Switzerland & Midwest Connections: Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire

A Swiss View — Part I, 1872

Courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation (photo by the author)

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

On October 7, a week of repeated small fires culminated in what would become known as the Saturday Night Fire. It began late in the evening and leveled twenty buildings on the city’s near West Side. It was not until the following afternoon that the blaze was extinguished, leaving firemen exhausted and their equipment in ill repair. The city was completely unprepared for the Great Fire, which began the next night. The 1872 Chicago report by Swiss Consul Heinrich Enderis to the Federal Council in Switzerland, reflects on the year following the Great Fire. It has been translated by this author with slight adjustments to modern language where necessary, but the tenor of the writing was otherwise left as it was. The subtitles have been added and were not part of the original report.

Within the past 12 months, as is well known, great changes have taken place in Chicago. Like a Phoenix, the city has risen from the ashes and, when fully rebuilt, will be able to stand alongside the finest, largest cities in the world. If the entrepreneurship of the Chicagoans was unsurpassed even before the fire, the trial by fire gave it an impulse that leaves all previous achievements in the field of commerce and industry far behind.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The earnings during the first year after the fire were higher among all classes of the population than ever before, the losses suffered were more or less eradicated and mitigated. One must often wonder where all the money came from to build these colossal business palaces and huge hotels in such a short time, to fill these large warehouses, whose individual inventories number in the millions. If one considers that the effective loss due to the fire amounted to $190 million (1), it is easy to guess that these magnificent creations owe their origin essentially to foreign capital and credit.

ROBBER BARONS

Lack of earnings, stagnation in trade and a great money squeeze are beginning to make themselves felt. New arrivals suffer the most. Thousands of workers surround the various placement offices daily without being able to find employment. The immigrants seem to be under the delusion that they will find their Eldorado in Chicago. This belief seems to have been instilled in them in Europe and then in New York, where they like to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Our farmers in the West have also had a hard time lately as a result of low product prices, which often do not cover the cost of production, in some cases not even the freight to Eastern markets. Our farmers are anxious under the weight of the railroad monopolies. One squeeze of the freight tariff screw and the profit the farmer thought he had earned by the sweat of his brow is wiped out. Since this yoke became almost unbearable, a formal, well-organized peasant war broke out throughout the country against the railroad robber barons.

THE SWISS BENEVOLENT SOCIETY

It cannot be denied that in Chicago, as the metropolis of the West and the hub of its entire railroad network, there is a need for some kind of institution to support Swiss immigrants, given the great difficulties with which immigrants have to contend and the many miseries to which they are often subjected. A number of Swiss living in Chicago have, thanks to the encouragement of the Federal Council, organized themselves in 1872 to form a Swiss Benevolent Society with the purpose of assisting mainly needy immigrants with words and deeds and to step in until more effective measures are found for these needs. This society is supported by the Chicago Grütliverein (2) and the Swiss Men’s Choir.

With regard to imports from Europe, the undersigned takes the liberty of reminding you of the important circumstance that Chicago is now a direct import port and thus relieved of the unpleasant pressure of having to have the goods cleared through customs in New York. Our merchants, respective importers, thus save about $3–4 on each crate and can handle the whole business themselves without the mediation of any middlemen. Since in the local customs house all goods are registered in the order of arrival, without any classification, it could not be determined how many goods arrived directly from Switzerland. There is no doubt that Swiss exporters could increase their sales to America if they dealt directly with local wholesalers. Through the mediation of the undersigned, several such connections have already been initiated.

Don’t miss part II of Consul Enderis’ report from 1873 on the next edition of this history blog. Special thanks to Will Hansen from the Newberry Library (www.newberry.org) for the images.

Notes: (1) The equivalent of more than $4 Billion in today’s money. (2) The Grütli Verein was founded in 1856 and is the forerunner of today’s Swiss Club.

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