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The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago

A Biography of William B. Ogden

Jack Harpster

Publication Year: 2009

This is a biography of William Butler Ogden (1805-1877), a founder of Chicago and an influential pioneer in the early development of railroads.  A full length bio of the man detailing his contributions to Chicago have not yet been published.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

The Ogden family is one of the oldest, most distinguished family lines in America. John Ogden, “the Pilgrim,” came to the New World in 1641 from Lancashire County, England. A stonemason, he built the first permanent stone church in New Amsterdam, the St. Nicholas Dutch...

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pp. 1-5

Grief had leveled William Ogden as surely as if he had been struck by a bolt of lightning. It was as if his life had descended into perdition. It had been three years since his fianc

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pp. 6-17

Earlier in 1833, just a few weeks before his twenty-eighth birthday, William Ogden had been ruminating about the nagging torpor that had cloaked him like a shroud since Sarah North’s death. He knew he was far too young to be feeling so enervated; or was he? Maybe the fact that he had been forced to become an adult at sixteen had somehow accelerated...

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pp. 18-37

"I was born close by a saw-mill, was early left an orphan, was cradled in a sugar-trough, christened in a mill-pond, graduated at a log-school-house, and, at fourteen, fancied I could do anything I turned my hand to, and that nothing was impossible, and ever since, Madame, I have been trying to prove it, and with some success.”1 William Ogden is said to have...

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pp. 38-59

"Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” Indiana newspaperman John Soule’s 1851 editorial in the Terra Haute Express spoke for an entire generation, perhaps even for an entire century. (Horace Greeley copied the first part for his now-famous July 13, 1865, editorial in...

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pp. 60-72

Three factors, in addition to location, turned Chicago into the leading city of the Midwest and one of the nation’s great urban centers: money, men, and railroads.1 The last would not arrive until two decades after the nascent city began to develop, but the first two were required to get it started. Chicago certainly had location going for...

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pp. 73-95

At Chicago’s first election of trustees after his arrival, Ogden was elected to the town board.1 Board members were concerned that their legal designation as the “Town of Chicago” no longer reflected the size and stature of their growing community. A committee, including...

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pp. 96-120

Although he loved his home life, William Ogden’s innate restlessness eventually got the best of him, and he began to pursue his dream of putting into place Chicago’s final linchpin for success, the railroad. Nearly a decade earlier, when the city had been struggling to establish its roots, North Side residents coveted the...

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pp. 121-141

Robert McCormick never liked farming.1 In 1810, at age thirty, he inherited his family’s estate, Walnut Grove, which sat smack-dab in the middle of Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Fortunately for Robert, there were plenty of slaves to labor in the fields,...

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pp. 142-156

William Ogden was not directly involved in the railroad business during the years immediately following his resignation from the Galena. He observed the railroad from afar or through friends who remained on the board, and he allowed his partners to run the bulk of his real estate business. But he had a number of grand plans that were slowly germinating, plans that would ultimately make him wealthier and more...

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pp. 157-175

Up until the time of the Great Fire in 1871, Michigan Avenue was Chicago’s easternmost street south of the Chicago River. Across the river, on the north side, its extension was called Pine Street, and these two streets fronted Lake Michigan. Today, the street is called Michigan Avenue along...

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pp. 176-195

During the pre-panic years of the early to mid-1850s, while William Ogden was cobbling together his Chicago and North Western Railway system, Peshtigo Company lumbering monolith, real estate empire, and Pennsylvania iron mines and smelters, the remainder of Chicago’s citizenry also prospered. When the Panic of 1857 hit, they demonstrated....

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pp. 196-220

William Ogden visited New York City in the fall of 1862 or 1863. The city’s trees were just beginning to put on their mantle of autumn colors—blazing reds and golden yellows, joyfully mingling on nature’s palette with the last of the fading emerald greens. He had come to check on the work of his nephew, William Wheeler, who was landscaping Ogden’s...

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pp. 221-243

In 1868, while he was embroiled with both the Chicago and North Western and the Northern Pacific Railroads, William Ogden retired from Ogden, Fleetwood and Company. His partner, Stanley Fleetwood, retired at the same time. The firm’s name was changed to Ogden, Sheldon and Company, and William’s brother Mahlon and brother-in-law Edwin....

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pp. 244-257

About a month after the Great Fire, Chicago’s municipal elections were held. This was a very important election; the city had to select the men they believed could best lead them through the troubled times ahead. Some candidates banded together and formed the Fireproof...

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pp. 258-266

On Friday, August 3, 1877, at 2:00 a.m, William Butler Ogden passed away quietly at his Villa Boscobel home in High Bridge. His death did not come as a surprise to his wife, his brother and sisters, his many friends and admirers, nor even to himself, as his health had been failing...


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pp. 269-288


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pp. 289-300


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pp. 301-309

E-ISBN-13: 9780809386802
E-ISBN-10: 0809386801
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809329175
Print-ISBN-10: 0809329174

Page Count: 268
Illustrations: 21 b/w halftones, 5 maps
Publication Year: 2009

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Subject Headings

  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Biography.
  • Railroads -- United States -- Biography.
  • Mayors -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Biography.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Ogden, William B. (William Butler), 1805-1877.
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