William Ogden

First Mayor of the City of Chicago 1837-38

Known as “Chicago’s Founder,” William Butler Ogden was born in 1805 in a New York village on the Delaware River. Already successful by 16, Ogden became postmaster of his village, went on to become a lawyer, and a state senator by the time he was 29.1 In the summer of 1836, he moved to Chicago, determined to make his fortune. While he began there as a land dealer and developer, already among his grand plans was a New York to Chicago railroad.2

If the small town of Chicago was to amount to anything, Ogden believed it needed businessmen who believed in it, such as himself, to run for office. Subsequently, he became part of a committee to draft a Chicago city charter to present to the Illinois state legislature. By the next year, Chicago would officially evolve from a town into a city.3 With this under his belt , Ogden ran for the first mayor of the city, successfully defeating John Harris Kinzie. When he was elected mayor, Chicago had no money in its coffers and no credit to go by.

Resolved to build the City in any and all ways possible, there were very few things Ogden did not become involved in. After serving one term as mayor, he became an alderman, working hard to raise taxes for streets, sidewalks, and bridges.4 Whatever he could not get funding for, he would simply subsidize himself, while also working to get money flowing in from eastern entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, he became President of the Chicago and Michigan Steam Boat Company, began his own brewery, and financed the city’s first bank - all leading him to become the most powerful capitalist in the west by 1848.5

Ogden was also concerned with the social side of growth, as although the city was growing by leaps and bounds, it was not a very fit place to live. His Greek revival style home would become the center of refined life in Chicago. Along with this, he helped to begin the Chicago Horticultural Society.6 Among his many other titles, he would add “Railway King of the West,” as he was responsible for building the City’s first railroad, the Galena and Chicago Union.7 Chicago would become the eastern terminus for the first transcontinental railroad, with Ogden leading the way as first president of the Union Pacific.8

When the Great Fire stuck in 1871, Ogden was back in New York. The news of his City burning was devastating.9 With over $190 million in property destroyed, 17,450 buildings gone, Chicago was in dire shape.10 Ogden would rush to Springfield to lobby the state for assistance in the rebuilding. While he would have some success with this, Chicago would end up receiving assistance from all over the country, and all over the world. After achieving what he could, Ogden returned to New York for good.11

  1. Miller, Donald. City of the Century - The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Pg. 73
  2. Miller, 71
  3. Miller, 74
  4. Miller, 75
  5. Miller, 76
  6. Miller, 79-80
  7. Miller, 88
  8. Miller, 92
  9. Miller, 160
  10. Miller, 159
  11. Miller, 170
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