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A TRIP FROM BELLEVILLE TO CHICAGO IN 1836
by an excerpt from the Memories of Gustave Koerner 1809-1896.
Soon after my recovery I was charged with procuring the correction of some deeds for valuable farm-property, the title of which without this correction might become doubtful. As the parties who were to make the title perfect resided near Chicago, it was decided best that I should go there myself. As this was in the line of my business, and the compensation for my services was, for the time, very large, I of course accepted the task. Now-a-days a trip [from Belleville] to Chicago is a pleasant journey of twenty-four hours [Koerner wrote this in 1909], both coming and returning. It was quite a different undertaking in 1836, and so it may not be out of place to give a brief account of my trip.
Going to St. Louis early in May, I took a boat bound for Peru, a place some forty miles north of Peoria on the Illinois River. At Alton, we had a long delay, delivering and receiving goods. When we left late in the evening another boat bound for Galena, near the Mississippi River, left the wharf at the same time. A race immediately sprung up. Though many fatal accidents had happened from such races, the boilers exploding by reason of too great a pressure of steam, yet no passenger remonstrated and all were on deck shouting and cheering. The boats kept close together, and such was the excitement on our boat that we missed the mouth of the Illinois River, about twenty miles above Alton, and actually ran about twelve miles up the Mississippi before the mistake was discovered. This ended the race, and we on board had to turn back to get into the Illinois.
The Illinois was then at high water, quite a fine stream at the mouth, and for about a hundred miles broader than the Main [Frankfurt am Main, Germany, was Koerner`s birthplace] while its water, as compared with that of the Missouri or even of the Mississippi, was beautiful. At many places it had overflowed its bank. It was then navigable, even with pretty large boats, some two hundred and fifty miles. Majestic forests lined both of its shores. Only in a few places did the prairies extend to the river. Peoria, about two hundred miles from St. Louis, has a most beautiful situation. It rises terrace-like on gravel and rocky ground, and is encircled by finely timbered heights. It had even then a number of fine warehouses and residences, and promised the greatness it has since reached. I learned that a good many Germans had already settled there. At Hennepin, about twenty miles above Peoria, I left the boat to catch a stage running from Bloomington to Chicago, at some place east of Hennepin, to which a hack took me and some other passengers. In the night we reached Ottawa, then also a fine and rising place. We had to stop there a few hours, in order to cross the Fox River by ford. The river was high at the time, and the driver would not risk crossing at night, but waited for daylight. The ford was narrow and rather rocky, so that, if the stage had missed the track, it would have been very dangerous. As it was, the water came near running into the stage, which shook terribly, when going over the rough rocks at the bottom of the river. We felt very much relieved when we reached the further bank. From Hennepin on the country had been charming. All rolling prairie, only from time to time dotted with groves of fine timber. Prairies in May and June, covered with a hundred varieties of flowers and studded with numerous patches of strawberries, present a spectacle at which travelers who have seen the most beautiful scenery in the world will feel a great delight.
Not very far from the Fox River we met with a gang of prairie wolves. When first observed they had been standing right in the road; but hearing the rattling of our coach they made off on one side into the prairie. They trotted quite leisurely, turning their heads from time to time in a sort of stealthy way. Their color was that of a fox; in size they were twice as large.
Some ten miles west of Chicago we came into a very wet prairie, with a number of rather deep places filled with water, a sort of Pontine swamps. We were put into a large covered wagon, the wheels of which were very high and stout and the fellies and tires one and a half feet wide to prevent cutting into the mud and getting the wagon stalled. There was no house or field anywhere to be seen until we reached the then little town of Chicago. A few years before only a few shanties and a small wooden fort stood between the lake and the arms of the Chicago River, one of which came from the north and the other from the south. At the time of my visit Chicago had about 5,000 inhabitants. There were only one or two brick houses; all others, even the hotel in which I stopped, were frame buildings. I arrived at noon, having been on my way from Belleville for five days and as many nights, stopping nowhere more than a couple of hours. I immediately went to the recorder’s and the circuit clerk’s offices, examining the records. In the evening I passed my time at the various places where lands and lots were selling at auction. All over the country, owing to the multitude of banks that had sprung up on the downfall of the great national bank, and to the fact that the national debt had been paid and the surplus of the treasury was about to be divided amongst the States, a spirit of speculation had arisen quite unparalleled at any time or in any country, except when the South Sea Bubble and the Law Mania prevailed in Great Britain and France [Koerner refers to John Law and the Mississippi precolative bubble; for detail see entry "Louisiana Province" in the encyclopedic portion of this volume]. Chicago in the West was at the head of this rage.
Every boat brought hundreds of immigrants, all anxious to make their fortunes by buying up the northern prairies. At places it was supposed the contemplated canal uniting the great lakes and the Mississippi by way of the Illinois River would be located, many towns had been laid out on paper, and here, as well as in towns already existing, as Ottawa, LaSalle, and Peru, lots were sold every night at really fabulous prices, considering the times, as were also all tracts of land within five or ten miles of the canal. Fabulous were the prices, indeed; for, when the crisis came a few years later, all those lots and lands came down to almost nothing, and remained valueless for some ten or twenty years, when a new and more healthy rise took place. These sales were nearly all on long credits; only a very small percentage of the money was paid down. I venture to say that there was not enough cash money in the whole State of Illinois at that time to have paid for the lands and lots that were sold within a month in the city of Chicago alone.
Next morning I started out westward to see the persons I had to deal with. I had to cross the same swamps; but a stout Canadian Indian pony brought me safely through. I had to ford the Des Plaines River, which was pretty deep, before I reached my destination about twelve miles from Chicago. It was in the afternoon when I reached it, and my business took up all the rest of the day. I stayed over night in the place, and the next morning I went with my clients back to Chicago, where our business was completed and the proper deeds made out.
There was an immense deal of life in this new Eldorado. The stores on Water Street were crowded. The river was full of boats. People ran as fast along the muddy unpaved streets as they do now. It had one advantage over the metropolis of today. The river formed by the two arms was nearly as clear as the beautiful lake, the sight of which was then as it is now, a great delight to me. Did I then foresee what Chicago would be in later life? St. Louis, in comparison to Chicago, was in 1836, a stately, magnificent city. Next day I left on the stage, went on it as far as Peoria, took a boat, and after an absence of two weeks, reached St. Louis.