears and grapes. The apple crop is a failure.
Later on—in fact, first shipments are now arriving—come the grapes from Spain and Samaria. There are vessels landing in the port of New York now, and others will arrive, the cargoes of which will consist entirely of grapes from the two countries named. These grapes are the ones that we buy in winter when all others are gone or become useless. They pack their grapes in foreign countries in cork sawdust and put them in kegs. If one grape decaps it is absorbed by the sawdust and the others on the stem are not affected by it. These grapes are the last to come into the market.
Trade In Watermelons.
The melon season is virtually over, although yesterday ten car loads from Illinois and Iowa were on the tracks. The average receipts of watermelons for the season has been forty carloads. If the melon is medium size 1,000 constitute a car load. Chicago consumed nearly one-half of this amount during the summer just passed. The nutmeg melon has had its day this season, although there is a daily receipt of this variety all the year round. A man who wants to have the products of all seasons represented in a dinner can have them in Chicago any day.
While the retail dealers constitute a large share of patronage of the South Water street business men, the man on the corner with a fruit stand, or in the doorways and corridors of the public buildings, has a trade that is not to be despised. There are a thousand or more of these fruit stands in Chicago, and most of them must keep fresh fruit. This is particularly true of the street dealer in the business center. If the fruit inspector attends to his business he fins that he has plenty to do to look out for unhealthy fruit and measures that are curiously constructed. Besides the street corner dealers are several hundred hucksters; men who buy on South Water street, and who drive away in the early hours of the morning and wake you from refreshing slumber with their cries. Some of the sympathy for Italy and Spain has been turned to wormwood in this country because of these hucksters. They hail from South Water street. For that matter, as before intimated, so does everything else that is eaten in Chicago.
Chicago Tribune July 11, 1909
Chicago Tribune August 30, 1925
By Genevieve Foebes Herrick
Old South Water Street, full of years and memories, died at noon yesterday.
For all her four score years and more, the old lady did a mighty lot of work up to her very last hour, for the really thought she’d have to give up. “Way back in 1871, directly after the Chicago fire had made a clean sweep pf all her belongings, she had received death threats. But she laughed them off.
“There can never be another South Water street,” she had challenged.
Later, when the new mart at Jackson boulevard and Wells street was abandoned after a three months’ trial, she had added, “And there never will be another.”
Sees End Coming.
Along about 1915 the talk of civic improvement and the Chicago Plan commission gave her a bad half hour., but she clung fast to her throne. For the last month or two, however, she has felt the end coming. So everything was in readiness yesterday noon for the big move over to the new South Water market, located in the six blocks bounded by 14th place, the Baltimore and Ohio Chicago terminal tracks, South Morgan street, and South Racine avenue.
The old lane, half a mile long and fifty feet wide, jammed with sweating peddlers pushing their feverish way between scraping wagon wheels, crates of apples, and the hoofs of straining horses, may not have had the refrigeration pipes and the gray tile that the new $17,000,000 city of iced lettuce, sweet corn, and cackling geese has, but the old area smells and all, had a history that will be hard ti beat, old-timers on “the street” reflected yesterday.
Last Day of South Water Street
August 27, 1925
Had Start in Early Forties.
The famous street, whose recent annual business has been estimated between $300,000,000 and $500,000,000, welcomed its first produce market in the early forties, when a small group of commission merchants centered about South Water street between Wells and Dearborn streets.
As early as the first years of the nineteenth century, there was an informal trading post at the Chicago river where Indians and settlers bartered what they had foe what have you. A few years later, Mark Beaubien’s famous tavern on Lake street was a meeting place for the earliest commission merchants.
Another gathering place was the Chicago Board of Trade, organized in 1848, with C. H. Dryer its first president, and Dearborn and South Water street its first location. About the time the civil war it moved to the corner of “the street” and La Salle street. All the leading merchants, regardless of their line of business, were members of the board. A noon luncheon of cheese and crackers was served each day.
Old Days Recalled.
William Bartels, on “the street for fifty years,” recalls the old days:
- In 1861 the buildings on the south side of the street were much the same as they are today, from the outside appearance at least. On the north side, on the river, it was irregularly built. The Chicago Board of Trade was between Wells and La Salle, with a 150 foot frontage and 75 foot depth, an entrance at both ends of the building. At the northeast corner of Wells and the street was the Latham salt yard.
At the northeast corner, at La Salle, was a lake transportation dock, extending some 200 feet east of La Salle. The northeast corner, at Clark, was the site of the offices, sumptuous for those days of the Julian S. Rumsey grain firm. Mr. Rumsey was at one time mayor of Chicago.
Among the grain and floor merchants who later occupied important places on the Board of Trade, Mr. Bartels lists the following:
A.M. Wright & Co.
Charles Pape & Co.
George J. Brine
Culver & Co.
Raymond & Co.
South Water Street Vendor
No Tickers, No Telephones.
In those early days there were no tickers, no telephones. It was not until the end of 1865 that the first cable advices were received from England or the continent. Merchants awaited the arrivals of steamers at New York to ascertain what the English markets were. But “business was fine,” Mr. Bartels recalls.
The street level was from four to eight feet below the sidewalks and all that was necessary in making a load was for the driver, casually enough, to back his wagon up to the sidewalk and haul his quota of butter and eggs and hide and chickens on in a truck.
In winter the pioneer commission merchant doubled as a purveyor of hogs. Farmers within a radius of 100 miles killed the hogs and toted them into the market on bobsleds up to South Water street, near Clark and Wells.
South Water Street Scene. The Eastland ticket office can be seen on the left.
Super-Versatile Dealer Passes.
The super-versatile commission merchant who sells hay and hides, butter and eggs, pieplant and flour, disappeared long ago. Thomas S. Smith, apple dealer, who has been located at 29 West South Water street, pointed out yesterday.
“The modern technology, on ‘the street’ as well as in other fields of business,” Mr. Smith said, “is toward specialization.”
In the early days Chicago’s lumber market was located at Franklin and South Water streets. The Chicago river, at this point, was frequently clogged with sailboats and steamers of the schooner type, from Clark street to the Lake street bridges. And an agile adventurer, could he have made the one big jump in the middle where a passage for traveling boats was opened, could have crossed from one side of the river to the other, so closely packed were the boats.
With an exhaustion of timber on both shores of Lake Michigan, the lumber cargo market virtually went out of existence in 1905, and is now supplanted by railroad shipments in carloads.
After the big fire promoters endeavored to change the commission market to Wells street and Jackson boulevard, extending north on Wells. New buildings were erected. More than one prominent firm made the change. But the old mart had too good a hold on trade. After a bit the majority of Wells street pioneers were back on “the street.”
And everybody said, “There never can be another South Water street.”
The first link of the new Wacker drive, the piece between Franklin and Market streets, will be opened to traffic tomorrow at noon. President John J. Sloan of the board of local improvements announced yesterday. At the same time wreckers will start demolishing buildings on the north side of South Water street east of La Sale street,
Showing South Water Street as it was in 1917, congested with market wagons and handling a business which the plan commission says it has long outgrown.
Men loading peaches at Water Street Market.
South Water Street intersection.
South River Street
South Water Street
Robinson Fire Map
South Water Street
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map
Commemorating South Water Street in 1924
This is looking west toward Franklin Street. On the left (SW corner of Clark and So Water) is the Horatio G. Loomis Block. and directly across is the Dole Building.
Chicago River Walk
Looking West Toward Franklin Street
June 11, 2021
To make way for a complete transformation of the waterfront, the Water Street Market was relocated to a spot south of 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road) between Morgan Street and Racine Avenue. It continued to operate there as the South Water Market through 2001, when it moved on again, even further from the city center.
The scene presented in this picture of one of the central business points of the city, is by no means exaggerated. The view is taken from South Water Street, east of Clark, looking west. It exhibits the southern approach to Clark Street bridge being open and travel suspended. The block west of the approach to the bridge is devoted to commercial business, and is occupied by insurance agencies, forwarding and commission merchants, brokers and others. The view extends westwardly to Franklin Street.
One of the greatest obstructions to business in the streets of Chicago, is the suspension of trade between the several Divisions, occasioned by the opening of the bridges to permit vessels to pass to and fro on the river. This inconvenience, which in the season of navigation is very great, will, in a few years be remedied by the construction of tunnels under the river and its branches. The first of these tunnels is now in course of construction, and will be finished in 1868. If it is successful, the others will follow immediately.
James W. Sheahan