Mayor James Curtiss Inaugural Address, 1847

James Curtiss Biography

Inauguration date: March 9, 1847

This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.

Gentlemen of the Common Council:

In assuming the position which has been assigned me by the partiality of my fellow citizens, the custom established by my predecessors requires that I should present for your consideration some suggestions, relative to those affairs of the city which occur to me as most prominent in their claims upon your attention.

I will not occupy your time with any expressions of gratitude to the people for the honor which has been conferred upon me, by their unsolicited suffrages. That gratitude will be best exhibited by us all in an honest and faithful discharge of the duties involved in our trust.

We are not delegated to act for an old and established community—for a community whose interests and whose character have been firmly settled by a gradual and almost imperceptible process. We are to furnish precedents and speak for, to bind and control, the affairs of a city which but yesterday had no existence. Its interests are neither firmly settled, nor well understood. Its resources have scarcely commenced to be developed. Our city occupies ground which was but yesterday the mere lodge of the red man of the forest. It has already taken its rank among the great cities of the West. Yet its past rapid advance in population, and wealth, and all the elements of greatness, may be regarded as but foreshadowing its future. I doubt not that we shall all feel the responsibility of our peculiar position in this respect. Your attention will naturally be first directed to the state of the city Finances. I am happy to be able to assure you that you will find them in a satisfactory condition. The Report of the Financial Committee of the late Council will doubtless afford you all the information which will be needed for immediate purposes. I have no doubt that report, as well as those which have preceded it, are in the main correct, and present a fair view of the general financial condition of the city. It is believed, however, that no Financial Report for several years past has been perfectly satisfactory to the people. There has been too great a desire on the part of each Council to furnish paper evidence of its own prudence and economy.—We may, however, safely congratulate ourselves, that our city is comparatively free from embarrassment and debt. Let us not, gentlemen, depart from that economy, which has, in the main, characterized the action of our predecessors in the city government, and which has resulted in placing us in the proud position of a young city rapidly developing its resources, yet comparatively out of debt. It is believed that the public interests would be promoted by the provision of means for the payment, at all times, of all orders upon the city Treasury. This might be done at a small expense, which would be more than compensated by a reduction in the price of every article required for the use of the city, and a great convenience would result to those who have claims against the city. A thorough revision of the Financial Reports and Accounts of the city for several years past is greatly to be desired.

The state of our common schools furnishes ample ground for the pride of every citizen. Few, if any, even of the older cities of our country, have made better provision, or have a better digested system for common school education. The present School Agent has managed the affairs of the fund entrusted to his care with signal zeal and fidelity, and the labors of the Board of School Inspectors, which are rendered without compensation, to elevate the character of our common schools is worthy of all praise. A late report of this Board recommends to the Council measures for the erection of a high school. Important as all will admit the suggestion to be, it is doubtful whether the state of the city Finances will justify the erection of a building, and the establishment of a high school, during the present year.

A new school house has been erected in the district west of the river during the past year which will be completed and ready for the reception of scholars at an early day. It is to be regretted that our expensive common school houses have generally been erected upon such limited grounds. Air, room for exercise, shade and ornament are essential requisites for the common school house. I trust that the present Council will take efficient measures to remedy the evil which exists, in this respect, so far as the same may be practicable. Some changes were made by the late Council in the management of the affairs of the schools which are of doubtful expediency. No interest of the city has stronger claims upon your careful and zealous consideration than those connected with our common schools.

In connection with schools it may be proper for me to invite your early attention to the settlement of claims to the amount of several hundred dollars, for expenditures in the support of schools in the old school district, prior [to] the organization of the city government.

The state of the Fire Department of the city is such as to justify, the feeling of security which it inspires. Its efficiency has been greatly increased during the past year, by the addition of two new and superior Engines. The propriety of a like increase during the present year is entitled to your early consideration. Some addition ought to be made at an early day to the implements of the Hook and Ladder Company. I would suggest to you the expediency of adopting some system in regard to expenditures on account of this Department, either by making a general appropriation to be expended under the direction of the Chief Engineer, or by requiring the sanction of the proper committee of your body for all expenditures before they are made.

Several Engine Houses have been erected on the banks of the river, at the ends of streets, during the past year; and in some instances the ends of the streets have been rented for other and private purposes by former Councils. This has been a subject of just complaint with the public generally. It is greatly to be desired that measures may be taken at an early day to procure the necessary lots for the accommodation the Engine Houses, and other building connected with the Fire Department, or needed for the public service. And that the ends of the streets be at once cleared from all obstructions.

The construction of two additional bridges has been authorized by our immediate predecessors. One to cross the main river at Wells street and one to cross the South Branch at Madison street. And strong efforts were made which will doubtless be renewed to obtain authority for the erection of a third additional bridge to cross the South branch at Lake st. It is believed that the erection of a bridge at this point prior to the excavation of the contemplated basin would seriously interfere with the navigation of the river. An expenditure exceeding two thousand dollars was required for the support of the two bridges in operation during the past year. If the support of the two additional bridges already authorized and in process of erection shall amount to a like sum, nothing but the most absolute necessity would justify us in incurring any greater liability on account of bridges at the present time.

The main roads leading into the city are, and have been for years past, in an almost impassable condition at many seasons of the year, and at no season has their condition been such as is required by their importance. It may be proper for you to inquire into the propriety of co-operating with the county in measures for their improvement. Within the limits of the city they should be kept in a state of constant and thorough repair.

The condition of the side walks throughout the city will claim your earnest attention. The great variation in their grade, in many places within short distances, is a great inconvenience to the public and is not entirely free from danger. Side walks of the proper grade, and of sufficient width for an engine track, should, it is believed, in all cases be extended across the different alleys. Measures should also be taken to prevent the unnecessary incumbrance, either of the walks or the streets with any articles whatever.

Sufficient attention has not been paid by any of our predecessors to the cleanliness of the streets and alleys of the city. Every year the condition of a portion of the streets and alleys has been alike disgraceful to the character of the city, and detrimental to the health of its inhabitants.

The ordinances provide penalties for leaving horses or teams within city limits, without properly fastening or securing them. The public safety, as well as the interest of the owners requires that these provisions should be enforced.

This could be done without difficulty, if proper provisions were made for securing horses and teams, by the erection of suitable and convenient posts along the outside of the walks. To these posts, chains and other conveniences might be attached if it were thought desirable.

The Grand Jury at the present term of the Cook County Court, suggested the propriety of a co-operation between the city and the county in the erection of public buildings. A Court House, Jail, House of Correction, Poor House and Hospital are all greatly needed. Economy would doubtless be promoted by a union between the city and the county in regard to some, if not all these buildings. You will doubtless give the suggestions of the Grand Jury that consideration which their importance requires.

The deposit made by the wash of the roads leading off the prairie on the west, is rapidly accumulating in the river, and threatens, unless some measures be taken to obviate the evil, to seriously impair its navigation at a very early day.

One of the most prominent evils which exists in our city, is the want of public grounds. Scarcely a city in the Union, perhaps in the world, is so poorly provided for, in this respect. Grounds which but a few years since were thought too far out for any such purpose, now exceed in value any sum which we should perhaps be willing to pay. Something ought and I think can be done to remedy this evil. Each division of the city ought to have at least one public ground of from ten to twenty acres, and I would suggest the propriety of immediate measures to ascertain, whether any such grounds can be obtained upon any feasible terms.

There will be no matters presented to your consideration, of more importance than those connected with the “Wharfing privileges” so called. The value of the property involved in the question connected with these privileges, has been estimated at half a million of dollars. A correct history of these privileges and of the matters in issue between he parties will be found embodied in a report from the Judiciary committee of the late Council. I refer you to that report, as containing a correct view of the facts and the law involved in the “wharfing privilege” questions. Subsequent to that report, these questions have been the subject of a negotiation between a committee representing the claimants and occupants and a committee of the Council. A proposition was made by the former to the latter committee, which, was in substance, that the Council should take measures to confirm and quiet them in their original leases for 999 years, upon the doing of which the original price, stipulated to be paid by them, was to be paid to the city, or interest thereon, from thence forward. It contained also a stipulation that the claimants of lots which were never leased, should be permitted to have them now at the same rates! The committee of the Council declined to accede to this proposition, and submitted a counter one, which was in substance, that the claimants should have leases for terms of ten years, with covenants for renewal from time to time until the 999 years should expire. Provided that upon the expiration of any term, the premises should not be wanted for the public use. It also proposed to fix a maximum valuation of $4,000 upon each 80 feet front, upon which seven per cent per annum was to be paid in quarterly payments; to this proposition no response has as yet been made. The main difference, between the two committees and the two interests, appears to be, in regard to the term of the lease or other contract to be executed. In my opinion the whole of the ground embraced in the wharfing privileges, will require to be excavated for the accommodation of our rapidly increasing commerce. If it is not wanted for such use, the claimants would be perfectly safe for any term which they might desire, under the covenants proposed by the Council. If it is wanted, we ought not to surround those who shall come after us, with difficulties which cannot be surmounted, or to part, for a comparatively small sum, with rights which cannot be regained without an immense expenditure. I look, however, upon the state of those important interests as the subject of a fair compromise. I trust that some plan for such a compromise may be suggested, which may prove satisfactory to all parties interested. But, we are admonished by the past, that two great caution and prudence cannot be exercised in making contracts for the future.

Our present charter and city ordinances are now out of print and it will be necessary to issue another edition of the charter, amendments and ordinances at any early day. I would suggest the propriety of a general revision of the city ordinances, with a view to their incorporation in a more tangible shape with the reprint of the charter. I have not had an opportunity to examine the recent amendments to the charter to form any opinion to their utility. It may be assumed, however, as certain that further amendments will be required, and perhaps, the matter of a general revision of the whole charter cannot be too early brought before the people.

In conclusion, gentlemen, permit me to say that I enter upon the duties of my station with great diffidence in my ability to discharge them in a manner satisfactory to you, or myself. Unacquainted with the duties of the chair, I can scarcely hope to escape frequent errors. I shall endeavor to act without partially, and I rely with confidence, upon the aid, and the assistance of you all, and I am cheered with the assurance, that our sessions will be distinguished, by personal courtesy, and by a sincere desire to promote the interests of our constituents.


  • Chicago Daily Journal, March 10, 1847.
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