Chapter Two

A Paradise for Workers and Speculators

MAY 1867–AUGUST 1870

ON MAY 15, 1866, Chicago’s leading men gathered ceremoniously to open a new city slaughterhouse on the South Branch of the Chicago River. All members of the Common Council were there in Bridgeport, according to the Chicago Tribune, together with the police and health commissioners, “a number of the city’s butchers and a miscellaneous assemblage of persons who, for lack of a better classification, are set down as citizens.” When the mayor cut the ribbon, the band burst into patriotic tunes, and among the dignitaries there was “lots of propulsive hand shaking and how-de-dos.” Then, after the first ceremonial pig was cut, the river echoed with cheers. 1

There was much to celebrate in Bridgeport that day. The city’s slaughtering and packing industry had boomed during the Civil War because politicians had secured lucrative military contracts to supply rations. By 1864 the city’s pork-processing operations consumed so many hogs that if they were placed in a line, one promoter boasted, it would stretch all the way from Chicago to New York.2 And now, two years later, prospects for further growth seemed unlimited, not only for the pork producers, but for all the city’s entrepreneurs.

With easy access to eastern markets via the Great Lakes and to the western states via the Illinois & Michigan Canal link to the Mississippi, Chicago’s businessmen enjoyed decisive advantages over all regional competitors. By the end of the Civil War, their city was the western terminus of every major railroad east of the Mississippi. All the eastern railroads were built to Chicago, and the western roads were built from it. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy made the crucial link to Omaha and a vast Nebraska territory of corn and hog production, a connection that would soon extend all the way to the Pacific.3 As a result, the city became “the principal wholesale market for the entire mid-continent,” serving “as the entrepot—the place in between—connecting eastern markets with vast western resource regions,” according to historian William Cronon.4

As their iron rails reached out from Chicago, the railroads introduced modern capitalist business methods to the whole region, methods that had been perfected in the city on Lake Michigan. Chicago’s grain business was so profitable that it generated “an orgy of hazardous undertakings” in spot trading and futures trading as the Board of Trade more than doubled its membership. The city’s enormous trade on the Great Lakes also swelled during the war, and then exploded afterward. The lumber industry was served by its own fleet of boats, which brought hardwoods from the north country, and by the Illinois Central Railroad, which hauled cars filled with southern pine from Texas and Louisiana. All along the banks of the South Branch of the Chicago River stretched vast lumberyards where stacks of cut timber, some as high as 30 feet, spread out for acres. A large corps of immigrant lumber shovers and dockworkers moved the wood all day long to ships in fourteen water slips and to waiting flatcars on fourteen railroad spurs built by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Its trains hauled scarce lumber all over the treeless expanses of the great West, where farmers and townspeople awaited shipments of prefabricated stores, houses, churches and schools—all made in Chicago. Along with cut and milled lumber, the westerners received a vast array of valued products from the booming metropolis: tables and upholstered chairs, men’s overalls and women’s dresses, church organs and parlor pianos, as well as cast-iron stoves and tools from the city’s foundries, endless barrels of salted pork from the stockyards and lager beer from the German breweries, Bibles and dime novels from the shops on Printers Row, fancy notions from Marshall Field’s dry-goods emporium and, most important of all, plowshares to break the prairies and mechanical harvesters to reap their bounty.5

The cornucopia of material goods that issued forth from hundreds of Chicago factories, mills, forges and shops required an ever-expanding army of willing wage workers. As a result, the city acted like an enormous magnet that dragged in farm boys from near and far, along with gamblers, Civil War veterans, tramping artisans and Canadian adventurers; from Europe came trainloads and boatloads of displaced peasants and farm laborers, as well as failed tradesmen, frustrated apprentices, political exiles and unwilling conscripts.6 Chicago’s population doubled during the 1860s mainly because so many Europeans arrived—37,000 from the German states, 20,000 from Ireland, along with roughly 9,000 from Norway and Sweden, 8,500 from England, Scotland and Wales, and 7,700 from the British provinces in Canada. Some of these newcomers became entrepreneurs, land speculators and merchants serving ethnic customers, but most of them entered a wage-earning workforce created by the city’s explosive industrial growth. The number of Chicago workers employed in manufacturing multiplied five times during and after the Civil War, and most of these new workers were foreigners. 7

The city fathers harbored no doubt that these newcomers to Chicago would succeed and become productive citizens and homeowners. Indeed, during the late 1860s, wages earned by skilled workers increased significantly in terms of daily rates and of purchasing power. Furthermore, low-cost housing became more available in Chicago than in most big cities because of the invention of the balloon-frame house, the oversupply of cheap lumber and the seemingly endless availability of housing lots stretching west and south from the business district. Thousands of pine-box shanties arose on the prairie along with poorly built business blocks. All this plus sidewalks covered with pine blocks and planks created what one historian called “long lines of well-laid kindling.” Some Chicagoans realized the risks that lay in a city built of pine, but contractors ignored all warnings of danger and threw up new, cheap houses for workers as fast as they could.8

As the labor editor Andrew Cameron moved through the city in 1866, he observed a new “aristocracy” settled on a few islands of wealthy real estate in a vast sea of working people who trudged off to work in the dim morning light and returned to their pine-box homes in the dark. Like Dickens, the most popular English writer of the time, the Scottish reformer told a tale of two cities. He knew that thousands of ordinary people had achieved success in the city as real estate salesmen, contractors, saloonkeepers, store clerks, brokers and tradesmen of all kinds, but he worried about the others, the tens of thousands who feared that wage labor at long hours had become a life sentence.

Yet Cameron was an optimist. He believed that when the new Illinois eight-hour law took effect on May 1, 1867, wage earners would no longer have to endure “a protracted life of endless toil.” Labor reform would rescue these floundering multitudes and help bring them to another shore, where they would enjoy the free time to better themselves and to work their way out of poverty.9

THE REALIZATION OF Andrew Cameron’s vision required more than the goodwill of a governor and a state legislature; it required the assent of the city’s employers. Chicago’s hard-driving businessmen soon showed they had no such inclination when seventy manufacturers formed a united front to resist the new statute. These employers despised the eight-hour law, which seemed to them a foolish attempt to diminish the wealth of both workers and capitalists. After all, they asked, what employee would willingly sacrifice two or more hours’ pay every day, and what employer would accept reduced output from employees? The eight-hour law’s opponents simply rejected the theory that an employee who worked eight hours would produce more, earn more and then purchase more as a consumer. In any case, they insisted that such a statute violated a sacred principle: the right of each employee to make an individual contract with an employer. If eight hours became the legal workday, it would deny a worker the freedom to work for nine, ten, twelve or more hours. Businessmen also opposed laws of this kind because they extended the functions of republican government far beyond what they saw as their intended limits. Republican leaders like Tribune editor Joseph Medill believed federal legislation was required to guarantee universal manhood suffrage and equal rights, but the state had to stay out of the marketplace and avoid offering protection to certain groups.10

As Chicago employers mounted their resistance in the winter of 1867, a Boston labor newspaper warned its readers that capital had its back up. 11 Fearing the worst, Cameron and other labor leaders threatened a general strike if employers defied the law when it took effect on May 1. Hoping for the best, tens of thousands of workers gathered in Chicago that May Day for a march from the Union Stock Yards to celebrate the eight-hour law’s inauguration. The Times described it as the “largest procession ever seen in the streets of Chicago.” It included divisions from forty-four unions represented by workmen carrying banners inscribed with the symbols of their craft and the slogans of their cause, such as EIGHT HOURS AND NO CONCESSION and WE RESPECT THE LAWS OF THE STATE. The Stonecutters’ Association sent a contingent of 259 men in white silk aprons marching with three horse-drawn wagons, including one with a large banner that read HAIL TO MAY 1, 1867, A DAY LONG TO BE REMEMBERED BY ALL WORKERS.12

The workers moved in an orderly fashion toward the lakefront, where they gathered to hear speeches in English and German from their leaders, who warned them that “capital” might undermine their victory. Anxiety rose in this massive crowd when the city’s Republican mayor, J. B. Rice, appealed for compromise in case the employers refused to accept the law. Other Republican officials sent letters of support but did not appear. Governor Oglesby, who had spoken so boldly for eight hours in March, remained in Springfield on May 1 and sent no message.

On May 2 the largest Chicago employers refused to obey the new law and ordered their employees back to work for the customary ten or eleven hours. In response, worker protests and strikes closed railroad car shops, shipping depots, lumberyards and wood-planing mills. In the Irish section of Bridgeport, workers shut down all the packinghouses and rolling mills. The powerful Machinists’ Union ordered members out of their shops, and the Iron Molders’ Union banked the fires in all but eight of the city’s foundries. The McCormicks opened the gate to their harvester factory on May 2, expecting the men to work ten hours as usual, and were surprised when the union workers left work after completing an eight-hour day. This action led Leander McCormick to complain bitterly to his brother Cyrus about his troubles with “the Eight-Hour men.” He wanted a stronger man to boss the works, a replacement for the current foreman, a former molder who remained too close to the men. “The union is controlling our shop . . . ,” Leander complained, “and we ought at whatever cost to hire men outside of it.” This message presaged the outbreak of a nineteen-year war between the McCormicks and their union molders.13

On May 3 gangs of workingmen and boys roamed the city’s factory and freight yard districts, brandishing sticks and fence posts and forcing many other laborers out of their factories. Rumors spread that the strikers had set fire to the Armour & Dole grain elevator and that scores of them had been shot dead by soldiers. On May 4 all Bridgeport seemed roused as a large body of strikers marched up Archer Avenue, its ranks swollen to 5,000 with boys and unemployed men who pulled more men out of factories, slashed drive belts on machines and released steam from boilers. Some of the Irish butchers, lumber shovers and iron rollers in the crowd had served in Colonel James Mulligan’s Irish Brigade during the Appomattox campaign. The use of force seemed justifiable to these men who had so recently fought on southern battlefields where terrible violence and death had been constant realities. Some of these workers took up arms, telling reporters that if they were jailed for rioting, Governor Dick Oglesby, the former Union army colonel, would pardon them.14 They were encouraged when the governor rejected Mayor Rice’s appeal for the state militia and expressed his confidence that, despite the disturbances in Bridgeport, the labor movement’s intentions remained peaceful. The governor did not, however, promise to enforce the state’s eight-hour law.15

Mayor Rice soon took matters into his own hands, calling upon the Dearborn Light Artillery to support the Chicago police. He also issued an order making it a crime to take action against employees who wanted to work for ten or twelve hours a day. By May 5, police officers and troops had gained control of the city’s troubled industrial zones and immigrant neighborhoods, and by May 8 the backbone of the protest strike had been broken. Despondent eight-hour men returned to shops and factories with the long workday still in effect. Union leaders bitterly denounced the politicians who had deserted the labor movement and desperately appealed for help from eight-hour leagues in other cities, but it was too late.16

The defeat that Chicago employers imposed on the strongest labor movement in the country during those first days of May in 1867 disheartened eight-hour activists across the land.17 And in Illinois the experience of defeat carried a deeper meaning. The betrayal of the eight-hour law struck a blow at the labor reformers’ belief that they could rely on enlightened legislation to free toilers from artificial restraints like long hours that kept them from joining the ranks of self-made men. Indeed, the repression of the May protests in Chicago nearly extinguished a vision of parity that labor reformers had kindled during the Civil War.

IN HIS BITTERNESS over the 1867 defeat, Andrew Cameron snapped at the men who returned to their ten-hour jobs, calling their retreat “craven.” He also admitted that the May 1 strikes had been poorly organized and undisciplined and that the rioting on Halsted Street damaged the eight-hour movement’s respectability. There must be no more “groping in the dark,” Cameron declared, no more disunity of the kind that undermined the strike. He took a long view of the struggle for freedom, reminding his discouraged readers that “revolutions never go backwards.” The strike of 1867 would be a stepping-stone on the path to future success, leading to the creation of a stronger organization and the enactment of national legislation that would benefit labor and capital. 18

After state government failed them, the eight-hour men turned their energy toward Washington. Illinois officials had claimed the 1867 law, if enforced, would have put the state’s businessmen at a disadvantage with regard to their out-of-state competitors. National legislation would render this objection moot. The eight-hour reformers had other reasons to feel optimistic. If Congress could amend the Constitution to prohibit involuntary servitude and pass a civil rights act that outlawed coercive labor contracts such as the Black Codes, then surely Congress could adopt the measures the eight-hour men proposed to end the tyranny of the endless workday.19

In 1868 delegates to a National Labor Union congress elected William Sylvis president, made A. C. Cameron’s Advocate their official organ and dispatched representatives to Washington to lobby for an eight-hour law for government employees. Much to their delight, Congress enacted such a law on June 25, 1868, one that mandated an eight-hour day for mechanics and laborers employed by the federal government.20


On the Fourth of July, Cameron trumpeted these glad tidings in his paper. He then reconvened the Eight-Hour Committee to plan a torchlight parade celebrating the first congressional victory that the labor movement had ever enjoyed. The procession that took place was, however, a pale reflection of the spectacular march to the lakeshore on May 1,1867.21

The years that followed the defeat of the eight-hour strike were arduous ones for Chicago’s workers, skilled and unskilled alike, as employers cut wages and hired newcomers, “green hands” willing to work for less pay. During the fall the ranks of unemployed people swelled and the lines of desperate people seeking charity lengthened. Of the forty trade unions that had marched in the grand procession on May Day a year before, only a few survived that grim winter.22

Everywhere he turned, it seemed, Cameron’s efforts were repulsed, his hopes deflated. He even failed in his effort to put a legislative ban on convict labor. This new defeat was a painful coda to the betrayal of the 1867 law. Cameron’s despair deepened when Washington officials refused to implement the eight-hour law for a few thousand mechanics employed by the federal government. Though President Ulysses S. Grant claimed to be in favor of the statute, his cabinet secretaries issued orders that negated the law by “virtually cheating workers” out of a portion of the pay they earned for eight hours’ work.23

When William Sylvis died of stomach cancer in 1869 at the age of forty-one, the young labor movement he had inspired seemed to die with him. Sylvis’s hopes for an emancipatory eight-hour law had been dashed by the realities of politics in Washington, and his dreams of a unified labor movement foundered on the rocks of race and ethnicity. Delegates to three National Labor Union congresses had listened respectfully to the celebrated reformer’s appeal that “every union inculcate the grand ennobling idea that the interests of labor are one; that there should be no distinction of race or nationality,” but each time they ignored him and refused to open their doors to black workers. The conventioneers had also listened to the president of the Colored Laborers’ Union ask for their support for the reconstruction of the Old South, and they had heard his warning that the bloody struggle to grant the black man full citizenship would be “a complete failure” if he was barred from the nation’s workshops, but they paid him no mind. 24

Andrew Cameron delivered an eloquent eulogy to his friend Sylvis and returned to his desk at the Advocate, where he wrote renewed calls for racial equality in politics and industry. However, Cameron’s hopes for a national labor movement based on egalitarianism were difficult to sustain after Sylvis’s death. Indeed, the National Labor Union passed away soon after its leader died. Yet, something remained of William Sylvis’s dream. The visionary iron molder left a legacy to future worker activists who would create the nation’s first national labor movement. It was a legacy based on two powerful ideas: the idea of an eight-hour system that would allow the self-educated workman to rise out of wage dependency and the idea of one big labor movement that would unite working people, transcend their divisions and recapture the Republic for the great majority.25

In 1870, however, it seemed that even this intellectual inheritance would be lost forever. The year began with a hard and bitter winter for Chicago’s working people. More than 20,000 “houseless wanderers” roamed the city by day and huddled in alleys and under bridges. The city’s few existing unions shriveled up in the cold. It was then that Andrew Cameron sounded a bugle of retreat, announcing, without much emotion, that the Chicago Trades Assembly he had helped to create and lead through its glory days had died a natural death.

Gone was the spirit of solidarity that once infused the city’s labor movement. German workers formed their own trades assembly and published their own newspaper, Deutsche Arbeiter, edited by a group of new exiles arrived from Germany who adhered to the socialist ideas of Ferdinand Lassalle and Karl Marx. But little came of their efforts, and these new arrivals soon disappeared from public view, submerged within the city’s enormous population of German workers who were struggling to make their way in this workers’ paradise.26

DURING THE LATE 1860s many of the European immigrants flooding into the city could not gain as much access to employment and housing as those who had arrived before the Civil War, according to an agent for the German Society of Chicago. The city’s reputation for opportunity continued to draw a mass of people from overseas who came to Chicago expecting to find “a new El Dorado” but instead found a city filled with jobless and homeless immigrants suffering from hunger and misery.27 An abundance of products was available for purchase in Chicago’s many stores, but these goods were inaccessible to most of the newcomers. Houses were readily available to immigrants who could afford small down payments, but many newcomers did not have the cash or the income to make mortgage payments, so they flopped into rooming houses, crowded into the cramped quarters of relatives or camped outdoors. Those who could manage mortgages moved into houses in a vast district of pine shanties that spread west from the Chicago River’s South Branch and farther south, to Bridgeport below the river, where open sewers and unpaved streets with pools of waste emitted a stench noxious enough to asphyxiate cats and dogs.28

During the Civil War era well-to-do merchants and lawyers had lived on the same streets as printers, tailors and brewers, and, in some cases, not far from the pine-box neighborhoods of factory hands and construction workers. But as the city’s wealth in real and personal property grew (ninefold in the 1860s), the nouveaux riches moved uptown toward the new Lincoln Park and out of the West End to Union Park and to the town houses along tree-lined Washington Boulevard—far from the filthy, stinking streets of the old inner city.29 In 1870 the median value of real estate properties owned by the upper classes averaged nearly ten times the valuation of homes owned by unskilled workers. Many clerks, managers and salesmen also bought more modest houses on the North and Far West sides. As a result, homeownership increased to 38 percent among business and professional men at a time when working-class homeownership declined.30

These social differences between the rich and the working poor were masked to Chicago’s many wide-eyed visitors. Tourists invariably expressed amazement at the city’s physical characteristics—the awesome distances it encompassed, the range of industries it incorporated, the huge volume of train traffic it handled, the stunning height of its grain elevators and office buildings, the unending passage of ships that came and went from its river and harbor every day. These observers were awed by the city’s audacity in reversing the flow of the Chicago River so that its foul wastes would flow down a canal and into the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, and they were impressed by its ingenuity in creating a new water system to draw lake waters into its tunnels—a feat of engineering genius symbolized by a grand new water tower that rose 138 feet into the sky. They were taken, above all, with the city’s sheer energy and vitality.31

A leading promoter of Chicago as the Empire City of the West was General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero who now commanded the U.S. Army’s Division of the Missouri, with forces deployed as far south as Texas and as far west as Montana. Sheridan, knowing the city’s centrality, had moved his divisional headquarters there from St. Louis. He rarely missed a chance to sing Chicago’s praises, and he did so in 1870 when he traveled to France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. When the general met with the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck after his forces defeated the army of Napoleon III, the two men reviewed the conquering troops and the “Iron Duke” told Sheridan: “I wish I could go to America, if only to see that Chicago.”32

Chicago’s entrepreneurs and promoters naturally basked in this kind of flattering attention, but some old settlers feared that the city’s performance as a moneymaking machine would make it “a town of mere traders and money getters; crude, unlettered, sharp, and grasping.” They feared that the civic virtue and sense of community they had cultivated would be lost amid the endless and ruthless competition for gain. The pioneers also worried that city government, fragile as it was, would simply become an arena for the buying and selling of influence.33

More than any other city in the nation, Chicago came to embody what Mark Twain and others would call the Gilded Age—an age of excess when businessmen accumulated huge fortunes, constructed lavish mansions, exploited the public domain and corrupted public officials. No one captured the spirit of the age better than Walt Whitman, who wrote in 1871 of cities that reeked with “robbery and scoundrelism.”34 The nation was like a ship sailing in a dangerous sea of seething currents without a first-class captain. Of all the “dark undercurrents” Whitman sensed beneath that sea, none was more dangerous “than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest like a line drawn—they not as privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”35

The famous poet put aside these fears, however, because he was seized with the hubris of Gilded Age nationalism. For all the danger that lay ahead as the “labor question” exposed “a yawning gulf” between the classes, it seemed to Whitman “as if the Almighty had spread before this nation charts of imperial destinies, as dazzling as the sun.” That sun shone over a people “making a new history, a history of democracy,” and that sun was moving west from Whitman’s beloved Brooklyn toward Chicago and the vast Pacific. “In a few years,” he predicted, “the dominion heart of America will be far inland toward the West.” There in that region of “giant growth” Americans were fulfilling their destiny as a people. It was an epic era, one of those times, Whitman wrote, when “[a]ll goes upward and outward, nothing collapses.” 36

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