William B. Ogden
William B. Ogden was born on June 15, 1805, in Walton, New York. His father co-owned and operated one of the earliest lumber and woolen mills in Delaware County. As a teenager, young Ogden was forced to drop out of college and take control of the family’s enterprises when his father had a debilitating stroke. By the time he was 28 years old, he had developed a reputation throughout the state as an outstanding businessman and civic leader.
In 1833, Ogden was asked by Vice President Martin Buren to run for a seat in the New York Assembly. The crafty New York politician and future U.S. President wanted somebody who could convince state legislators to provide financial support for the construction of the floundering New York and Erie, one of the nation’s earliest railroads. A powerful orator, Ogden succeeded at the task. Nearly two decades later, the New York and Erie would become the first railroad link between the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes, and Ogden would be recognized as one of this country’s earliest railroad visionaries.
In June 1835, Ogden moved to Chicago, then a small but burgeoning town on Lake Michigan. Ogden, his brother-in-law and New York City financier Charles Butler, and a few other men had purchased a 182-acre parcel of lakefront land. Ogden then went to Chicago to oversee the resale of the property. When the town was granted cityhood two years later, Ogden was elected the first mayor. He would remain in Chicago until after the Great Fire of 1871 and would become one of the city’s greatest promoters, largest philanthropists and wealthiest men.
William Ogden loved Chicago. Early on he realized the city’s potential to become the business and commercial hub of the Midwest—and he also knew that railroads were the catalyst that would make it happen. He never lost sight of that dream; as his city grew and prospered, he quietly bode his time and planned for the day when the city was ready for its first railroad.
In 1845, a few Chicago “boosters” purchased the moribund Galena and Chicago Union Railroad charter that had been granted by state legislators a decade earlier but had lain dormant since. Under Ogden’s leadership as president and chief stockholder of the new company, in 1848 the scrappy little Pioneer steam locomotive pulled the first train out of Chicago. This would be the genesis of the city becoming the most important railroad hub in the entire world.
Over the net two decades, William Ogden would become the most important railroad builder and executive in the nation. Through his extraordinary vision and hard work, he cobbled together a number of small railroads into the powerful Chicago and North Western Railway. He also served as president and/or director of more than two-dozen smaller roads, often putting his own personal fortune at risk when recurrent financial panics dried up the nation’s money supply. He was also heavily involved and invested in lumbering, iron ore mining, real estate, banking, and intercity transportation.
Ogden often advised President Lincoln on matters concerning the transcontinental railroad. He was a member of the Board of Commissioners, who were tasked with launching the Union Pacific Railroad. He was also selected to serve as the first president of that company, a position he neither solicited nor wanted as he had his hands full with his own Chicago and North Western Railway. He left the UP presidency after only one year, avoiding the traumatic scandal that would forever taint the transcontinental railroad venture.
After the Civil War, Ogden would be involved in the development of the nation’s second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific. He would also make an unsuccessful bid at taking over the Canadian Pacific Railroad. After the 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed everything Ogden and his fellow city builders had achieved, he left Chicago for New York City. On August 3, 1877, he passed away at 72 years old. William B. Ogden was one of the most important and accomplished people of the 19th century, yet today he is known only to historians, railroad scholars and students of Chicago history.
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