Back to Notorious Chicago
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.
Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1868
The Contract for the construction of Division street bridge (river) was yesterday awarded by the Board of Public Works to Fox & Howard, for the sum of $15,794.84 and sixty cents per cubic yard for filling the approaches on either side. The bridge to be similar in style and design to Clark street bridge.
Robinson’s Fire Atlas of Chicago
Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1885
Something More Than Its Name Indicates.
There are probably a good many people who have lived in Chicago for several years without having ever heard of such a place as “Goose Island.” It is a strip of land extending about a mile—from Chicago avenue to North avenue. big bend in the river towards the west forms one boundary, and the other is a canal on its eastern side, which was dug about the time of the War for the suppression of the Rebellion. At first the island was uninhibited, then tenanted by squatters, and as late as seven years ago it only contained one coal and one lumber yard. Now it is fairly covered with business plants, all except about four blocks, which were bought up by P. D. Armour a few days ago. It contains thirteen lumber, eleven coal, three stone, two slab, and two sand yards, besides two grain elevators erected by the Chicago & Pacific Elevator Company, the second of which is just finished. The two have a capacity for storing 1,750,000 bushels of grain, and are fitted with the most modern and best-approved appliances for handling it, including arrangements for turning it when needed to keep it in good condition.
The river itself and the canal above referred to have recently been dredged out to a depth sufficient to permit the passage of craft as large as can navigate other portions of the Chicago “creek,” and the stream is spanned by bridges at the principal thoroughfares, while the railroad tracks are crossed by viaducts which permit the free passage of teams to and from the different places on Goose Island, with even less of hinderance than is experienced at several other tracks in the city. It is already owned in part by the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company, and that corporation will probably occupy a large portion of its area in the near future. The grain trade of the city, especially, has in the recent elevator improvements on Goose Island a much needed addition to its facilities, which will probably be the means of materially increasing its hold on the great wheat-raising sections of the Northwest.
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
Smoke Abatement Map
Chicago Daily News, March 26, 1930
“What puzzles me,” said Randolph Streeter, the debonair loophound, as he sat contentedly smoking his pipe—what puzzles me is why these people who look up remote parts of the world to explore don’t stay at home and explore their own backyard. There’s so much to be seen in your own neighborhood or city as in Timbuctu or Bangkok. It’s all in your point of view.”
Randolph Streeter, seated in the Wells street restaurant, was vehement.
“What’s your point, Randie?” some one in the group asked.
“Just this,” he replied. “I propose to get up an expedition to explore the fastnesses of Goose island, almost in the heart of Chicago—an island, gentlemen, that once loomed large in our local folklore and bore a race of people that did much toward building the great metropolis which enfold it.”
“But see here, what do you expect to find there today?” some one was asked.
“Wait a minute,” said Streeter. “Since hearing of J. G. Whosis’ expedition O have engaged in extensive research work into the history of Goose island. And now I want to show you the discovery upon which I shall base my own expedition.”
Putting his pipe down, Randolph Streeter reached intohis coat pocket and brought forth an old, tattered map of Goose island, He laid it in the table and explained things as the group crowded around.
“This map, Gentlemen,” explained Mr. Streeter, “was found among the effects of the late John Mullen, ‘mayor’ of Goose island in the ’70s. It gives a clear indication of the civilization that once flourished on the island—a civilization since scattered by the smoky march of industry. I located it in the possession of Sergt. James Mullen, a member of the constabulary in the metropolis on the mainland and a son of ‘Mayor’ Mullen. As a matter of fact, I have succeeded in locating scores of descendants of Goose islanders as well as native-born. They are scattered in all sections of Chicago.
“What do I expect to find there today? Well, there won’t be any tree-climbing fish, for one thing, and the geese are all gone. The region is mostly filled with prosperous manufacturing plants. But, would you believe it, gentlemen, there are still a few of the original natives on the island, as well as several of the ancient industries. Tale a look at this map. There is ‘Little Johnnie’s tavern on North Branch street. Conducted by John Langan, this inn was one of the most popular gathering places on the island. Prohibition has closed the tavern, but Joe Langan, a son of ‘Little Johnnie,’ still lives upstairs.
“And see this tannery across from Langan’s tavern, now known as Griess-Pfieger Tanning company? That’s the same one where the late William E. Dever, former mayor of Chicago, worked as a laborer to earn enough money to go to night school and study law. Among the natives still living there are John Connerton and his father, Paddy Gibbons, Jack Raymond, Walter Joyce and his wife, Mrs. Anne Cunningham, Mrs. Mamie Langan and Mrs. Anne Murphy. And up on Division street, the main shopping thoroughfare of Goose island in the old days, is the home of Mrs. Catherine Groves, now Mrs. Bert Bauman. Across the street is the ancient wooden fire barn, still occupied by a fire-engine company.
“I might say here, gentlemen, that a good deal of my information comes from John T. Gibbens, a retired policeman detailed to the county treasurer’s office, who was born and reared on Goose island. He tells how the early islanders were a God-fearing people, despite the fact there was no house of worship there. They had to go a long way over the mainland to a parish church. He goes on to describe hot summer nights among the lonely arc lights of the island, when folks would ‘rush the can’ to Johnnie Langan’s tavern or McCormick’s place up near Division street; he tells of the big swing the kids enjoyed—almost 30 feet high—at the juncture of North Branch street and Cherry avenue; of Jack Butcher’s saloon and the Saturday night dances in the basement of Mike Meyer’s place; of ‘Mayor’ John Mullen and his Irish wit; of the baseball diamonds and swimming holes at the north end, among the hot weedy prairies, and of the night the big grain elevator burned down.
“Oh—and another thing, my friends—Gibbons tells me that the father of Finley Peter Dunne, creator of the famous ‘Mr. Dooley‘ stories, worked as a ship’s carpenter in the shipyard of Fox & Howard on what they called ‘The Point,’ opposite Montgomery Ward’s. The northern tip of Goose island was a ship basin, as it is today. An old industry still active is the American varnish works, at Division street.”
“How dis Goose island get its name, Randle?” some one asked.
“Well,” he explained, “in addition to having cabbage patches back of
their cottages, the islanders were noted for the large number of geese they kept. As a result, the newspaper wits of the time gave it the nickname of ‘Goose island,’ and many were the stories that told of the feats and prowess of the islanders. Officially it was known as Ogden island, named after William Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago.”
“Have you chartered a shop for your expedition yet?” one of the “round table” diners asked.
“Indeed, sir, I have,” replied Randolph Streeter. “I’m going to use that famous river vessel, the Sandmaster, because of the facility with which it negotiates the bridge-incumbered reaches of the Chicago river. We shall have to follow the Northwest passage, since the island is about 43 degrees north latitude and 36 degrees longitude due west of Greenwich and northwest of the loop. Since we cannot start until navigation is at its best I propose to occupy——”
But at this point Randolph Streeter was interrupted. Everybody looked up to see who was coming into the restaurant. It was no other than Robert J. Casey, who was about to leave for Easter island in the Pacific. The group lost no time in telling him about Randolph Streeter’s proposed expedition to Goose island. Casey laughed loudly.
“Why, say, I explored that island thoroughly last summer to get material for my murder mystery serial, ‘The Niblick Murders,'” said he. “Tell me of some island I haven’t explored, and what of it?”
John Drury’s Map of Goose Island
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.