Switzerland & Midwest Connections: Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire A Swiss View — Part II, 1873

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 1873 Chicago report by Swiss Consul Heinrich Enderis to the Federal Council in Switzerland, reflects on the 2nd 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.

In its mission to be the western commercial capital of the United States, Chicago took a great step forward in 1873, despite the financial crisis, which also made itself felt here. The banks and larger business houses withstood the unexpected impact admirably. Out of 36 banks, only five suspended business; of these, two reopened their doors in the course of a few days, two went into liquidation, and only one suffered a partial loss to its creditors.

Biggest Meat Market in the World

Wholesale trade exceeded the wildest expectations. The total value of agricultural products, i.e. grain, flour, cattle, butter, wool, alcohol and meat, which were shipped from here, amounted to 180 million dollars. This fortunate circumstance is due the soundness of our financial condition, in that by these shipments the balance of trade with the East is more than balanced. The turnover in slaughter cattle amounted to 91,321,162 dollars (1), exceeding that of any other market on earth. This has long been the case with the lumber and grain trade. Since a United States Customs Office has been established in Chicago, direct traffic with Europe has increased from year to year. In 1873, goods worth $3,699,852 were imported from there with a duty of $1,535,631. Among them are listed: Fabric goods, pig iron, salt, glass panes, carpets, fruits, cigars and tobacco, ironworks, soda, porcelain and glass goods, fancy goods, wines, books, knives and scissors, drugs, plaster goods, and steel. Grain, flour, fat, cheese and meat were exported in the total weight of 132,474 metric tons. 73 foreign ships entered the port, while the coastal trade was mediated by the Chicago Merchant Marine, which consisted of 647 vessels. The prices of the products were generally satisfactory and profitable for the farmer; on the other hand, our merchants no longer work with as much profit as in earlier years. The disproportionately increasing competition and the monopoly system of the big players exerts a sensitive pressure on the selling prices in the retail trade and gives the smaller businessmen a hard time. Those who lack numerous acquaintances and capital will do better to try their luck in a smaller place.

Rapid Expansion

Chicago now has about 430,000 inhabitants, with about 15,000 business firms, 200 churches, 80 newspapers and periodicals, 31 railroad companies, and 1100 roads. Wages decreased in 1873 by 25% to 50% and especially for builders and the common day laborer earnings were not as good as in the previous year, since significantly less was built. The center of the business part is now quite completely rebuilt. The new buildings contain twice and three times as many rooms as those that covered the same space before the fire. As a result, the capacity for business premises has increased to a degree that would have required 10 years before the fire or without this incident. It is therefore not surprising that some premises are still waiting for a tenant and that the desire to build is dampened for the moment. Chicago already plays a significant role among the Union’s factory towns. On average, more than 50,000 people are employed in factory operations. According to exact estimates, the capital invested in industrial operations amounts to $45,000,000, and according to the factories currently under consideration, it will probably exceed $50,000,000 in 1875. This does not include the important factories in our suburbs, although all of them are in the hands of Chicago entrepreneurs, are managed from here and their products find their market here. According to official statistics, capital for factory operations grew 212 percent in New-York, 238 percent in Philadelphia, and 707 percent in Chicago from 1860 to 1870. Sales in real property (building lots with and without houses) amounted to 80 million dollars. These form an article of commerce here as any other commodity. With the rapid expansion of the city and the almost mathematical certainty with which one can count on an increase in value, speculation throws itself into this field to a significant degree. Chicago mortgages on real estate are sought-after securities; a large part of Eastern, even European capital is invested in such. The tremendous mail traffic that Chicago has achieved should confirm the magnitude of the city’s commercial activity. In 1873, no less than 71 million letters passed through the post office.

Careless Immigrants

The direct immigration from Europe was not as strong as in earlier years, also Swiss traveled less through here; however, there were again a number of such, who in the most careless way, haphazardly, encouraged by their communities by contributions, left home, arrived here with small children without a cent, in order to travel further into the country, or to be able to settle down here. Also for unmarried people it cannot be emphasized enough that they, too, must initially be prepared for unemployment, that no one can help them here in the country, and that no one should emigrate to America who does not have the physical and moral strength to do heavy farm work if necessary, and to ignore class and education. Whoever is not able or willing to begin his career in this way is not fit for this country. The Swiss Benevolent Society, in association with the German Society, with which it works hand in hand, also provided assistance to many a poor Swiss in the past year, as far as the limited means allowed. Of course, such assistance can only be of a temporary nature and must be limited to the most urgent cases. — No Swiss should fail to join a Grütliverein (2) as soon as possible after his arrival in America. There are such throughout the country. 35 sections have even united to form a closer alliance, and last year founded a mutual death fund under the name “Winkelried Foundation”, from which the heirs of the deceased receive 500 dollars. The Swiss Men’s Choir in Chicago is also quite strong; and cultivates patriotic life among the local Swiss.

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

If you missed part I of Consul Enderis’ report from 1872 you can find it on the previous edition of this history blog. Special thanks to Will Hansen from the Newberry Library (www.newberry.org) for the images.

Courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation (photo by the author).
Hall’s Safe & Lock rebuilt on Dearborn, 1872 (John M. Wing, courtesy Newberry Library)