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Using Chicago history

A view of a Chicago River bridge
A view of a Chicago River bridge
Photo by Tasos Katopodis

Using Chicago’s history to solve Chicago’s problems is the beginning of a special series for this column. The Chicago Maritime History series is ongoing and will continue simultaneously with the Using History series. The new series focuses on the belief that the past can be used effectively to aid in solving the problems of the present. Does Chicago have a problem that seems impossible to solve? If so, maybe Chicago History can offer guidance.

The first case to be examined is a problem facing a young man of thirty years who was asked by his brother-in-law to investigate property he had purchased in Chicago in 1835 for $100,000. The young man’s name was William Butler Ogden, and the brother-in-law’s name was Charles Butler. The prospects seemed exciting to Ogden so he saddled his horse and rode to Chicago from New York.

Ogden examined Butler’s land, and the property was a muddy, swampy area near Fort Dearborn. His horse sunk to its belly in the mud, and Ogden managed to reach dry land. Muddy boots, a muddy horse, and worthless land that cost $100,000 were serious drawbacks. The boots and the horse could be cleaned, but losing $100,000 was disastrous.

Disillusioned and discouraged, Ogden reported to Butler that he made a foolish purchase and the land probably wouldn’t be worth anything for generations. One can only imagine all the things Ogden didn’t say. Probably thoughts like I came all this way for nothing; you fool for buying land sight unseen; and you squandered your money.

What were his choices in solving this problem? He could abandon the land. He could advise Butler to sue the developer who sold the land. He could physically harm that developer. Or, he could increase the value of the worthless land. To be continued…