Monday, June 15, 2009

June 15: "...I found I could do anything I turned my hand to..."

Do you know who this is?
-He is known as “Chicago’s Founder”.
-He successfully managed a lumber mill when he was sixteen.
-He was Chicago’s first mayor.

William Butler Ogden was born in the village of Walton, located in western New York, on June 15, 1805, to a pioneer family that had migrated from New Jersey. He attended the country schools that dotted the counties of the early 19th century, and had plans on becoming a lawyer. Those plans, however, where put aside when his father became ill and Ogden, at the age of sixteen, took over his family’s property and logging interests. His father soon died, but Ogden proved that he was a successful businessman, and would prosper. He later wrote:

"I was born close to a sawmill, was cradled in a sugar trough, christened in a mill pond, early left an orphan, graduated from a log schoolhouse and, at 14, found I could do anything I turned my hand to and that nothing was impossible..."
He would briefly attend law school, but business interests overrode educational interests. He assisted his brother-in-law, Charles Butler, in a number of business ventures. While business interests was his forte’, Ogden briefly entered the political arena in 1834, when he was elected to the New York State legislature, where he voted to finance the Erie Railroad - promoting business and commercial interests.

Ogden travelled west to the village of Chicago in 1835 on behalf of his brother-in-law’s business interests. Butler had invested $100,000 in land in and around Chicago in anticipation of profits to be gained during a land rush that was occurring in the Midwest. Ogden investigated, and – standing ankle-deep in mud - was not impressed with the purchase, writing to Butler that he had been “guilty of the grossest folly. There is no such value in the land and won't be for a generation." Ogden then used his business acumen to drain the land, and then set up streets and lots. He would sell of a third of the property to regain Butler’s investment, in the process placing a higher value on his opinion of the town. He moved to set up a permanent home in Chicago in 1836.

Seeing the future for Chicago, Ogden became busy as a businessman in the budding community. He became well known as an industrious visionary, and many identified him with growth because of a variety of business enterprises created by him around Chicago. His focus was on speculative investments in real estate, but he always kept transportation in his mind. He used his contacts in New York to establish a link between the East and the West that benefited Chicago. When Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837, Ogden was elected as its first mayor and served a two-year term. Ogden, running as a Democrat, would defeat the Whig candidate, John Kinzie. After his term was over, he would become an alderman for the city. In his political positions he taxed the citizens for streets, sidewalks, and bridges. When the building projects outran the funds available from taxes, Ogden and his land speculation partners in New York would pay for the improvements from their own pockets.

The primary means of mass transportation in the early 19th century was the development of the railroad, and Ogden was one of the originators of a movement that led to the building of the Chicago and Galena Railroad - the city's first. It would be Ogden's money and financial promises that financed the construction of the railroad as it stretched westward toward Elgin, Illinois. He would become president of the railroad in 1847.

He also provided funds and support for the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and served on the Chicago Board of Sewage, and designed the first drawbridge over the Chicago River. He was a major investor in the Chicago Canal and Dock Company, and at one point hired a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln to help him gain clear title to property bordering the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

Over time, Ogden became one of Chicago's wealthiest citizens. When his secretary told him he was worth more than a million dollars, Ogden exclaimed: "By God.... that's a lot of money!" Then he proceeded to make more money by developing land that he owned, or having city projects buy that land.

He was involved, however, not only in the politics and the business interests of the growing city, but also influenced the various aspects of living in a growing city by being involved in the development of Chicago's charities, it's cultural centers, and it's educational institutions, including funding the first medical center in the city.

In 1862 the visionary Ogden was picked as the first president of the Union Pacific Railroad. His vision of a transcontinental railroad linking the two oceans bordering the United States was close to being a reality. At the age of fifty-seven Ogden took on the raising of funds, using political connections to secure right-of-way, and personal supervision of the laying of track to complete this huge project. He also made Chicago the hub of east-west rail traffic.

The Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of his possessions - and on the same day (October 8th), a lumber mill he owned in Wisconsin burned down. The lumber mill was a part of a huge lumber empire that Ogden had been building in Wisconsin.

Ogden would move back to New York after the fire, and would marry late in his life. He was sixty-nine years old when he married Marinna Arnot of Elmira, New York, on February 9, 1875, and would have two sons – John and Hiram. Ogden would die on August 3, 1877, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

Ogden altered the American Midwest in a tremendous way. His vision of what could be done in the swampland that made up early Chicago created an industrial center and transportation hub that served a growing nation.

A biography of Ogden will be released this fall. The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago, by Jack Harpster, will be released in September 2009.


There are no biographies of William Ogden available at our local library at this time.


Encyclopedia of Chicago
Famous Americans
Genealogy Trails
Ogden books


01. Portrait of William Ogden: Chicago Historical Society (ICHi-37333)
02. Map of 1835 Chicago: Encyclopedia of Chicago
03. Galena & Chicago Union Railroad Depot: Chicago Historical Society



  1. Very interesting Mike, especially the part of his life involving development of the railroad. Not really a railroad buff ( too many interests already) but they do have a certain appeal and were certainly vital in the development of our country. If you remember I had a pic of the Aurora Geneva RR or Trolley system which I wonder if hooked up with Elgin eventually. There is a "Trolley Musuem" in South Elgin which I think still has a short run between there and Geneva or Batavia. Thanks again.

  2. I saved the "Trolley" picture you posted - I know the location in Elgin that it was taken at. You have a great hobby. Anyone who has not visited "Vintage Snaps" at is missing a treat!
    As to Ogden - I found him fascinating. I'm pre-ordering the new book on him this week for my 'fall reading'.