Mayor Walter S. Gurnee Inaugural Address, 1852

Walter S. Gurnee Biography

Inauguration date: March 9, 1852

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:

Having been called by my fellow citizens, to preside over your councils for a second term, it is proper that I should briefly review the most important measures adopted during the past year, and to recommend for your consideration, such other measures as in my opinion, will prove conducive to the welfare of our rapidly growing city.

All of the intercourse between the Council and myself, has been of the most friendly and cordial character, and I am happy to bear witness to the ability, industry and zeal evinced by the members in the performance of the arduous duties entrusted to them. Should the same harmonious feeling and devotion to the public interests continue to prevail, of which I have no doubt, the most auspicious results may be anticipated.

By the very able and complete report of the finance committee just published, it will be seen that our pecuniary condition is a very favorable one, will compare advantageously with that of any of our sister cities.

When I first came into office I found a large amount of indebtedness against the city bearing twelve per cent interest. I proposed that that debt should be funded, and new bonds issued bearing a lower rate of interest. This suggestion has been carried out to a considerable extent. In the year 1851 there were issued 25 bonds for $1,000 each, due in ten years, and bearing interest at the rate of seven per cent per annum. These bonds realized the sum of $22,500, which makes the average rate of interest eight and a half per cent., and will result in a saving to the city of over $9,000 in the next ten years, on this item alone. There have also been issued ten bonds for $1,000 each, due in fifteen years from date with interest at 6 per cent, sold for $8,690; and eight bonds for $1,000 each, due in two years, with interest at the rate of 10 per cent., which were negotiated at par, the average interest on the fifteen year bonds being eight and three-fourths percent., and on the two year bonds, ten per cent. per annum. By a continuation of the funding of the debt, a farther saving can be made. There have been issued by the city in former years, bonds for small sums bearing various rates of interest, many of which are redeemable at the pleasure of the Council. It seems to me advisable that this description of indebtedness should be withdrawn, and seven per cent. bonds of a larger denomination, payable in ten years, substituted in lieu of them. It is believed that these small bonds can be purchased to advantage, and a saving made to the city, in the interest paid, equal to two per cent. per annum.

Another great advantage has occurred from these negotiations and the system of cash payments which has resulted therefrom—not only have the credit and honor of the city been maintained, and our laboring population more justly treated and fairly compensated, but there has been a very large saving of money in the purchase of materials to be used in our public improvements, amounting to from ten to fifteen percent. upon their aggregate value. I recommend, therefore, that timely and suitable measures be adopted to keep a supply of money on hand, sufficient for the payment in cash of all demands upon the treasury.

Some complaint has been made because of the increased indebtedness and taxation of the city. A niggardly policy is not always the best economy. The wisdom or folly of an expenditure is to be determined, not by its amount, but by the results which will follow it. If the object to be obtained will outweigh in its importance, the inconvenience of the debt, it is the duty of wise and prudent men, acting on the same principles which they apply in their private affairs, to incur it without hesitation. It was for this reason that our fellow citizens demanded such an amendment of the city charter as to permit a higher rate of taxation than that before authorized. They felt that in our growing city, many expensive improvements would be indispensable to our welfare and prosperity. Such as the construction of school houses, markets, houses for the correction and punishment of offenders, sewers, extension of the fire department, supplying the city with light and water, organizing a more numerous and efficient police, and many other objects that could be named. I take it for granted that our citizens are not disposed to forego all the benefits to be derived from these and similar institutions and improvements, which mark the progress of the times, and give character, security and prosperity to the city. But I believe that upon calm reflection, and a proper consideration of the advantages resulting from such provisions, which are essential to a good city government, they will be disposed to demand of us further efforts of a similar kind. However, it is our duty to take care that the object is of sufficient importance, and that the money is judiciously and economically expended.

It will be found that during the past year a number of most valuable and useful buildings have been erected or begun by the city. Among others two large and convenient school houses, a commodious and elegant market house and town hall, a city bridewell, several engine houses and a magnificent court house to be built at the joint expense of the city and county. Contracts have been formed and partially carried out for widening the Chicago river, and for building a bridge at private expense, over the South Branch at Lake street. Provision has been made for straightening the water line upon the river, a very costly and substantial barrier has been constructed for the protection of our shore against the encroachments of the Lake, and a great number of other necessary improvements have been made, partly at the public expense. It is my expectation that such an arrangement will be effected with the Illinois Central Railroad Company as will relieve the city and property holders from the burthen of keeping up the lake shore protection hereafter.

In June last, the Common Council, being aware of the various and multiplied duties required of the City Attorney, the intricacy and importance of many questions in which the rights of the city were involved, and the necessity of employing counsel having the requisite ability and learning, who might devote his time to the investigation of those questions, instructed the Committee on the Judiciary, together with myself, to retain generally a Solicitor to assist the City Attorney whenever his assistance and advice might be deemed necessary. Acting upon these instructions, a highly competent gentleman was retained, and I have every reason to congratulate you upon the ability and success which have characterized his exertions in behalf of the city, and the benefits which have resulted to the public from his connection with its business. A number of important decisions have been obtained settling principles before in doubt, valuable legal advice has been had, and a large number of assessments rolls have been revised and corrected so as to ensure the collection of claims arising upon them, besides which other legal services have been rendered of great importance to the city.

One available and fruitful source of revenue, which it is to be regretted has been so little cultivated and so long neglected, will be found in the wharfing privileges. During the past year endeavors have been made to render them available, by effecting settlements and adjustments with the occupants, and I have the satisfaction to state, that between thirty and forty thousand dollars of our claims of that description have been adjusted or put into shape to pay interest. It is my expectation that a like amount will be adjusted the present year, and that several thousand dollars will be realized by leasing the ends of streets for wharfing purposes. I deem it proper to remark, however, that it is unreasonable to expect any Committee of the Common Council to give their whole time to the management of this part of the public business.

I think the importance and value of these wharfing privileges, in connection with leasing the ends of the streets upon the river and the management of the other real estate of the city, would justify the Council in selecting some competent and energetic business man to attend to the practical details connected therewith. There is also a large amount of school lands, the income from which might be increased by such attention as could be thus given to them, in connection with the other landed interests of the city.

The enlargement of the harbor is one object of great importance. Our commerce is increasing with immense rapidity, and demands a corresponding increase of facilities for its accommodation. I doubt not that this subject will receive your prompt and continued attention, and I would be remiss in my duty did I fail to urge upon you the completion of the widening of the river upon the plan already adopted, as speedily as settlements with parties in interest will justify.

In compliance with an order of the Common Council, a petition has been presented to Congress, asking permission to cut off so much of the point at Fort Dearborn as will straighten the entrance to the harbor, and thereby render access to it more easy. A committee of the Senate have had this petition under consideration, and have reported a bill in furtherance of it, which I have reasonable assurance will pass into a law during the present session of Congress. Should this be the case, I shall congratulate the city upon having obtained so great a benefit, and shall hope that immediate steps will be taken to accomplish the object granted by the law.

To meet the exigencies arising under the new Charter, the city ordinances have been revised, so as to conform to its requisitions; but experience has suggested that some modifications and alterations are still necessary, to which I may from time to time call your attention. One of these ordinances, most obnoxious and expensive to the city, calls for immediate action. I refer to the ordinance in relation to cross walks and sewers, and recommend its repeal, for the reason that it is troublesome, expensive and unequal. Improvements of the character contemplated by this ordinance, are beneficial to the whole city, and the expense of them is more properly chargeable to that division of the city in which they are made.

The erection of a City Bridewell, as recommended in my address to you of last year, furnishes a secure place for the punishment or reformation of offenders against the city ordinances. The Bridewell is cleanly and well ventilated, and affords to those who have the misfortune to be sent to it the greatest amount of comfort compatible with the objects and policy of punishment. It is for the Council to consider, what suitable employment should be given these offenders, that they may be made to defray by their labor a portion of the expense necessarily incurred in their conviction and support.

The good order which has generally prevailed throughout the city for the past year, furnishes satisfactory evidence that the City Marshal and the police under him have been vigilant and effective in the performance of their duties, and the efforts of the police, while they continue, as they have been, to be directed to the preservation of good order and quiet, will, I doubt not, receive your efficient aid and support.

The Fire Department is a matter of just pride to us all; instant at all seasons in the pursuit of duty, its members have signalized themselves, not only by their observance of good order, but by the energy, skill and devotion which they have exhibited in the preservation of life and property. So efficient and useful an arm of public service and public safety, deserves not only the highest praise, but every assistance which your other duties to the public will justify you in rendering.

Three new engines, on the most modern and approved principle, have been purchased during the past year. Two of these were manufactured in this city. A trial of these engines has shown that our city mechanics are at least equal to those abroad, and in future, no necessity will exist for sending to other places for any machinery for this Department. The public service requires that two new engines should be purchased during the present year, and I suggest that contracts for them be entered into as early as practicable. It would be well to have such of the engines and materials now owned by the city, as may be replaced by new, put in order and sold.

By reference to the report of the Committee on Finance, it will be seen that our present markets, are a source of revenue to the city. The new market in the North Division is nearly ready for use. Would it not be well for the proper committee to see that this building be got in readiness, to be leased with the other markets on the first of April next. The natural divisions of the city, are such as to render it probable that a market will be required in each of them. The rapid growth of the West Division, and the great increase of population in that direction, will no doubt render it necessary, that a market should at no distant period, be erected at some convenient place for the use of that portion for our citizens. Whenever they shall desire such an object, I will co-operate with you in furtherance of it.

The charter directs that no local improvement shall be made, except upon the request of the owners of the property in the immediate vicinity, and contemplates that the property benefitted shall pay for the improvement. Heretofore the practice has been, when improvements were ordered, to put them in progress, without waiting to have the assessment for such improvements collected. This has been a source of great embarrassment to the treasury, and often of great annoyance. I would advise that in future this practice be abandoned, and that no contract be entered into by the city, until the assessment for any such improvement shall have been collected.

I would suggest to the Council the propriety of adding to the list of standing committees, one upon local assessments. This committee should examine with care all assessment rolls and orders relating thereto. This duty has hitherto been performed by various committees, but as this branch of the public business has become so important, the creation of a new committee seems necessary.

In accordance with an order passed in July last, I have procured from an eminent Engineer, a plan for a complete system, of sewerage for the city, which now awaits your action. I recommended last year that a system of sewerage should be carried out in connection with the New Water Works, as in that connection it could be most advantageously and economically done. Since the decision of the voters in favor of the plan for the New Water Works, as adopted by the Commissioners, has been so emphatic and decisive, it remains for you to decide, whether a system of sewerage shall be adopted and prosecuted, conjointly with the works for supplying the city with water or not. It would be well that the subject should be early considered by you, so that the Commissioners may be apprised of your views, to the end that they may meet the wants of the city in that respect.

The importance of having the streets and alleys cleaned and put in order at an early day, is too obvious to need any argument. I would advise that a suitable appropriation, in addition to the street tax, be made for this purpose. Early attention to this matter, may be the most effective step towards preventing a recurrence of the afflicting calamity, which has visited our city for the past three years.

The question connected with the public square, have been adjusted during the past year between the county and city authorities; and a building designed to serve the city and county, for various public offices, has been commenced; and it is to be hoped that the public expectations will not be disappointed, in the adaptation of this structure to the ends desired. The appropriation on the part of the city, for the completion of this building, will early be brought before your attention.

The ground appropriated to cemetery purposes, should receive a full share of your notice. It is but proper that these grounds should be enclosed with a suitable fence, to guard them against the depredations which are frequently committed upon them.

I doubt not, your feelings and impulses will lead you in the proper direction in reference to this duty. The grounds acquired some two years since and set apart for the same purpose, should be enclosed and graded, preparatory for sale; and a considerable amount may be realized from this source, which is greatly needed for securing, ornamenting and improving the grounds.

The public squares and parks are in a condition, which will require expenditures for their improvement, whenever the finances of the city shall be such, as to justify you in embarking in their embellishment. This is a matter often lightly considered, but the period is not distant, when these places now so little valued, will become the cherished objects of the city authorities.

It may not be out of place, to suggest that the several committees should, as early as possible after they shall be organized, enter into an estimate of what monies will be required during the current year, for the several purposes under the supervision of the committees in their respective departments, so that the taxation may be rated upon such estimates, and thus if these calculations are carefully made, the revenue and disbursements will be made to conform to each other with something like exactness.

The rapid increase of our city in population, wealth and business, is just cause of gratification to us all.

Her unrivalled position at the head of lake navigation, with her connection by canal and river with the Gulf of Mexico, and the certain completion of the great lines of railroad which are converging to this point, give us the assurance that, with proper attention to our municipal affairs, her progress will in future be even more rapid than heretofore, and will realise the hopes of the most sanguine.

I have only to desire, in conclusion, that our personal and official intercourse may be as harmonious and agreeable during the present year as it has been during the last, and then I doubt not that the best interests of our common constituents will be successfully cared for, and the welfare of the city assiduously and faithfully promoted.


  • Daily Democrat, March 10, 1852.
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