ONE YEAR AFTER—THE RESTORATION OF CHICAGO
The Lakeside Monthly, October, 1872
Part I Reconstruction.
Part II Public Works and Buildings
Part III Churches and Schools
Part IV Private Buildings
Part V Business Blocks
Part VI Amusements, Arts, and Science
Part VII Chicago and Its Railways
Part VIII The Year as Seen From the Board of Trade
Lakeside Monthly, October, 1872
THE YEAR AS SEEN FROM THE BOARD OF TRADE.
Perhaps no feature of the business of Chicago in the past has elicited more marked attention than its trade in the various forms of the earth’s products. Merchandizing, manufactures, banking, and other pursuits, have been prosperous only as the toil of the agriculturist has been rewarded with abundant returns. Many intelligent observers, not familiar with the real foundations of the city’s growth, have, from their distant and imperfect view, been wont to assume that much of our apparent prosperity was little else than a baseless fancy, almost certain to prove illusive, and at no distant day come to be recognized as one of the grand speculative manias of the age; but all such, upon a closer inspection of our surroundings and a clearer knowledge of the sources from whence the vast trade and commerce of the city are drawn, have promptly compre hended the situation, and cheerfully admitted the fact that, while the past history of the city has been of unparallelled prosperity, it has scarce kept within even hailing distance of the grand and constantly widening area of rich agricultural territory directly de pendent upon it for a market, both for the sale of its surplus products and the purchase of its needed supplies.
As the mountain streamlet, quietly pursuing its course oceanward, gathers to itself on every hand the contributions of its fellows from hill, valley, and plain, until its proportions, swollen to the majestic river, bears on its bosom the commerce of a state or na tion —so the products of theagriculturist, gathered here and there, from points near and more remote, contribute to a mighty volume of trade, and form the basis of great commercial transactions, and in unobserved but countless forms, sustain vast industries, directly or indirectly ministering to all the necessities and enjoyments of man kind, whether in the rural districts or in the crowded city. Nowhere in the world is there, perhaps, so grand an illustration of the dependence of other callings upon the great foundation stone of agriculture, as in this great empori um of its products.
Necessity and convenience have ordained that the business of dealing in the leading products of the farm should be conducted by organized bodies of men; and the early magnitude of this branch of trade in Chicago induced the formation of the commercial body known as the “Board of Trade.” To trace in outline the business of this organization since the city’s disaster of October, 1871, will be the object of this article.
The great fire occurred at a time when the current movement of grain was unusually large, the week ending October 7th having witnessed the largest arrival of wheat of any one week since the city had an existence, while in other varieties of produce the movement was unusually free. All this was brought to a sudden stand; and when the smoke and confusion had begun to clear away, many desponding ones began to express fears that in the short season still remaining before the close of water navigation it would be impossible to so reorganize business as to induce any considerable return of the movement that it was feared would be at once diverted to other points, while all felt that the remaining autumn trade must be materially reduced. To show how very far such calculations were from the reality, it need only be stated that by the close of October the grain movement had fully resumed its course, and for the months of November and December the aggregate receipts of grain amounted to 11,863,937 bushels, against 6,818,314 bushels for the corresponding time in 1870, and 6,246,042 bushels in 1869. The destruction of a large percentage of the grain storage capacity of the city began to be seriously felt early in the winter; and long before the resumption of lake navigation in the spring of 1872, every available place was filled to overflowing, and most of the railway lines were compelled to refuse the transportation of grain consigned to the city. This resulted in a much larger diversion than the direct effects of the fire at an earlier day. As soon as storage facilities were relieved by the lake movement on the opening of navigation, the flow of grain again commenced, and during the season has been much above previous years, though at times it has been restricted by the lack of facilities for its storage and proper handling. One of the first difficulties and complications resulting from the fire was the adjustment of the outstanding engagements entered into and pending for the delivery of grain. This species of business, though frequently carried to great excesses, is by no means an insignificant feature of the legitimate grain movement. The operations on time contracts at the time of the fire were of unusual magnitude; and as a large portion of them were maturing at the pleasure of one or the other of the parties, and all the financial affairs pf the city were, for the time being, in confusion and uncertainty, it was deemed best that a general settlement of all maturing obligations of this character should be had on the basis of prices current at the time the great calamity fell upon the city. A resolution to this effect was adopted by the Board of Trade among its first acts; and while such a proposition could not be enforced as legal, it was so manifestly equitable that nearly all interested promptly acquiesced in its propriety, and accepted it as the best means of avoiding injustice and the exactions of avarice. In a few instances, parties demurred to this proposition; but it is to the credit of the Board that it refused to enforce its discipline on any who promptly manifested a willingness to accept such a basis of adjustment. Some cases were carried into court, but generally with poor success, the sympathy of both court and jury being rather with the defendant in a case where it was apparent any advantage was sought to be obtained by the general calamity. Comparatively little of derangement, injustice, or ill feeling resulted from this arrangement; and in a short time ante-fire engagements were adjusted, and the trade were prepared for a new start. A few left the city, some perhaps permanently; but most to soon return and resume their former position and business.
Of losses and embarrassments, the members of the Board of Trade suffered their full share; but it is safe to say as large a percentage of persons promptly and manfully met their obligations in full as of any class of our citizens. Of losses resulting from bankrupt insurance companies, the members of the Board suffered probably more than any other like number of persons. A large amount of local insurance stocks were owned by them which proved total losses, and in addition heavy losses were sustained on policies; local insurance had been much in favor, and the large risks on grain in store were supposed to be pro tected by policies in home companies of previous high standing.
On the resumption of business new faces and new names began to appear, quite sufficient to offset those who had withdrawn; all found a satisfactory held of operations, and all seemed in clined to bear a hand in restoring the business of the city to its former proud position.
For the transaction of its business, the Board secured temporary accom modations on the west side of the South Branch, and at a later day occupied more eligible quarters on the South Side, at the foot of Washington street, where they will remain until the completion of their permanent building, which at this writing is expected to be dedicated on the anniversary of the great fire.
The new Chamber of Commerce building, occupying the same site (corner of Washington and LaSalle streets) and being of the same size as the one destroyed, is vastly its superior in point of design and excellence of construc tion. The material is a mellow, pleas ingly tinted Ohio sandstone, the selection of which reflects great credit on the good judgment of the committee having the matter in charge, their discernment as to its durability and other good qualities being endorsed by the architect of the General Government, he having since selected the same stone, under strong competition, for the immense Government building about to be erected in this city. No pains or expense have been spared in making the building in every respect all that could be desired, and in workmanship and finish it is conceded to far surpass any building hitherto erected in the city. The work has been pushed to completion with as much vigor as was consistent with thorough care in every detail. The former structure required over eighteen months in erection, while the new one, at a time when the pressure for material and workmen has been unprecedented, will be completed in less than two-thirds of that time. The building is 93 feet on Washington by 18l½ feet on La Salle street, occupying the space surrounded by the above streets on the north and west, and Calhoun and Exchange places on the south and east. The basement story, which in the old building was some five feet below the sidewalk, in the new is seven inches above it, making very desirable offices for banking, insurance, or other busi ness purposes; the main office story is arranged substantially as before, with the improvement that every office in both these stories is supplied with a first-class fire and burglar proof vault.
The apartments to be occupied by the Board of Trade are somewhat differently arranged from those of the old building, and greatly improved in convenience and completeness of finish. The main Exchange Hall is 142 feet in length by 87 feet in width, with a ceiling 45 feet in height, the whole entirely free from columns or other obstructions. A commodious visitor’s balcony stretch es about two-thirds of the distance across the south end of the hall, from which a full view of the room may be obtained. The president’s rostrum at the north end is an elaborate and elegant piece of workmanship, and in size is somewhat larger than the former one The frescoing of the ceiling and side walls are in admirable taste and unique design, the ceiling especially being a marvel of artistic beauty and completeness. On either side of the rostrum is an oil painting of large size, representing allegorically the city’s great calamity. On the right is represented the fiend of destruction passing over the doomed city, with lighted torch, scattering and communicating flame to everything within its pathway. On the left is seen the anrel of mercy guiding two, cherubs laden with the contributions of charity to succor and relieve the distressed and needy of the smitten populace; while at her feet the ghastly ruins, smoking and tottering, forcibly recall the never to be forgotten desolation, and its attendant manifestation of the noblest impulses of humanity, as displayed in the day of our sore and pressing need. In either of the four corners of the hall are offices for telegraphing, communicating with all parts of the world, and report ing current transactions or receiving orders, the execution of which here, more than in any other city, are con summated with lightning rapidity. The offices of the Board are located in the southwest portion of the building, and connecting with Exchange Hall; these are divided into a general business of fice, secretary’s office, and library room, all tastefully fitted and furnished. In the general business office is a very large and (believed to be) entirely fire proof vault, for the storage and preservation of books and valuables. The southeast portion of this floor is devoted to a well lighted and ventilated reading room, wash room, coat room, etc., etc. Over the office portion is the directors’ room, with ante-room connecting, and opposite are committee rooms; all furnished in keeping with the character and objects of their use. The wood finish of the entire building is in walnut and ash, giving a rich and pleasing effect. All the principal doors are of glass, with elegant and costly trimmings ; all vault doors are supplied with the most approved pattern of safe ty locks.
The building, when complete, will approach a cost of $325,000, probably but little, if any, short of that figure; and its rental promises to yield an in come of full ten per cent, on the cost of it, and the value of the land upon which it stands.
Some months previous to the fire, the Board had provided a smaller hall for trading and the meetings of members at other times than the regular hours of high ‘Change. This hall was also destroyed. The necessity for a similar hall being still urgent, arrange ments were made with the Chamber of Commeree corporation for the erection of a building on their lot next south of their main building, and fronting on LaSalle street, and that building is now nearly completed, and will be ready for occupancy early in October. The Board of Trade have leased this entire building, and have been permitted to dictate its manner of construction. In this building, immediately above the basement story, is an elegant hall or trading room, 26 by 101 feet, where will be held the “call” or auction session in the afternoon, and also a meeting before the regular ‘Change session. The remaining portion of this building has been sub-let on very favorable terms, so that this arrangement will not result in any additional tax upon the membership.
Upon both these buildings, except the office portion of the larger one, the Board holds a lease until May, 1965, at no re-appraisal of rental, and also holds considerable stock in the corporation owning them, so that probably it stands in as good a financial condition at the present time as any similar organization in the country.
The general business on ‘Change, as has been intimated, soon adjusted itself to the new order of things, after the fire, and in volume rapidly acquired its former proportions. While the legitimate movement of property to and from the city has in no wise abated, the speculative trading has developed into unwonted proportions. This class of business, while more or less objectionable in some of its aspects, is not by any means wholly an evil; through it we are always enabled to enjoy a demand for property in vast amounts, at prices that could not be realized for it under the ordinary course of a trade regulated by supply and consumptive demand. Chicago, more than any other point, is the centre of this class of trading, and it in no small degree has contributed to make it the leading market of the world in grain transactions; and in provisions also, a very heavy trade of a speculative character has grown up within the past few years. Local traders form but a small minority of those interested in these operations; parties from almost all parts of this country, and also from Canada, are constantly operating through our local commission merchants, and whatever of derangement has occasionally occurred, must be chargeable to them in at least as great a degree as to our own people. After the fire both grain and provision speculations greatly increased, and it may be safely assumed that the year 1872 will have witnessed very much the largest amount of this species of trading of any of its predecessors. The amount of outstanding obligations has at times been quite fabulous, and men of ordinarily shrewd and business like calculations have become apparently borne along by a current of excitement, regardless of sound business principles, and sometimes reckless of consequences. As a whole, speculations have not resulted satisfactorily, and it is to be hoped a wholesome check may have been realized, for the extreme rashness not infrequently ob taining in days past. Experience has developed weaknesses in the mode of doing this business that are being repaired as brought to notice, and the ingenuity of practical men of long experience is invoked to perfect regulations for the safe conduct of this important and irrepressible class of trading; it is probably not wise to attempt to suppress it, if that were possible, but it may be rendered safe from combinations formed with a view of extortion.
There has been no more marked fea ture of increase in the city’s business than in the live stock and provision trade, in which Chicago is now the acknowledged leader. The transactions in provisions, even during the summer season, have been immense, and all indications now point to a larger provision packing the coming winter than ever before.
The membership of the Board is largely in excess of a year since; and at the near approach of the close of one year after the “great fire” there is a general feeling of satisfaction that so great a calamity should have left so few unhealed wounds, and all share in high hopes for the constantly brighten ing future, and feel that no period in the past has been more full of promise for future great prosperity and advancement.