October 28, 2009
The Railroad Tycoon who Built Chicago: New Biography of William Butler Ogden
In a letter from Paris, dated 22 August 1877, Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s widow, wrote, “This morning, in a New York paper of Aug. 8, I read the announcement of Mr. Wm. B. Ogden’s death. In former times, he was a very prominent citizen of Illinois.” Mr. Lincoln, of course, was that prairie lawyer from Illinois who was both a congressman for the people and counsel for railroads, who poured out his life to save the Union. Mr. Ogden was a businessman from a small town in Western New York who through great vision, the force of a powerful personality and amazing determination in the face of staggering setbacks, helped extend and build that Union. As Jack Harpster, author of a new--and given the scope of his accomplishments,almost inconceivably, FIRST--biography of Ogden, epitomizes William Butler Ogden was a builder. At sixteen, as his father lay paralyzed in bed, he built the family lumber and woolen business into an ever increasing size; he later built his brother-in-law’s land investments in Chicago into a greatly profitable real-estate concern; he helped build Chicago from a muck-mired frontier garrison and trading post into “nature’s metropolis”. He was a backer and guiding light of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad as well as the Chicago & North Western. He was first president of the Union Pacific. He had his hands in northern lumber, Pennsylvanian iron, and there was scarcely a public project, a civic organization a plan for development in Chicago that Ogden was not a president, a trustee, a supporter, a silent partner. Even in retirement he was working to help develop public transportation into the upper reaches of New York City.
While there are streets in Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin and New York, a medical center in Elmira, a library western New York, a stained glass window in an Omaha Cathedral, and an elementary school in Chicago all carrying Mr. Ogden’s name, it has been Mr. Harpster’s destiny to write what must be the definitive telling of his story. With a skilled hand and very cogent analysis, Harpster as biographer weaves the growth of 19th Century America in size, technology and outlook, with the struggles and achievements of William B. Ogden’s life so straightforwardly that it belies the immense amount of research and study he has undertaken. Time and again Ogden built a great financial empire to have it washed away by the periodic collapses of national economy or the devastating destruction of natural disaster. Time and again Ogden yield not to depression or despair but turned even stronger efforts to rebuilt and expand. The power of Ogden’s vision or his ability to sway both a New York legislature or group of Wisconsin farmers out to lynch him, reminds us of the vision of those who have preceded us and what is possible in our land now and in the future. This remarkable story is recommended reading for not only those of us concerned with history, urban development, railroading, and business, but for all concerned with the human spirit. Five stars.
--Raymond F. Kearney
The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago:
A Biography of William B. Ogden
By Jack Harpster
Southern Illinois University Press, 2009
NOTE: My sincere thanks to Journal guest blogger Ray Kearney for allowing me to publish his review.
Posted by Chicagobookbabe
Labels: William Butler Ogden