Mayor Joseph Medill Inaugural Address, 1871

Joseph Medill Biography

Inauguration date: December 4, 1871

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

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Common Council: The very brief period that has intervened since receiving notification of my election, renders it impossible to furnish your honorable body with specific information on some subjects, or to make recommendations on others that require it. But as I become more familiar with the duties and business of the office, additional information will be transmitted from time to time, as the charter contemplates.

I have been called to the head of the City Government under extraordinary circumstances. A few weeks ago our fair city, reposing in fancied security, received a fearfully tragic visitation from fire, which, in a few brief but awful hours, reduced a large portion thereof to ashes, cinders and smoke, consuming one grand division, leaving but a fragment of another, and inflicting an ugly wound on the third. In a single night and day 125,000 of our people were expelled from their homes and compelled to flee for their lives into the streets, commons, or lake, to avoid perishing in the flames. Many lost their lives from heat, suffocation, or falling walls—how many may never be known; and the multitudes who escaped were fain to seek shelter and food at the hand of charity. The greater part of our citizens, not burned out of their homes, lost their stores, shops, offices, stocks of goods, implements, books, accounts, papers, vouchers, business, or situations, and it is difficult to find any citizen who has not suffered directly by that fearful conflagration. Of the total property in Chicago created by labor and capital, existing on the 8th of October, more than half perished on the 9th. The money value of the property thus suddenly annihilated, it is impossible accurately to ascertain, but it can hardly fall short of one hundred and fifty millions of dollars, a comparatively small part of which will be reimbursed by insurance companies. Such a tremendous loss cannot befall the people at large without seriously affecting their municipal affairs. The city, as a corporation, has lost in property and income precisely in the same proportion as have individuals in the aggregate. The municipal government has no income except what it derives from the citizens of Chicago in the form of taxes, licenses, and rents, or obtains on their credit; and to the extent that their property and business are diminished by the terrible misfortune that has smitten them, so is the revenue of the city diminished; and, as our citizens are retrenching expenses to meet the exigencies and keep within their means, so must the municipal government do likewise.

Financial Condition of the City

Heavy as the blow has been that has struck us, I am not discouraged. Our municipal losses, like those of the citizens, will soon be repaired, and by judicious management of our city affairs, the people will soon recover from their losses, and thus be able, in a short time, to bear the burdens of taxation without oppression. I shall proceed to state, in brief form, the present fiscal condition of the city, as I gather it from official sources:

  • Bonded debt Dec. 1, 1871: $14,103,000
  • From this may be deducted bonds held in the sinking fund: 557,000
  • Outstanding bonds: $13,546,000

This debt is composed of the following items:

  • Funded debt—old issues: $342,000
  • Funded debt—new issues: 2,192,500
  • School bonds: 1,119,500
  • School construction bonds: 53,000
  • Sewerage bonds: 2,680,000
  • Canal-deepening bonds: 2,896,000
  • Water bonds: 4,820,000

In addition to the bonded debt, it is officially reported to me that there is a floating debt consisting of:

  • Certificates of indebtedness: $138,707
  • Unsettled claims for deepening the canal, in excess of the $3,000,000 authorized by law: 253,000
  • Current expenses for November: 250,000
  • Tunnel balance, and other items: 45,000
  • Total, about: $686,707

The Comptroller estimates the general expenses for the remainder of the fiscal year at $1,141,000.

There stands to the credit of various special funds the following unexpended balances:

  • Water fund, from sale of bonds: $897,262
  • School building, from sale of bonds: 148,152
  • Special assessment, collected: 435,467
  • Bridewell fund: 45,451
  • Reform School fund: 30,000
  • Total: $1,556,333
  • From these funds the City Government has temporarily drawn, for payment of current expenses, to be replaced when needed: $1,144,186
  • Balance on hand Dec.1, 1871: $ 412,152

The Common Council, at a late meeting, appropriated $140,000 of the Water Fund for repairs of the Water Works and extensions of mains, which, when expended, will reduce the Water Fund to $757,262.

By the former mode of doing business with the banks, nothing was paid by them to the city on its deposits, while high rates of interest were paid by the city for temporary accommodations--the money loaned actually being the city’s own funds. The interest thus absurdly paid amounted to a very large item in the annual expenditure of the city.

A Bad Practice Which Should Be Reformed

From time immemorial it has been the practice of the municipal government to anticipate its revenues from nine to twelve months before they are received, a practice which I unqualifiedly condemn as imprudent and improper, and which, I trust, will be reformed at an early date. The city taxes are collected in the spring, but as fast as they are paid in they are needed for the liquidation of floating debt and accumulated claims, and when these are settled and receipted for, the year’s taxes are exhausted, and for the residue of the fiscal year the government is supported by borrowing from special funds, or the banks, by issuing certificates of indebtedness, or resorting to other financial devices. This is all wrong. There should always be in the Treasury a sufficiently large balance to meet current expenses. There yet remain four months of this fiscal year, and during that time very little revenue will be coming into the Treasury from taxation, rents, or licenses, and consequently, the city must borrow from the banks, or others, to defray current expenses, until it can repay from the annual taxes. But for

The Timely Assistance Rendered by the State,

the City Treasury would be greatly embarrassed to meet the demands that would necessarily be made upon it during the next two years. The loss of public property by the fire was quite serious; add to this the heavy reduction of revenue from taxes and water rents caused by the fire, and the prohibition in the Constitution to increase the city debt, and the three things combined would leave the city in a dilemma, had it not been for the State stepping promptly forward and restoring to the city the money it had advanced to the State for the completion of the Illinois and Michigan canal. The State had reserved to itself the right to do this in the original contract with the city. The canal is now in the complete possession of the State, free of all incumbrances, and sure to yield a handsome revenue hereafter; while the proceeds of the mortgage lien will enable the city to rebuild its destroyed bridges, school houses and other structures; to maintain its credit and support its government until the crisis is past. The timely relief thus rendered will materially quicken the restoration of our city to its former tax-paying power, when it can reward the State for its favor by large contributions to its treasury. The lively gratitude of Chicago will ever be due to the Governor and General Assembly, and their constituents, for their kind action in the premises.

The sum the State has engaged to pay for the release of the city’s mortgage on the canal is $2,955,340, of which has already been received $105,000 and I am assured we can depend upon $645,000 more in time for the payment of the January interest on the city debt, as follows:

  • State 6 per cent. bonds: $250,000
  • Canal tolls: 60,000
  • Illinois Central tax: 210,000
  • Funds in State Treasury: 125,000
  • Total: $645,000

Interest Coming Due

The amount of interest to pay January 1, 1872, is $486,610, less the interest on the sinking fund bonds, which the Council may, and, I think, should, order cancelled. The remainder of the money, about $159,000, will be needed to pay bridge-builders and fire and police force.

On the 1st of July next we may look for $210,000 from the Illinois Central tax, to apply on the July interest of the city debt; and from September to December, 1872, proceeds of the one and one-half mill tax, which will yield $750,000; also, January 1, 1873, $210,000 from the Illinois Central tax, and, perhaps, $75,000 from the tolls of the canal, making a total during 1872 of $1,245,000. This will still leave to be received in 1873, including interest something more than $1,000,000. By the end of that time we can reasonably hope that the city will have so far recovered from all its immense losses as to need no more exterior assistance, but be able to meet, from taxation, all dues and demands that may be brought against it.

Redemption of Bonds

The only portion of the funded debt that matures in 1872, is the small amount of $39,000; 7 per cent. bonds, due Dec. 1, 1872. Only $5,000 of sinking fund bonds, I am informed by the Comptroller, are required to be purchased within the next year; and only $50,000 of bonds fall due in 1873; $97,000 in 1874; $100,000 in 1875, and $95,000 in 1876, all 6 per cents. Hence, so far as regards the redemption of bonded debts, there is nothing connected therewith to occasion more than a passing thought.

Municipal Losses by the Fire

As near as I can ascertain, the loss of city property by the fire, as estimated by the different boards, is as follows:

In Care of Board of Public Works

  • City Hall, including furniture: $ 470,000
  • Bridges burned: 171,000
  • Damage to street pavements: 270,000
  • Damage to sidewalks and crossings, payable out of general fund: 70,000
  • Damage to Water Works: 35,000
  • Damage to lamp-posts: 15,000
  • Damage to fire hydrants, reservoirs, sewers, water service, etc.: 60,000
  • Total: $1,085,000

To this must be added 121 3-4 miles of sidewalks destroyed (the replacement of which should be by special assessment) valued at $941,380.

The Fire Department Loss

  • Buildings worth: $ 60,000
  • Furniture: 7,500
  • Damage to engines: 8,200
  • Damage to hose: 10,000
  • Damage to Fire-Alarm Telegraph: 45,000
  • Total: $130,700

Police Department Loss

  • Buildings worth: $ 53,600
  • Furniture, fixtures, etc.: 32,500
  • Total: $ 86,000 [sic]

Board of Education Loss

  • Buildings, furniture, etc., worth: $251,000
  • Board of Health lost property worth: 15,000
  • Total losses: $1,567,800
  • Add sidewalks: 941,380
  • Grand total: $2,509,180

All these burnt structures, machines, bridges, sidewalks, fixtures, and furniture must be rebuilt and replaced at the earliest practicable moment, as they are indispensable to the city and citizens.

Other Municipal Losses by the Fire

But the destruction of this property is not the only loss suffered by the corporation. The burning of records, vouchers, books, papers, tax warrants, assessment rolls, etc., will necessarily occasion much loss, confusion, and embarrassment to the City Government. But it is believed that a large part of the apparent loss of official knowledge and data can be supplied from other sources. Still the pecuniary loss to the city will be considerable in the destruction of the evidence of delinquent taxes and special assessments.

The books and papers destroyed, or saved, are reported to me as follows:

Mayor’s Office—Everything in the Mayor’s office was destroyed by the fire, but no public records or documents were kept there.

City Comptroller’s Office—All the records, books, papers, and files of the Comptroller’s office, from its commencement down to the date of the fire, are destroyed. Fortunately for the city, the charter has, since 1857, required the Comptroller to publish an annual statement of receipts and expenditures and liabilities of the city, and, since 1861, to publish a monthly statement of receipts and expenditures. From the published proceedings of the Common Council, all of which are obtainable, the general financial condition of the city up to September 1, 1871, can be ascertained. The September statement, which was prepared and ready for publication, was burnt.

City Clerk’s Office—Only the books, proceedings, and documents destroyed after the 15th of September. All documents previous to that time in the vault are preserved in good condition, which is very fortunate, as they are of more value to the city than all the books and papers that were lost.

City Treasurer’s Office—All books and vouchers in his hands destroyed; but the public moneys were deposited in bank vaults and are safe.

Tax Commissioner’s Office—All of the real estate assessment books for the year 1871, and all of the schedules of personal property are saved or restored. Also seventeen volumes of maps of the South and North Divisions; also thirteen volumes of maps in blank; all of the schedules of property as described and assessed from 1837 to 1871 inclusive are saved. All other records of this office were destroyed.

City Collector’s Office—All the special assessment rolls and books, the general tax warrants of 1868, 1869, and 1870, and the personal property tax, uncollected from the years 1863 to 1870, inclusive; also, all other books, memoranda, &c., were destroyed. The Collector also reports the loss of “some ten thousand dollars in money, bank checks, orders on Treasurer, besides receipts, reports, and many other documents, the value of which it would be difficult to estimate.

Board of Public Works—Saved all books, vouchers, &c., belonging to the bookkeeper’s department, and also the principal books of the special assessment department; all other books and memoranda were destroyed.

Board of Police and Fire—All books, records, and memoranda of this department are blotted out.

Health Department—The loss of books and papers complete.

Police Court (S.D.)—All the books and dockets destroyed.

Police Court (W.D.)—The books, dockets, &c., remain intact, not having been in the fire.

Police Court (N.D.)—All the books and dockets destroyed.

Board of Education—All books, records, and documents destroyed, except record of the proceedings of the Board.


This list of destroyed records and papers may convey an exaggerated idea of the actual damage done. The system of keeping the city accounts was such that but little loss will be sustained by the city by reason of the destruction of the Comptroller’s records. To illustrate: The appropriation for the Board of Public Works is nearly one-third of the total annual appropriation, and, including special assessments, is more than half of all the money expended on city account. The Board make out a voucher for an expenditure and send it to the Comptroller’s office, keeping a duplicate in their own office. The Board also keep books of account, showing the expenditures of appropriations for and vouchers issued by the Board. The Board of Public Works saved their books, records, vouchers, etc., and to this extent the records of the Comptroller’s office can be replaced. So that it will be impossible for claimants to defraud the city by false claims.

The appropriations for the Police and Fire Departments, amounting to about $900,000, are largely made up of the pay-rolls of policemen and firemen, and they were paid on Saturday preceding the fire, except a few who were on special duty.

The usual course of business in the Comptroller’s office, combined with the personal recollections of the Comptroller and his clerks, will enable that office to prevent double payments, or fraudulent payments, and the danger of such will be over with when the payments for the month of November are completed.

It is in the destruction of the records, rolls and warrants of the City Collector’s office that I apprehend the city will suffer the greatest loss. The City Collector, when an assessment is made, or a tax levied, receives a warrant for its collection, gives the notices required by law, and reports once in each year, generally in March, to the court, the delinquents upon all real property and special assessment accounts which come into his hands, the latter prior to the 31st of October, and of the real property warrants prior to the preceding second Tuesday of December.

Upon this report the Court renders judgment, and issues a precept to the Collector to collect from the property against which a judgment is rendered in favor of the city, the amount of the tax or assessment. It fortunately so happened that the sales under these precepts had been made prior to the fire. The property appealed, and upon which the appeal was perfected can be ascertained by referring to the transcript in the Supreme Court of the State. Some of the appeals prayed for were not perfected. In these cases it may be difficult to establish the proof of the facts, as the court records were all destroyed. Some injunctions were also pending, the records of which were destroyed.

All the personal property tax warrants were destroyed; upon these warrants no judgment of the court is obtained. The amount of uncollected personal taxes for 1870 I have not learned, but the sum was doubtless considerable. The Comptroller’s last report shows that there were delinquencies on which judgment had been obtained, amounting as follows:

  • General tax warrant for 1867: $193,825
  • General tax warrant for 1868: 101,580
  • General tax warrant for 1869: 221,427
  • Uncollected April 1, 1871: $426,832

The prospect of hereafter collecting much of these taxes is not very flattering, so say the least. Much of the property itself has been destroyed by the fire.

All special assessment warrants issued since October 31, 1870, were destroyed; and, what is worse, but very little had been collected on these warrants. I suggest to your honorable body that it would be advisable to repeal those assessments, refund the moneys collected, if any, and make a new assessment, if, indeed, it be possible hereafter to make any assessments which can be collected, under the recent decisions of the reconstructed Supreme Court, to which I refer elsewhere. At all events, the first step, in my opinion, that should be taken by the Common Council is to repeal all these assessments, for no further collection is possible as the matter now stands.

Board of Public Works Expenditures

The expenditures of the Board of Public Works from April 1, 1870, to April 1, 1871, were as follows:

  • From direct taxes: $1,335,017
  • Special assessments: 2,225,873
  • From the sale of bonds for--Water fund: $1,123,103
  • Sewerage fund: 851,648
  • City Bridewell fund: 50,674
  • City Hall fund: 121,994
  • LaSalle street tunnel fund: 324,226
  • Canal deepening fund: 1,292,648
  • Total from sale of bonds: 3,664,297
  • Total expenditure: $7,325,187

From April 1, 1871, to December 1, 1871, being eight months of the present fiscal year:

  • From direct taxes: $1,127,450
  • From special assessments: 1,654,518
  • From proceeds of bonds for canal, sewer-age, water, tunnel, etc.: 1,713,719
  • Total since April last: $4,495,687

As before stated, the Comptroller estimates the amount of money required for the remainder of the fiscal year at $1,141,000, to be supplied by taxation. This does not include expenses on account of Water Works, special assessments, or any funds in credit from the sale of bonds.

Taxes Coming Due

The Comptroller also estimates the amount of taxes that will be due under the present assessment, after making rebate for loss of property by fire, at $2,282,000, from which considerable deductions must be made for delinquencies and resistance of payment. A class of property-holders have acquired the bad habit of contesting in the courts the payment of all taxes, and harassing the city with appeals, injunctions, and other litigous devices, based on alleged informalities in assessment or judgment, whereby the city is defrauded out of large sums of money justly due it. It is no longer safe to reckon on an estimated amount of revenue from a given valuation of property and per cent. of taxation. Some remedy must be devised to correct this growing evil, which is nurtured and spread by a class of special-pleading, technical attorneys, said to be compensated by contingent fees, and who meet with remarkable favor in the courts, especially of late, in the work of sapping and mining the revenues of the city.

No More Special Assessments

In this survey of the present condition of our municipal government, I have not included one very important matter. I refer to the system of making improvements by special assessments on the property benefited. This system is as old as the city itself, and under it the money has been procured for opening and widening of streets and alleys, and improving streets, and building sidewalks, to the extent of many hundred miles. How many millions of dollars have been raised by special assessment and expended under the direction of the Board of Public Works for these objects, I am not prepared to state, but it must exceed twenty millions.

But the Supreme Court of the State, since its re-organization under the New Constitution, has made decisions overruling all its former decisions, which, carried to their ultimate sequences, work a perfect revolution in the system of special assessments, and indeed overthrow them totally. The Corporation Counsel gives it as his opinion that these late decisions of the Supreme Court have so unsettled the law of assessments as to render it impossible for the city to continue its improvements under the present charter, unless it is desired that the cost hereafter of all street openings, widenings, or improvements and sidewalk building shall be paid by general taxation. The Court has so construed the law that there seems to be no possible way of making a special assessment to pay the cost of an improvement, that may not be defeated by any interested party who resists payment. The worst feature of these revolutionary decisions is the predicament in which they place either the City Government or the contractors for work already done but not paid for. There is not far from a million of dollars due to contractors for work done and materials furnished, under the provisions of the charter authorizing special assessments, and these claimants are already threatening the city with suits for the amounts due them from the persons whose property received the special benefit from the improvements. I have a list of uncollected assessments which foots up the large sum of $790,164.11. Of this amount, all except $262,449.58, is pending in the courts, either by injunction or an appeal to the Supreme Court, principally to the latter. Some now on appeal are reassessments, amounting, perhaps, to $150,000. This, added to the $262,449, makes the sum about $412,449, which have been decided adversely to the city, on the application for judgment upon the original or first assessment. If the “Beygeh” decision is adhered to by the court, this amount will be lost, either by the city or the contractors, and this will be only the first installment of the losses that will fall on the city or contractors.

A brief statement of the points decided by the court will convince your honorable body that I have not magnified or over-stated the grave consequences that must flow from the change of views held by that court.

In the recent case of Rich vs The City, the Court has decided that the finding of the Appraisement Commissioners is not conclusive, but that it is only a means devised by the Legislature to get parties into Court; and that upon the application for judgment, a party objecting to judgment may show that he is assessed too much for benefits; that he is not allowed enough damages for the property condemned; in fact, that he may show anything meritorious or technical which tends to show that the assessment ought not to be collected from him.

The Court also now holds that the objector is entitled to a jury trial, and, of course, a right of appeal from its verdict to the Supreme Court, thus entailing endless litigation and delay on the city. The Rich case was upon a condemnation proceeding, to wit: widening Michigan avenue.

Following the Rich case, the Supreme Court have decided the cases of Creote vs. City, Rae vs. City, and one or two others, affirming those named in which the rule laid down in the Rich case is applied to the improvement of streets, except that the Court has not decided that the objector in an improvement proceeding is entitled to a jury trial, leaving that point still open.

The charter requires that an assessment shall be made for benefits and in the proportion of benefits conferred. But there happens to be no provision in the charter which directs the Court, if it finds that the party is assessed too high, or not enough, to recast the assessment and have the proportion maintained; but the effect of these late decisions is, that if the assessment upon one lot is defeated, the whole assessment necessarily falls. Even if the Court should modify their opinion so as to hold that the assessment is defeated only as to the party succeeding in sustaining his objections, it will leave the city in an unenviable position as to its assessments. In the determination of the question of benefits there will be no fixed rule or basis to act upon. It will be impossible for any Commissioners to assign benefits that the Judge and jury will agree with as to each and every amount assessed or valuation made.

In September last the Supreme Court, under its new organization, delivered another opinion—not yet published—which seems to knock the last prop from under the city in regard to making special assessments. It is the case of Beygeh vs. City, in which the two former decisions of that Court, in the Ward and Laflin cases, are directly overruled and reversed. The Court now holds that if the first assessment is invalid for any reason, technical or otherwise, no new or re-assessment can be made. A petition for a rehearing was made in both the Rich and Beygeh cases, and granted in the Rich, but not yet in the Beygeh case.

The same Court, last September, in the case of the City vs. Norton, I am informed, made a decision that the city was liable for a part of the assessment assessed upon property not liable by law to be assessed, and used language intimating a general liability of the city to the contractor for all work done, including special assessment work.

It is the intimation in this last decision that has caused the contractors to threaten suit against the city for special assessment work. The court seems to place the city in this dilemma: By reversing its former decisions it renders it impossible for the city to make a valid assessment that will stand its fire, and then intimates that the contractor may collect his claim from the city, because the assessment was not properly made!

The liability of the city to contractors is thus stated in Section 17, Chap.6, of the charter: “Any person taking contracts with the city, and who agrees to be paid from special assessments, shall have no claim or lien upon the city in any event, except from the collections of the special assessments made for work contracted for; and no work to be paid for by a special assessment, shall be let except to a contractor, or contractors, who will so agree.”

This language of the law seems to be plain, explicit and peremptory, but the contractors expect to circumvent it under the new doctrine laid down by the court, and that, too, in the face of their own written contracts, in which “they agree to make no claim against the city on account of special assessment, except from the collections of the same according to Section 17, Chapter 6, of the revised charter of said city.”

In view of these recent decisions, the only safe recommendation I can make to your honorable body is, to direct all contracts revoked involving special assessments, and to recall all warrants outstanding for the collection of special assessments, and to put a stop at once to all improvements being made on account of such assessments. Let us ascertain to a certainty the exact liability of the city in all condemnation proceedings for the widening, extending, or improving of streets, alleys, and sidewalks. No other course is safe or justifiable at this time in the face of the recent and unlooked-for decisions of the Supreme Court.

What Property Owners Must Do

When the property-owners hereafter desire to have new streets laid out, or streets extended or widened, or graded, macadamized, or block-paved, let them be required to enter into an agreement with the city, waiving right of appeal, stay of judgment, or any claim on the city for damages in connection with such improvements. Require them also to make contracts, directly, with contractors for the work to be done and materials furnished for improving their streets, alleys, and sidewalks, in order that the contractors shall have no pretence of claim against the city for work done for the special benefit of individuals.

There are no funds in the Treasury now, nor likely to be for a long time, with which to pay for street extensions or widenings, or pavings, and the city is prohibited from borrowing money and adding to the municipal debt, for these or any other purposes. It will be all the city can possibly do, to keep the present improved streets in repair and clean all the streets in this wide-spread city.

Retrenchment and Economy the Order of the Day

The lavish expenditure heretofore indulged in by the Board of Public Works, Board of Education, and other departments must be peremptorily terminated from the sheer force of necessity, if nothing else. The two or three millions a year obtained from the sale of bonds, and added to the city debt, which was the pleasant practice, is forbidden in the future by the new Constitution; and the two or three millions annually obtained from special assessments is prohibited by the Supreme Court. The only remaining source of revenue (with the exception of rents, licenses and the canal lien money) is from direct taxation on property according to valuation. The time has now come for the introduction of a rigid system of retrenchment in all branches of municipal government. The “pay as you go” principle must now be adopted and adhered to.

There is nothing that will afford such financial relief to the city, at this time, as retrenchment. It is our surest resource, and better than any credit, we can draw upon it to a remarkable extent. When we borrow we must repay with interest, but when we save an expense there is no debt created, and neither principal or interest to provide for.

The fire-fiend came like a thief in the night and caught our municipal government living in excess of its income, with a loose discipline in some departments, inefficiency in others, and extravagance in all. It will be no easy matter to reform the luxurious tastes and expensive habits of the past, or to enforce in the future, close economy upon independent boards accountable in effect to nobody, and accustomed to have the use of all the money they desired. But the Common Council has some power left under our singular charter, to hold the purse-strings and impose restrictions and limitations on expenditures, and to force down the cost of supporting a municipal government within the tax-paying ability of our crippled people, and I pledge myself to aid you in this duty to the full extent of the small fragment of executive power left in the hands of the Mayor under our peculiar charter.

Discharge of Office-Holders and Reduction of Salaries

There should be, in my opinion, a complete over-hauling of all expenditures in all the departments of the city, with a view of ascertaining wherein and to what extent reductions can be make. I am persuaded that the services of hundreds of persons now on the pay-rolls can be dispensed with and their salaries saved to the Treasury; and that a multitude of expenses can be lopped off without detriment to the public interests.

This is no time for the city to support super-numeraries or retain sinecures, or keep on its pay-rolls more employees than it has work for, when 75,000 or our worthy and industrious citizens are burnt out of house and business, wintering in sheds and barracks erected by the money of strangers, and subsisting on the charities of sympathizers, and when the ability to pay taxes is limited to the remnants of property undevoured by the fire.

Investigation Suggested

In view of the existing state of things, I recommend the appointment of a special committee, whose duty it shall be to make a searching investigation into the details of the municipal service, for the purpose of ascertaining where it is possible to retrench expenses; and, in this connection, I would suggest the advisability of reducing all salaries over which the charter gives you control, to the extent of about 20 per cent., for the period of one year. I am of the opinion that the members of the different boards, appreciating its necessity, will cheerfully co-operate in making the proposed reduction, which would save the Treasury at least half a million dollars.

If I comprehend the meaning of the recent municipal election, one of its chief purposes was to secure the reforms and economies which I have named, and the people will be bitterly disappointed and indignant, if they are not fairly carried out.

Municipal Corruptions

For several years past good men have witnessed with grave apprehensions the alarming deterioration of integrity in municipal administration, and a feeling of despondency and almost despair came over them. Honesty seemed to have departed from the majority of those holding places of trust or honor. In some cities knavish combinations of unscrupulous partisans had seized upon the municipal government by foul and corrupt means, and then rioted in profligate expenditure. Taxes increased alarmingly. Municipal indebtedness swelled frightfully. The earnings of the people were rapidly transferred to the possession of the rulers, and their property was being hopelessly mortgaged at the same time. The disperate, vicious and criminal classes were placed on the city pay-rolls, and sinecure offices for satellites were created by the thousand. Such, at least, has been the experience of the commercial emporium of the nation. The evil example of the New York municipal rule infected, to greater or less degree, all the municipal governments in the Union. Did Chicago wholly escape from the contamination? Can it be shown by the increase of our taxation or funded debt? I fear not.

But rascality, sooner or later, oversteps all bounds of shame, neglects to cover its tracks, and suddenly stands exposed and confounded by an indignant and plundered community. This was the result in New York, where the citizens, impelled by the instincts of self-preservation, arose en masse and overthrew their thievish rulers. A portion of the same tidal wave seems to have reached this city, and it would be well for those intrusted with the imposition of taxes, and the expenditure of public money, to be admonished as to its warning significance.

When the municipal rulers of a city are sober, upright, and honest men, and discharge their duties with integrity and dignity, they set an irresistible example for good before their fellow-citizens which powerfully quickens and promotes common honesty and fair dealing among all classes. A municipal government that practices economy and honesty encourages the same virtues among the masses, promotes contentment, and discourages the growing evil called “irregularity in accounts.” If municipal heads of Boards want their authority respected, they must respect themselves, and show by their actions that they are worthy of the respect of their subordinates. Every official should, in honor, serve the people as fairly and faithfully as he would serve himself. A high-minded or honorable man entrusted with office will be more scrupulously careful in handling the money of his fellow-citizens than in expending his own. It is the duty of the government of Chicago to set a good and pure example, not only before its own citizens, but before the other municipal governments of the Union. The perpetuity of the nation itself depends upon the character of the municipalities. If they break down by vice and dishonesty, the national edifice will crumble to the dust.

Combustible Character of the City

No more important questions can engage your attention than those of the future fire limits and a reliable supply of water for the extinguishment of fires. The first is in the nature of prevention, and the second of cure; and I shall briefly discuss them in the order of their importance. On the 9th of October more than 20,000 habitations and business places were destroyed by fire in a single day. So enormous a loss of property in so incredibly short a space of time finds no parallel in the history of conflagrations. It is not difficult to explain the cause of this sudden and tremendous destruction of property. There was no other city upon the face of the earth where all the conditions for such a disaster could be found in equal perfection. To begin with, the city of Chicago is situated on the lake border of a boundless prairie, swept continually by high winds. It contained 60,000 pine-built structures, and a few thousand of brick or stone. The prevailing winds of the autumn are invariably from the west and southwest. The solidly built parts of the city, and containing the most values, lay to the eastward of the combustible portions and were completely flanked and commanded by them. Each year the wooden parts of the city had filled up thicker and thicker with the most inflammable of all building materials, viz: pine. For miles square there was little but pine structures, pine sidewalks, pine planing mills, manufactures of pine and pine lumber yards.

A hot, parching, southwestern gale of many days duration had absorbed every particle of moisture from the vast aggregation of pine, of which the city was mainly constructed, and reduced it to the condition of tinder. A fire broke out in the night in the heart of this combustible material; the furious wind spread it quickly and swept it onward resistlessly. When the storm of fire reached the South Branch it had acquired such strength and volume as to leap over it as though it were a tiny rivulet. It fed on the dry pine tenements on its line of march, and spreading right and left, swept everything before it with the besom of destruction, until it died out for lack of more pine to devour.

What lesson should this cruel visitation teach us? Shall we regard it as one of fortuitous occurrence which only happens at long intervals and is beyond human foresight or control? Such a conclusion constitutes our great future danger. A blind, unreasoning infatuation in favor of pine for outside walls, and pine covered with paper and tar for roofs, has possession of many of our people. It is thought to be cheaper than any other building material, when, in point of fact, it is the dearest stuff, all things considered, that can be used. It is short-lived; rots out in a few years; rapidly becomes shabby in appearance, and of all building substances is the most incendiary. There is no economy whatever in erecting tenements of pine. The difference in first cost between it and brick is not to exceed 15 or 20 per cent., and this saving at the outset is soon lost in higher rates of insurance, larger consumption of fuel, more doctors’ bills, incessant repairs, and greater discomfort. The value of real property is reduced, and its advance retarded by the presence of unsightly, decaying, and combustible wooden structures, and the owners are unable to procure loans on such property on terms satisfactory, either as to time, amount, or rates of interest.

If we rebuild the city with this dangerous material, we have a moral certainty, at no distant day, of a recurrence of the late catastrophe. The chances of future destruction increase exactly in proportion to the multiplication of combustible structures on a given space. The sirocco blast from the southwest visits us every year. We have strong winds at nearly all times from the west. All the conditions for great fires are, therefore, constantly present in the dry season. With our present mode of supplying water, there is never an adequate quantity at the point of need to combat and promptly overcome a great fire. But no supply is sufficient to quench a fire, with twenty minutes’ start, among thousands of tinder-box structures, and propelled by an autumn gale in time of drought.

What the Future Fire Limits Should Be

Can there be any doubt as to our duty in view of these conditions and considerations? It seems to me it is obvious and imperative. Those who are entrusted with the management of public affairs should take such measures as shall render the recurrence of a like calamity morally impossible. The outside walls and the roof of every building, to be hereafter erected within the limits of Chicago, should be composed of materials as incombustible as brick, stone, iron, concrete or slate. Self-preservation is the first law of nature, so the self-preservation of the city is the highest duty of its rulers. Except for the most temporary uses, I am unalterably opposed, from this time forward, to the erection of a single wooden building within the limits of Chicago.

The fire-limits, in my opinion, should be made co-extensive with the boundaries of the city, and when the latter are extended, so should be the former. There is no line that can be drawn with safety within those limits.

Any inner fire-line will occasion endless discontent, and will forever be assailed and broken. Draw it anywhere inside of the city limits, and it will be continually forced inward, and shrink back toward its old and useless boundaries. No satisfactory or logical reason can ever be given to interested persons why those next to and within the line should be prohibited from erecting incendiary structures, while their neighbors on the opposite side of the street or alley are permitted to indulge in that dangerous luxury. Either let us forbid the construction of those buildings which tend to jeopardize the city, or allow all citizens an equal privilege to burn down their neighbors. This is a land of equal rights and privileges, and the rule in regard to incendiary structures should also be equal and uniform. I can see no other way of securing the safety of the city and satisfying the citizens, than by treating all alike, and extending the fire limits to the city boundaries. Special privileges are odious in a republican country.

In view of all the circumstances, I recommend that your honorable body proceed to frame and perfect a fire ordinance that will give security and permanence to the future city. The existing wooden structures will gradually disappear by the ravages of fire and decay, and the desire to replace them with permanent edifices. In a few years we can have a city solid and safe, durable and beautiful. The enactment of a fire-limits ordinance, comprehending the entire city, will add tens of millions to its credit abroad, and greatly appreciate the value of its realty at home. It is the wisest financial measure that can be enacted.

An Independent Supply of Water for Fires

The future safety of the city demands a better and more reliable supply of water for the extinguishment of fires than is afforded by the existing system. This fact was painfully demonstrated in the late calamity. When the pumping works succumbed, not a gallon of water could be procured by the Fire Department or the citizens with which to fight the fire, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of houses perished in consequence thereof. The city should not be left wholly dependent on those machines, because they are subject to many contingencies in addition to that which disabled them. Boilers may explode and ruin the engines, or cut off the supply of steam; some of the machinery may give way while the other engines are idle, awaiting repairs; valves may fail; a main may burst from over-pressure, or other cause; fire may again invade the works, or something else may happen at the critical moment, which may again leave the Fire Department helpless and the city a prey to the unpitying element.

The topography of the city forbids an elevated reservoir of capacity and pressure sufficient for the extinguishment of serious fires, such as they have in Montreal, New York, Pittsburgh and other cities. But a simple, cheap and reliable substitute can be found in the construction of a system of subterranean reservoirs, one at every street crossing in the densely-built portions of the city, and at greater distances apart in the more sparsely built parts thereof; these reservoirs may be connected by earthen pipes such as are used for sewerage purposes, of adequate diameter, and supplied with water by artesian wells placed at proper distances apart. The water from all the wells in each division of the city would thus be connected and made to flow into any reservoir from which the fire engines might be drawing water. A dozen artesian wells in either division of the city would supply water faster than the whole department in action could consume it. The stock of water in the reservoirs themselves would be invaluable in great emergencies.

Only one engine can draw water from a fire-hydrant, and the others usually have to go long distances to find hydrants, and their delivery-power us greatly diminished by distance and friction of water in the hose, while the hose itself is burst and destroyed in great quantities at every severe combat with fire. But from each of the proposed reservoirs several engines could draw water, and thus, at short range, concentrate an irresistible discharge upon the fire and quickly master it.

Artesian water is so warm that it would never freeze in the pipes, however shallow they were laid, nor in the reservoirs, because the perpetual influx of the warm water would always keep the temperature above the freezing point. The out-flow of this water to the North Division and in the northern part of the West Division could be conducted into the North Branch of the Chicago river, and materially aid in its purification, without expense to the city. In other portions of the town, surplus water could be run into the street sewers, thereby saving the expense of “flushing” them, as now practised. In the season of street sprinkling, the watering wagons could obtain water from the artesian fountains, thereby leaving a larger supply for domestic purposes. There are various other uses to which the waste water might advantageously be put, not necessary here to enumerate.

The cost of the proposed supply of auxiliary water would be insignificant when compared with its value in preserving property and adding to the safety of the city. The annual saving of insurance, resulting from this independent water supply, would probably exceed the first cost of procuring it. Bounteous Nature has placed under our feet, within easy reach, this fountain of water awaiting our bidding to pour forth. Have we the enterprise and sagacity to utilize it? But I refer the further consideration of this important subject to the wisdom of your honorable body. Perhaps some better plan to accomplish the end in view—the safety of the city from destruction by fire—will be suggested by yourselves and carried into effect. But we must be admonished by the bitter and terrible experience of the past never again to depend exclusively on our pumping-works for a sure and adequate supply of water for the reduction of a great conflagration.


There are other important subjects to which I would call your attention were this communication not already too long. But I found it impossible to discuss the extraordinary condition of things in which the fire has placed the City Government in the brief space usually occupied by a Mayor’s inaugural. In concluding I point with pride and admiration to the gigantic efforts our whole people are putting forth to rise from the ruins, and rebuild Chicago. The money value of their losses can hardly be calculated. But who can compute the aggregate of anguish, distress, and suffering they have endured and must yet endure? These wounds are still sore and agonizing, though they have been greatly alleviated by the prompt, generous, and world-wide charities that have been poured out for their succor and relief; and I claim in their behalf that they are showing themselves worthy the benefactions received. They have faced their calamity with noble fortitude and unflinching courage. Repining or lamentation is unheard in our midst, but hope and cheerfulness are everywhere exhibited and expressed. All are inspired with an ambition to prove to the world that they are worthy of its sympathy, confidence and assistance, and to show how bravely they can encounter disaster, how quickly repair losses, and restore Chicago to her high rank among the great cities of the earth.

Happily there is that left which fire cannot consume;—habits of industry and self-reliance, personal integrity, business aptitude, mechanical skill, and unconquerable will. These created what the flames devoured, and these can speedily recreate more than was swept away. Under free institutions, good government, and the blessings of Providence, all losses will soon be repaired, all misery caused by the fire assuaged, and a prosperity greater than ever dreamt of will be achieved in a period so brief, that the rise will astonish mankind even more than the fall of Chicago.


  • Chicago Common Council. Journal of the Proceedings, December 4, 1871, p. 1–9.
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