Long John Wentworth, (later the Mayor) was the
publisher of the Chicago Daily Democrat and ran an article in that journal welcoming
Roswell to the City and speaking of him in glowing terms. Apparently to make him seem
more important, Wentworth referred to him as "Colonel" Mason, although he had never seen
military service. The honorific title stuck as it might to a Kentuckian, and throughout the rest
his life he was known as Colonel Mason. In addition, Roswell decided that he should have a
middle initial, and adopted the letter B for the purpose; he never had a middle
At first he stayed in a hotel during the winter of 1851-2 and then, with his family, moved
house on Michigan Avenue between Lake and South Water Streets for a few years and later
moved out onto the prairie along Michigan Avenue south of 12th Street.
Determining exactly where the railroad would be built took personal observation of the
Colonel Mason wrote about this experience some thirty years later, describing a round trip of
"Leaving Chicago Nov. 10, 1852, we went by packet-boat on the Illinois &
Michigan Canal to La Salle, thence by steamer on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to
arriving at St. Louis on the 14th and Cairo on the 17th of November, a very comfortable
But our plan was to return by private conveyance near the line of the road to Chicago.
Cairo on the 18th, we reached Vandalia on the 23rd, and Decatur the 25th, with our team
exhausted, and unable to go any further. The roads were so bad it was thought nearly
to get through and it was determined to go to Springfield and then by railroad, which had just
been completed to Alton, and then by the Illinois River and Illinois & Michigan Canal to
We found it difficult to get a team to take us to Springfield; but an offer of $15.00
$15 was enough to buy 5 or 10 acres of some of the world's best farm land] induced a
to agree to take us through to Springfield, about 40 miles, in a day. Leaving Decatur Friday
morning, Nov. 26, we toiled through mud, water and ice to a small town within twelve miles
Springfield, arriving there about dark, with our team tired out and entirely unable to go any
further. The train left Springfield Saturday morning at eight o'clock; and an offer of $15.00
induced a man who had a good team to agree to take us there in time for the train, or else
the $15.00, we agreeing to go at once or let him fix the time of starting; he named two
the morning as the time to start. So getting a little rest We were under way at two o'clock.
was then very cold and ice of considerable thickness formed on the water, cutting the horses'
quite badly to go through it. And in some cases the driver would go through on foot and
the ice before driving through it. We arrived at Springfield about twenty minutes before the
left. He earned his $15.00 and we had a comfortable journey from there to St. Louis where
stayed over Sunday and took a steamer Monday morning for La Salle, thence by packet-boat
Chicago, where we arrived December 4, 1852."(9)
To attract men to work on
part of the railroad, an advertisement was posted in New York reading as follows:
As many as 10,000 men were working on the project at one time.
Som e we re recruited in New York and others directly from Ireland.(11)
On the 12th Division of the
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD
Wages, $1.25 per Day
New-York only $4.75
By Railroad and Steamboat to the work in the State of
Constant employment for two years or more given. Good board can
obtained at two dollars per week.
This is a rare chance for persons to go West, being
permanent employment in a healthy climate where land can be
and for fertility is not surpassed in any part of
Men with families
For further information in regard to it, call at the Central
Corner of Courtlandt St.
R.B. Mason, Chief Engineer
the availability of land were published in both English and German.(12)
part of Colonel Mason's letter about the building of the railroad reads:
the entire line was put under contract and was completed on the
27th of September, 1856, but owing to the few settlements it was very difficult to get men
teams and supplies to them. Agents were sent to New York and New Orleans to get men, and
some cases their fare was paid, with the promise of refunding it out of their work. But these
promises were frequently entirely disregarded. Some men would not even go on to the work
few miles only from the steamboat landing; others would come on perhaps at evening and get
their supper, lodging and breakfast and start off the next morning for other quarters; but
notwithstanding these drawbacks many men were procured in this way."(13)
mentioned in this letter was the problem of keeping the workmen sober. Family legend tells
Colonel Mason, though not a prohibitionist, found it necessary to prohibit the sale of liquor
a mile of the right of way in order to have crews capable of working.
poster that drew men from New York was accurate about the cheap land (one acre for two
pay at the price Congress had fixed; Illinois Central land went for up to twelve dollars per
(14) or almost ten days pay), its advertisement of a healthy climate neglected to mention
"Men at work one day were in their graves the next. Many panic-stricken workmen fled from
camps at the first signs of the epidemic."(15)
According to family legend,
railroad was building a line from east to west that would cross the tracks of the Illinois
Its builder, a Mr. Mattoon, offered to bet Colonel Mason that his men would get there first.
Colonel Mason declined to wager money, but proposed that the winner have the privilege of
naming the station to be located at the crossing, which would be important sometime though
empty prairie just then. The working crews made a race out of it, and the Illinois Central
Colonel Mason then named the station after Mr. Mattoon.
Village of Mason, Illinois, (on the Illinois Central's branch to Chicago, of course) a few miles
south of Effingham, was named after Colonel Mason; but, with a 1990 population of 1,411, it
of considerably less note than the City of Mattoon with its 18,441.
that did not deter Colonel Mason was the refusal of the Michigan and Southern Railroad to
the Illinois Central to cross its tracks at Grand Crossing (now 75th Street and South Chicago
Avenue). One night "a crew of husky Illinois Central trackmen descended upon and
the Michigan and Southern Watchman. The rays of the morning sun showed a new grade
completed and ready for use." Each railroad ignored the other's use of the crossing until a
collision in 1853 that left 18 dead and 40 hurt.(16)
In 1859 Colonel Mason
to create a corporation called "South Branch Dock Company," and was its first president.
company developed the lumber district by making slips and docks for the unloading of
from the ships that brought it from the forests of Wisconsin, Michigan and even Canada.
were twelve miles of such slips and docks, mostly in the area along a mile of river frontage
of Halsted and south of 22nd Street. "There more than a dozen short canals, each over a
mile long, fingered north from the river. Along these canals were hundreds of standard lots
measuring 244 by 100 feet. Each one had 100 feet of canal frontage, and at the back of each
a railroad siding connecting the lot via the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy with every railroad
in the City. Once a wholesale dealer had purchased a shipload of lumber at the cargo market,
entire vessel floated down the river to a dock at one of these yards. A crew of lumber
then unloaded and stacked the lumber on the owner's lot. There the boards sat until some
dealer purchased them for shipment to another city, whereupon they had only to be moved no
more than a couple of hundred feet to the railroad car that carried them to their final
Family legend tells that Colonel Mason built the first bridge across the Mississippi at
Dubuque, but that legend was not clear whether he built the first bridge across that river, and
it at Dubuque, or that of the bridges at Dubuque his was the first. My quandary was settled
I learned that the Rock Island Line built a bridge that first carried a railroad across the river
Rock Island to Davenport on April 22, 1856.
In 1865 Colonel Mason was
appointed by the State legislature as a member of a commission of four engineers to work
the Mayor of Chicago to deal with the City's sewage which then drained into Lake Michigan
made many people sick. Following the commission's recommendation, the Illinois and
Canal was deepened, pumping works were established at Bridgeport and the summit of the
was lowered so that the Chicago River was turned around to drain into the Illinois River. So
you and I can drink the water as well as swim in Lake Michigan without fear of
During the spring and summer of 1869 Colonel Mason invited a
other civil engineers to his office to discuss the founding of an engineers' club. There
organization initially called the "Civil Engineers Club of Chicago" and then the "Civil
Club of the Northwest" until 1880 when it became the Society of Western Engineers.
Mason was the first president. In 1938 that organization commissioned one C.A. Mottier to
his biography, a copy of which has furnished much of the information in this
Nominally a Republican and also a temperance man, Colonel Mason was elected Mayor of
Chicago on November 2, 1869 on the People's Ticket in a public revulsion against corruption
public office. "It was a time of easy morals and easy money. Roswell B. Mason, the Illinois
Central Builder, was in the mayor's chair. The Tribune and the Evening Journal
called him an honest man presiding over a den of thieves. Gambling thrived and brothels
operated freely. Barrel houses and concert saloons were spread through the town.
were accused of making fortunes from paving, bridge and tunnel contracts. Taxes shot up
per cent in ten years."(18)
The reform that happened in Mayor Mason's term
more architectural than political.
"Besides the fact that the Great Chicago Fire
started around 9 o'clock on Sunday evening, October 8,  somewhere in or very near the
O'Leary barn, the exact particulars of its origins are unknown. But, given the dry summer and
careless way the city had been built and managed, a kick from a cow would have been
but by no means necessary to burn Chicago down."(19) As recently as January 7, 1997,
Chicago Tribune carried a front page story of an amateur historian who cast serious doubt
the cow legend by pointing out that, due to an intervening building, one Peg Leg Sullivan, the
principal witness to the earliest part of the fire, could not have seen the beginning of the fire
his front porch where he said he'd seen it.
"Chicago averaged about two fires a
the previous year, including twenty in the preceding week. The largest of these occurred just
Saturday night. Firemen still might have been able to contain the Sunday blaze but for a
technological and human failures in the alarm system. The fire, driven by a strong wind out
southwest, headed straight for the center of the city. It divided unpredictably into separate
by hurling out flaming brands on the superheated draft it generated, leaping the South Branch
the Chicago River around midnight. . . . By 1:30 it reached the Courthouse tower, from which
watchman barely escaped through the burning stairway by sliding down the banisters. When
officials realized that the building was itself doomed, they released the prisoners from the
basement just before the great bell plummeted through the collapsing tower."(20)
Mayor Mason was called out at midnight by a man on horseback in a tone of distress,
come give orders to save the city."
As the fire threatened the courthouse which
was also the city hall, Mayor Mason gave the order to release the jail's prisoners. According
family legend, when he saw a large black man who was being held on a murder charge
escape custody, he ordered his son, "Seize him!" The son, who was not large, did his best,
when he grasped the fleeing man the latter knocked him down with one blow of his fist and
Mayor Mason stayed in his office in the courthouse as it began to burn,
sending telegrams to Milwaukee and Detroit begging for fire engines; to many other cities he
a telegram reading, "Before morning one hundred thousand people will be without food or
shelter. Can you help us?" He left when the bell in the tower came crashing
To return to his home on Michigan Avenue south of Twelfth Street he had to cross the
northward on the Wells Street Bridge and then southward on the Rush Street Bridge. On the
way, he directed the destruction of buildings on Wabash Avenue and Harrison Street to
the fire from going farther south and east, arriving home about 4:30 A.M. According again
family legend, Mayor Mason was so disheveled and begrimed with soot, and looked so
that his wife Harriet did not recognize him and refused, for several minutes, to let him enter
From the many materials pertaining to the fire on the Chicago
Historical Society's Internet page I quote the following: "Chicago just before the fire was
like the catastrophe that befell it. The city struck many as a titanic natural force in itself,
unpredictable, unstoppable, all-consuming, and impossible to ignore."(21)
fire itself may be considered the least significant of three major phenomena; the other two are
extent of the charitable help received from many parts of the country and of the world, and
will with which the citizens rebuilt -- but they didn't re-build, they built a new and better
Among Mayor Mason's proclamations issued on Monday were the
WHEREAS, In the Providence of God, to
whose will we humbly submit, a terrible calamity has befallen our city, which demands of us
best efforts for the preservation of order and relief of suffering, be it known that the faith
credit of the City of Chicago is hereby pledged for the necessary expenses for the relief of
suffering. Other executive orders established the price of bread, banned
smoking, and forbade wagon drivers from charging more than their normal rates.
Public order will be preserved. The police and special police
being appointed will be responsible for the maintenance of the peace and protection of
All officers and men of the Fire Department and Health Department will act as special
policemen without further notice.
The Mayor and Comptroller will
vouchers for all supplies furnished by the different relief committees.
headquarters of the City Government will be at the Congregational Church, corner of West
Washington and Ann Streets.
All persons are warned against
act tending to endanger property. Persons caught in any depredation will be immediately
With the help of God, order and peace and private property will be preserved.
The City Government and the committee of citizens pledge themselves to
community to protect them, and prepare the way for a restoration of public and private
It is believed the fire has spent its force, and all will soon be
R.B. MASON, Mayor
GEO. TAYLOR, Comptroller
CHAS. C.P. HOLDEN, President Common Council.
BROWN, President Board of Police
9, 1871, 3
In consequence of the great calamity that has
befallen our city, and for the preservation of good order, it is ordered by the Mayor and
Council of Chicago, that no liquor be sold in any Saloon until further orders. The Board of
are charged with the execution of this order.
R.B.Mason, Mayor. Chicago,
Oct. 9. 1871.(23)
Two days later came the following controversial proclamation:
The preservation of the good order and peace of the city is hereby entrusted
Lieut. General P.H. Sheridan, U. S. Army. Illinois Governor Palmer later maintained that this action amounted to
violation of the sovereign rights of the State, and persuaded the Illinois House of
to adopt a bill so declaring; the bill failed in the Senate.(25) Family legend tells that Mayor
Mason had first asked the Governor for National Guard troops without success due to
antipathy. Then he requested troops from his friend Phil Sheridan, who happened to be
commanding general of the nearest U.S. Army base. Governor Palmer's recollections differ.
need to protect the citizens against lawbreakers was clear.
The Police will act in conjunction
the Lieut. General in the preservation of the peace and quiet of the city, and the
Police will consult with him to that end.
The intent hereof being to preserve
peace of the city, without interfering with the functions of the City Government.
Given under my hand this 11th day of October, 1871.
Three family letters
written immediately after the Fire have been preserved. Sarah Caroline Mason Miller, (the
Mayor's daughter and my great grandmother) wrote the following to her sister, Mrs. James
Trowbridge, wife of the Presbyterian minister in Riverside, Illinois, on Tuesday, October
Dear Ally-- .... About an hour after you left a barn was set on fire on
corner of Michigan Ave. and Peck Court, and intense excitement prevailed through all our
neighborhood. We sent all our pails, tubs, coalscuttles, everything that would hold water. So
everyone living near, and water was passed up from the lake to the burning building by a line
men hastily formed -- another line passing down the empty vessels -- and the fire was soon
out. Poor Father looked utterly discouraged and gave orders to have the carriage to take us
He immediately issued a proclamation that all alleys should be
guarded by day as well as by night. The night guarding had been done before. Oh, this
rain. How thankful we are for it, and it still continues. God has opened the wonders of
How continually He is giving us new causes of thankfulness and joy. ....
next day her husband wrote the following letter to his mother, Mrs. Abner Miller of
Westmoreland, New York:
Chicago Wednesday Oct. 11,
My Dear Mother
I thank God that our dwelling has been
spared - & that my dear wife and children are safe. We have passed through a dreadful
But we have just cause to rejoice that we are as well off as we are. Do not be alarmed about
My stores books and office are all gone, but these, or all that is needful of them, with health I
in time replace. I write on my back & therefore with a pencil because I am unwell, but I hope
shall be out tomorrow. Sadie with the children are at her sisters, Mrs. Trowbridge, in
about 12 miles out. We thought it safer for them to leave yesterday until the city is more
Already people are commencing the work of rebuilding or at least making contracts for that
purpose. I hope you are well and that I shall still be able to keep you comfortable.
Your affectionate son, Henry G. Miller
When donations from
elsewhere started to come in to help the victims of the fire, a group of members of the City
Council tried, in the Chicago tradition, to gain control of the distribution of the money and
Mayor Mason suspected that this group hoped to enrich themselves and with a group of
businessmen, took action to prevent it, issuing the following proclamation on October
I have deemed it best for the interests of the City
Chicago to turn over to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society all contributions for the suffering
people of this city. This society is an incorporated and old established organization having
possessed for many years the entire confidence of our community, and is familiar with the
be done. The regular force of this society is inadequate to this immense work, but they will
rapidly enlarge and extend the same by adding prominent citizens to the respective
and I call upon all citizens to aid this organization in every way possible. The next week Sarah Caroline
Mason Miller wrote the following to her mother-in-law, Mrs. Abner Miller:
confer upon them a continuance of the same power heretofore exercised by the Citizens
Committee, namely, the power to impress teams and labor, and procure quarters, so far as
necessary for the transportation and distribution of contributions and care of the sick and
General Sheridan desires the arrangement, and has promised to cooperate with the association.
will be seen from the plan of the work as it is detailed below, that every precaution has been
in regard to the distribution of contributions.(26)
Chicago, Oct. 21st, 1871
be too anxious about us. We are cheerful and happy. We shall have less to live on than we
before, but we can live on less. We are so thankful, oh! so very thankful, for our home spared
from the fire. And we are all well, which is a great mercy. Your son's credit is good, and he
borrow money and go about rebuilding immediately. Of course we shall be in debt for some
but our new buildings will rent well, and we shall gradually work our way out of debt as we
before. We believe, dear Mother, that 'all things work together for good to those who love
and that these losses are among the 'all things' that are for our good. I hope we shall be better
Christians, and if we are made purer, more like our blessed Saviour by our trials, then surely
are 'blessings in disguise'
* * * Ally and Carrie are still in
Riverside. Nellie and little Harry are at home. Carrie was not frightened, and not half as
excited as you would have supposed. Most providentially she slept all night, the worst night
the fire, and when she waked and found us packing up our things in such haste, she enjoyed
fun of it and brought all sorts of things to put in the trunks. We had on our hats and shawls
three or four hours, all ready to run when word should come that it was necessary, and each
had all that we could carry in our hands. Carrie had a big wax doll of Ally's and kept saying
must save Ally's doll, whatever is lost," but I still don't think she realized the danger. When
told us that the fire was sweeping off in another direction, and our house was safe for the
Carrie was disappointed not to go, and said "Now we've got our trunks all packed I think
better go travelling somewhere."
However after that, there were buildings
near us, and on Tuesday afternoon I took the children and seven trunks containing our silver,
jewelry and clothing to Riverside, Mr. Miller and Aunt Maria De Forest staying in the house.
Father's family move in here tomorrow.....
Have I told
that my brother Ned went to England a few weeks ago, on business. As soon as he heard of
great Chicago fire he telegraphed that he would come home immediately. We expect him this
week. Poor fellow. He will hear such sad news when he comes. His office with everything
in it is
burnt. Then he will feel dreadfully, as we all do, to have Father's house, our dear old home,
to strangers. But worst of all, his wife was prematurely confined last Thursday, and the baby
which they have expected so lovingly, lived only four hours. Julia has been very sick, but is
now, and we hope she will recover, but she will be weak a long time. What changes in a few
In the North Presbyterian Church, the church of which we were
members so many years, of one hundred and twenty-six families who had homes of their
only seven have homes left.. The rest are all burnt out. I could fill pages writing about the
I have not time.
* * * Henry, and his partners, are all at work
their new office (our parlor). I am glad enough we can spare it for them. We enlarged our
just in time. The sign, "Miller, Frost & Lewis", hangs by the side of our front door. Don't you
hope they will get plenty of business. I think they will. I can recommend them as good
We hear every day from friends who were burned out. Many
were rich have been clothed by charity. Large amounts of clothing and provisions have been
here from many different places, but there are so many thousands of destitute people that it is
needed. It is feared there will be great suffering during the winter, but every precaution is
taken against it. The money that has been sent us, except what is absolutely required to
present distress is to be kept for the use of sufferers during the winter. God has blessed us in
opening so many hearts and hands to relieve us in our great distress.
Mayor Mason's term expired two months after the fire, and a group of citizens asked him to
for another term. He declined. Family legend tells that he threw up his hands in horror over
prospect of serving again. He was succeeded by Joseph Medill, owner and publisher of
Chicago Tribune, who, not surprisingly, ran on a "fireproof ticket."(27)
old letter to Mayor Mason tells of the reaction of Sally Hewit, who was taking care of his
Harriet during an illness. Wrathfully Sally came downstairs to stop the excessive noise that
of the eight Mason children were making just as he entered the house, "'At last I shall see
Mason cross,' she said to herself, 'He ought to be cross with those brats.' But all you did
smile and say, 'Well children, I don't believe I'd make so much noise when Mother's sick.'
the worst of it was that that angel of a man stopped the noise that way and when I told him I
never been so disappointed with him in my life and it was wicked in him not to have been
there really wasn't anything to scold him about!'"(28)
According to another
family legend, well after the Fire, The Chicago Tribune started a rudimentary society
page. On one occasion it ran an innocuous story of a ladies tea given by Mrs. Mason and her
daughters. Mayor Mason saw this at breakfast, and, interrupting his meal, tucked the
under his arm, took his hat and walking stick from the front hall closet, and walked briskly
the Tribune offices. There he demanded to see Mr. Medill at once, and was
ushered into the latter's office. Mayor Mason showed the article to Mr. Medill, saying, "I
sir, that I shall never again have to ask you to refrain from publishing information about my
family." Mr. Medill replied, "Of course, sir. It was an inexperienced reporter who wrote
I promise that my newspaper will never again mention your family."
and Harriet's eight children, four of the five sons and Henry G. Miller, the husband of their
daughter Sarah Caroline (and my great grandfather) became members of The Chicago Literary
Club. They delivered an aggregate of 25 papers. Edward Gay Mason was President of the
during the 1878-79 season.(29)
Mayor Mason continued active in civic affairs,
including serving on the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, as a ruling elder of
Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, and as president and a member of the board of
McCormick Theological Seminary. He died January 1, 1892 at the age of 86.
(1) Much of the material herein was adapted from the Biography of Roswell B.
by C.H. Mottier, 1938, published by the Society of Western Engineers of which Roswell
was a founder and first president.
(2) Mason Trowbridge, Family Annals, 1958, privately published. p.71.
(3) Trowbridge, p.72.
(4) Trowbridge, p.82.
(5) Mottier, p.74.
(6) Trowbridge, p.72.
(7) Robert P. Howard, Illinois, A History of the Prairie State, William R.
Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1972, p. 244.
(8) Howard, p. 244.
(9) Mottier, p. 18 et seq.
(10) Herman Kogan and Lloyd Wendt, Chicago, a Pictorial History, Bonanza
New York, 1948, p. 101.
(11) Mottier, p. 28
(12) Howard, p. 245.
(13) Mottier, p. 22.
(14) Howard, p. 250.
(15) Mottier, p. 28.
(16) "Why Such Problems? Because the Iron Horse Got Here First" by John
Chicago Sun-Times, Sunday, November 19, 1995 p. 16, quoting the railroad's official
(17) William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis, W.W. Norton & Company, New York,
(18) Kogan and Wendt, p.101.
(19) "The Great Conflagration" essay, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of
Memory, Copyright © 1996 by the Chicago Historical Society and the Trustees of
Northwestern University, last revised 10-8-96, available on the Internet at http://www.chicagohs.org/fire.
(20) "The Great Conflagration."
(21) "A Bird's Eye View of Pre-Fire Chicago" essay, The Great Chicago Fire and
Web of Memory at http://www.chicagohs.org/fire.
(22) "Official Actions" The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/rescue/
(23) "Official Actions"
(24) Kogan and Wendt, p.125.
(25) Robert Cromie, The Great Chicago Fire, Copyright 1958 by Robert
McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. New York, Chapter 22, pp. 270 et seq.
(26) Mottier, p. 43.
(27) Cromie, p. 282.
(28) Trowbridge, p.83.
(29) The Chicago Literary Club, The First Hundred Years, 1874 - 1974, 1974, p.