The Moneymakers: Wealthy Entrepreneurs of Chicago’s Gilded Age

Lindsey Howald Patton —  January 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

Around the turn of the 19th century, Chicago was hopping. It wasn’t always that way—a mere four families lived here in 1812 after the British took Fort Dearborn.

Yes, four.

But then things started to change. As economic wisdom goes, if you build the jobs the people—and money—will come. Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the mechanical reaper, came around in 1847 and established a manufacturing plant. William B. Ogden laid track for his new Galena & Chicago Union Railroad company. George Pullman arrived in 1859 to raise buildings during the creation of a new sewer system (then, after said sewer system polluted the city’s drinking water, a group of ingenious engineers reversed the Chicago River’s flow from north to south. Unsurprisingly, this cut down on deaths by cholera, nudging the population along, I’m sure). Then the Great Fire happened, destroying nearly everything, but in its wake the city rebounded with gusto.

In 1890, the population hit 1.1 million.

You know, just your run-of-the-mill 55,000% percent increase in 78 years.

McCormick, Ogden, Pullman—those were just a few of the wealthy or soon-to-be who helped change this city from rural outpost to bustling metropolis. Here’s a list of some of Chicago’s entrepreneurial finest and their trades from the late 1800s:

Marshall Field

He of department store fame was the city’s richest man during the Gilded Age. At his death, Field was worth about $118 million (in 2010 dollars, that’s $2.8 billion).

Potter Palmer

Palmer and his wife Bertha were two of Chicago’s greatest socialites, an activity augmented by the millions he earned off of the development of State Street and the Gold Coast. The Palmers also beat out the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion for the title of city’s grandest private residence when they built a fantastic Lake Shore Drive mansion in 1885. (Which was demolished in 1950. Nickerson Mansion wins. That’s karma for you, Palmer.)

George M. Pullman

He may have (legend has it) managed to raise a building six feet without its occupants noticing, but Pullman’s still known best for his a) train sleeper cars and b) extremely unhappy factory workers.

Philip D. Armour

Thanks to Armour, Chicago became meat packer for the nation.

Daniel H. Burnham

This great architect and urban planner may not have been the richest on the list, but he changed the face of Chicago with his buildings that hinted at classical themes. Burnham is perhaps best known for his leadership role in the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Samuel M. Nickerson

Lesser known but no less important in my book. Nickerson dabbled in wholesale liquor and railroads, but is best known for banking. He was the president of First National Bank of Chicago.

Henry H. Getty

He was a lumber merchant, but I know him better for his gorgeous Louis Sullivan-designed burial monument up north at Graceland.

Martin A. Ryerson

Another lumber merchant. Another Louis Sullivan grave.

Cyrus McCormick

Is it just me, or is every other street or institution or landmark in Chicago named after this guy or one of his descendents? Let’s just say that we all here in the corn belt are grateful for how this man revolutionized agriculture.

William B. Ogden

Before his Chicago & Northwestern Railroad presidential term, Ogden was Chicago’s first mayor.

Charles T. Yerkes

We have Yerkes to thank for getting many of us to work every day—he built the Loop’s elevated rail in 1897.

Samuel Insull

Insull picked up a few things while working as Thomas Edison’s personal secretary, and went on to be president of the Chicago Edison Company.


Resources: “The Richest Chicagoans of All Time.” Chicago magazine, April 2006. “Chicago Growth 1850-1990.” “Rich Map: Prairie Avenue.” The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society. “Innovation, Invention, and Chicago Business.” The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society. “Chicago: City of the Century,” Timeline of Early Chicago History. PBS (online).
Images: 1. Portrait of George Pullman. Courtesy the Pullman State Historic Site. 2. Postcard featuring Marshall Field’s department store.
Lindsey Howald Patton

Lindsey Howald Patton

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