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The actual origin of the name Kilgubbin, that identifies the early Irish settlements in Chicago, has been lost. The name seems to be associated with a townland in County Cork named Kilgobbin, located four miles west of the seaside resort town of Kinsale, twenty-two miles southwest of Cork city. The population of Kilgobbin, grouped with several other contiguous townlands, was approximately two hundred. The idyllic Kilgobbin encompasses almost 1,300 acres.
Illustrated London News, Spring, 1851
Emigrants on the quay at County Cork, Ireland, which was hit the hardest during the potato famine.
Between 1845 and 1855, it has been estimated that over 2 million people left Ireland, almost all bound for the United States or Canada.
Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1863
SQUATTERS DISPOSSESSED.—Twenty-four squatters on the south ninety feet of lot 4, block 6 in the original town of Chicago, were dispossessed by verdict of a jury, yesterday, at Justice Summerfield’s office, before whom as many suits for forcible entry and detainer were brought by Ebenezer Andrews, Joseph E. Otis and Hiram Wheeler, the owners of the property. We understand it is contemplated to erect a block of buildings on the ground.
Inter Ocean, August 28, 1863
The owners of the fragrant and classic region known as “Kilgubbin” brought suit some weeks ago against the squatters who for the last ten or fifteen years ago have held possession of the locality to oblige them to evacuate the premises. They refused to leave and today nine dwellings were demolished, being literally pulled down over the heads of the tenants, who were very angry at the eviction.
First Kilgubbin Settlement
Block 6, Lot 4
Surveyed by Henry Hart
Chicago Times, August 6, 18651
By John Mansir Wing
Contrary to a prevalent opinion, Wells street does not contain all the wretchedness, poverty and vice in Chicago. Its crowded tenements and seething alleys of prostitution and crime are directly under the eye of the police, who never relax their relentless vigilance. There are other sources whence came frequent complaints, to annoy and puzzle the officers. These are the “patches” where the sons of the Emerald Isle have “squatted.” built their seven-by-nine shanties, reared their offspring and bred their extensive droves of geese, hens, cows, dogs and cats. The progress of civilization, the rapid growth of the city, and the consequent increase in the value of the property, do not seem to exert much influence upon these people. Wherever a block of land, or, perchance, a dreary sand hill along the lake, is in litigation, or of doubtful title, they find it out as if by instinct; up goes the shanty, which has perhaps been removed from some other locality upon the backs of joint proprietors, Paddy and Biddy. This single land-mark having been erected, a village of shanties soon grown up, which can only be displaced by the whole police force united or by some action of the elements. A squatter clings to a piece of ground with bull-dog tenacity. The unlucky owner of the property might as well attempt to depopulate half the city as to get them off his land. They are no more to be exterminated than are flies and mosquitos. The shanty once erected, the pig sty built and the garden fenced in and planted, the squatter is as confident of his right of possession as if he held a deed to the land. If a proprietor or land agent tells him to get off the premises, he laughs at the idea, and insists that he himself owns the place. If his residence is interfered with, he claims damages for trespass, and a long legal quarrel ensues, which obliges the real owner of the land to hunt up titles and surveys, until the thing has cost more money than the property is worth. Consequently a self possessed squatter remains undisturbed on his patch. If the first to find out the doubtful title of the land, the settlement that grows up around him is governed a good deal by what he says and does. He invites emigration to his patch, and an endless tide soon sets in. Woe be to the real estate agent, when such hegira commences, and turns towards lands in his possession. His title is no longer worth the match to light it. As well might be attempt the conquest of the Brahmin empire, as to regain possession.
Second Kilgubbin Settlement 2
No road access to island
Published by Chas. Shober & Co.
At the head of the list of the squatter villages of Chicago stands Kilgubbin, the largest shanty settlement within its limits. It has a varied history, having been the terror of constables, sheriffs and policemen in days that are past. It was, perhaps, the earliest settlement of the kind in Chicago, and at one time approached nearer to the squatter settlements of Gotham, than any other in the west. The advance of time and civilization has removed this classic locality several times. Its first site was on North Kinzie street, westward along the river ad infinitum. It numbered several years ago many thousand inhabitants, of all ages and habits, besides large droves of geese, goslings, pigs and rats. It was a safe retreat for criminals, policemen not venturing to invade its precincts, or even cross the border, without having a strong reserve force.
The oldest inhabitants tell strange stories about murder and arson that hatched in this retreat, and children were frightened into submission by threats of being “sent to the Kilgubbin.” The authorities finally got the better of them, and they gained more respect for the star of authority. Civilization pressed close in upon them, and the squatters emigrated slowly but surely westward. Rude land owners and sheriffs rushed in upon the shanties, and demolished them; building mills, dwellings and manufactories on the old site of Kilgubbin. The squatters soon settled on other lands, and reared other villages.
The locality now known by the euphonious name situated in the West Division, northward of Chicago avenue, to the point where Carpenter street strikes the river. It extends north, south, east and west, in so many offshoots that it is difficult to define the exact limit. Where the shanties are there is Kilgubbin; and where a landlord has been bold enough to erect a building, Kilgubbin is not, until its shadow is passed. The present patch contains from forty to fifty acres of land, most of which is of doubtful title, in actual litigation, or owned by Eastern capitalists, who care how it is occupied, so long as the growth of the city continues yearly to enhance its value.
A slight sketch of Kilgubbin society and of its private residences will convey an idea of squatter life generally. When the writer hereof visited the classic locality, on Saturday morning, the weather was damp, and the unpaved streets of the settlement anything but “beautiful to the touch.” The place was in possession of the women and children, the men having gone to their daily labor, in all quarters of the city. Here and there goose ponds were laid out in the streets, with great care as to effect. They were directly where a traveller wanted to stop, and it was a long and muddy distance around them. Large flocks of goslings inhabit these stagnant pools; to kill of stone one of which could be instant death to the intruder. The geese cackle and hiss as you pass, as if no one but a resident had any business there. They seem to fear a land owner whenever a strange footstep is heard, an instinct early instilled into all the chattels of the squatter. They spread their wings and run off to the door of the nearest shanty. This brings the mistress out of doors, whose appearance may be briefly described:
The genuine squatter’s wife is short and thick, with an abundance of red hair and flesh. She is never without a broomstick in her hands, and never can be thrown off her guard. Her face is exceedingly red, and tells of “potations deep,” and not of the best quality. She is attired in a tattered dress, with sleeves rolled up. Barefoot in the latest style for the extremities, and she is in the fashion. She at once takes you for an eastern land owner, and is prepared to call together all the women of the patch, if she ascertains such to be the fact. If, however, you succeed in making her believe that you are a chance visitor, she becalms her passions, especially if a greenback is placed in her itching palm. Then she will show you through her shanty, and introduce you to her neighbors.
A typical Goose Island residence as depicted by the Chicago Times in 1891.
The shanties are generally divided into three apartments. In the first, which may be termed the parlor, are quartered the cow and pig. In the second apartment, or the dining room, the goslings and geese, hens and chickens roost, secure from prowling marauders of policemen. Further on is the kitchen, considered the most magnificent room in the house, by the mistress herself. If her cows, pigs, geese, goslings and hens are comfortably provided for, it does not matter any further. In this third apartment, separated from the others by a chinkless partition, are between ten and a dozen children, lying upon the floor in rows, in the most squalid rags and filth. A rickety bedstead serves for the proprietors of the establishment. This is the ultimatum of squatter desire. ‘Every thing under the same roof is secure,’ runs the proverb, which must have been well learned in Kilgubbin.
These shanties are almost boardless, or, at least, the majority of them. The elements find easy access, especially to the last mentioned apartment. They are sometimes enclosed by a low fence, and surrounded by a small patch of cabbages and potatoes, illy hoed and thriftless. How humanity can exist in such a place is a mystery.
Robinson’s Fire Atlas of Chicago
Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1906
Members of the Chicago Geographic society yesterday paid a visit of “exploration” to Goose Island. To their surprise, they found that the inhabitants of Goose Island are far from being savages.
The party, sixty-three in number, made the trip on the gasoline launch American Eagle, leaving the south end of the Clark street pier at 9 a.m. The boat returned in the evening. The party was headed by R. E. Blaunt, and the novelty of the novelty of the trip proved an attraction.
Although the men of the party would not admit they experienced any fear when they approached Goose Island, they intimated they were prepared for happenings that would not be countenanced in a drawing room, so florid were the pictures of the character and habits of the people of Goose Island painted.
They found, however, that the popular impression of the place is unwarranted. The people there were too busy at their work or household duties to pay much attention to their visitors.
“We had heard so much of the inhabitants of Goose Island that we actually believed they had an independent government of their own, and were beyond the jurisdiction of the laws of Illinois,” said one member of the party. “It was with fear that some of us beheld the little island as we approached, for we thought that the natives might disturb the pleasure of our trip.”
Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1900
The Finance committee of the City Council yesterday agreed to recommend the placing of a fire engine company with equipment on Goose Island. George J. Brine of Armour & Co. said his firm would build the engine-house. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. PAul road has agreed to donate the use of a site.
“There is $10,000,000 worth of property on the island without fire protection.” said Chairman Holmes of the Underwriters’ association. “Mayor Harrison and Chief Sweenie favor establishing an engine company there. I expect that the present attempt will be a success. The island is cut off whenever the bridges at Chicago avenue and Division street are out of repair.”
For some time the underwriters have considered increasing rates in the Goose Island district on account of the inadequate fire service. This will not be done if the places a fire company on the island.
Goose Island Fire Department
Engine Company 90
Chicago Daily News
February 11, 1907
John Drury’s Map of Goose Island
Chicago Daily News
March 26, 1930
Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1930
Fire caused by spontaneous combustion of grain dust last night destroyed property valued at $750,000 on Goose Island, including a grain elevator and 200,000 bushels of rye. Sixty-five engines and trucks and the two fire boats, the Graeme Stewart and the Illinois, were called upon.
The fire started with an explosion at 5:30 o’clock in a seven-story structure known as the Minnesota elevator and owned by the Rosenbaum Grain corporate America. It is situated at 1325 Hooker street, just south of North avenue, alongside the river.
The elevator was one of a group built in 1898 by Philip D. Armour Sr., when Joseph Leiter was engineering his famous wheat deal which collapsed after he had cornered 40,000,000 bushels in an operation that cost the family $16,000,000. As the date approached for delivery Armour found he had no place to store the incoming grain. He hired carpenters and built three elevators on Goose Island in record time—30 days—and for years afterward these were known as the “Armour Thirty Day” elevators.
Goose Island became more industrial after the turn of the century. This fire destroyed the last of the grain elevators built on Goose Island. By 1937 only 30 families resided on the island. By 1974 no more than six persons lived on the island.
1 The Chicago Times was a newspaper in Chicago from 1854 to 1895. It merged with the Chicago Herald (1881-1918) in 1895. Not to be confused with the Chicago Daily Times (1929-1948) which merged with the Chicago Sun (1941-1948) in 1948 to become the Chicago Sun-Times.
2 The first bridge over the Chicago River at Division Street was opened in 1869, The first bridge over the Canal was opened in 1870. In 1902 a temporary bridge crossed the river at Blackhawk Street while a new bridge was being built at Division Street. This bridge was removed in 1910.