Thursday, March 25, 2010

Charles T. Yerkes, Railroad Mogul, Philanthropist, Criminal and Astronomy Enthusiast

On March 26, 1888 the Wells Street line of the North Chicago Street Railroad Company's  cable car system opened for business.  In the late 19th century, cable cars ran up and down many of the thoroughfares of the city of Chicago and provided a much needed transit network for business and leisure travelers alike.  The North Chicago Street Railroad Company ran lines on Clark street, Wells street, Lincoln street and Clybourn (note that these last two were was not called Avenues at this time).  Aside from the North Chicago Street Railroad Company, other cable car lines were run throughout the city by companies such as the Chicago City Railway, Chicago West Division Railroad, and the West Chicago Street Railroad (Don't ever get those last two mixed up, they really hate that.)

Our story begins with Charles T. Yerkes (June 25, 1837 – December 29, 1905) from Philadelphia, PA. In the late 1850s and 1860s Yerkes amassed a large fortune first as broker in the Philadelphia Stock Exchange and later as a banker.  Unfortunately, Yerkes fortune was not to last.
"While serving as a financial agent for the City of Philadelphia's treasurer Joseph Marcer, Yerkes risked public money in a colossal stock speculation. Unfortunately for Yerkes, this speculation ended calamitously when the Great Chicago Fire sparked a financial panic. Left insolvent and unable to make payment to the City of Philadelphia, Yerkes was convicted of larceny and sentenced to thirty-three months in the dreaded Eastern State Penitentiary, notorious for its system of solitary confinement. Scheming to remain out of prison, he attempted to blackmail two influential Pennsylvania politicians. The plan failed. However, the damaging information on these politicians was eventually made public and political leaders like President Ulysses Grant feared that the revelations might harm their prospects in the upcoming elections. Yerkes was promised a pardon if he would deny the accusations he had made. He agreed to these terms and was released after seven months in the Eastern State Penitentiary. Yerkes spent the next ten years rebuilding his fortune." - Wikipedia Charles T. Yerkes


Curiously, It would seem that after stealing from the City of Philadelphia's coffers and blackmailing the local politicians to reduce a prison sentence, Yerkes found it prudent to leave the city and make his way west.  Almost immediately he saw his fortunes turn for the better.
"In 1881 Yerkes traveled to Fargo in the Dakota Territory in order to obtain a divorce from his wife of over twenty-two years. Later that year, he wedded the 24-year-old Mary Adelaide Moore and moved to Chicago." - Wikipedia Charles T. Yerkes
In 1886 Yerkes, along with Peter Arrell Brown Widener, and William L. Elkins.  took his turn at being a transit mogul when he founded the North Chicago Street Railroad.  Yerkes had dreams of controlling a monopoly of the entire transit system of Chicago, but was never able to get his hands on all the pieces at one time [1]. The North Chicago Street Railroad was modelled after a cheaply constructed and unsuccessful Philadelphia railroad, the Philadelphia Traction Company.  The traction company had been founded by one Peter Arrell Brown Widener and a William L. Elkins.  Among the highlights of this poorly designed system:
"The company recycled the La Salle Street tunnel, which the city had built in 1871. La Salle Street lies between the company's two main lines, on Clark and Wells. This required trains passing to and from the tunnel to drop cable and coast. This was made more difficult by the company's use of a top grip, which lengthened the distance needed to drop and pick up cable. Many cars could not make the change on momentum, and the company had to use a team of horses to help them around" - The Cable Car Home Page
 Despite the poor design, lack of dependability including a tendency to breakdown, unscrupulous owners and the general unpopularity of the system, it was highly successful and Yerkes quickly acquired a vast fortune.

In an effort to forge some sort of positive public image for himself (one can only wonder which was his 'good side'), Yerkes was talked into financing the world's largest telescope in 1892, by George Ellery Hale, from the University of Chicago.  The prospect of having his named attached to "the worlds largest" of anything was simply too much for Yerkes to pass up.  Initially shocked at the price of the telescope, Yerkes was ultimately talked into financing an entire observatory.  To this day the Yerkes Observatory is a lasting testament to his reluctant but still impressive generosity.

On the 29th of January, 1896 William F. Baur
"took the cable car as a passenger at Monroe and Dearborn streets between twelve and one o'clock on the "29th of January, 1896. He procured a paper and took a seat in the car, and remained seated, reading his paper, until he reached North avenue and Eugenie street, within a block of his home, when he stepped out on the rear platform of the car for the purpose of alighting. While standing on the platform, with his back against the dash-board, the car gave a sudden jerk, throwing him over the dash-board and upon the street. 'Witnesses on the car testified that the jerk was so violent that passengers were thrown off their seats. It does not appear from the evidence that there was any regulation of the railway company prohibiting passengers from riding on the platform, but, on the other hand, it appears that other passengers did ride on the platform without objection on the part of those in charge of the car." - Reports of cases at law and in chancery, Illinois Supreme Court, Volume 179
A result of the above incident and the ensuing trial and court decision, a transit company may be held liable for the injuries sustained by passengers when the passengers are riding on ledges, doorways, platforms and other areas outside of the normal passenger seating area if the train or rail car is over loaded, and the transit company routinely allows passengers to ride in these areas without warning or taking other prohibitive measures.   From this case, a small but interesting piece of transit law precedent was established within Old Town, right at the corner of Eugenie and Wells, and all of this because of the generosity of a certain Charles T. Yerkes.

[1] Yerkes did make a major contribution to the lasting Chicago transit by developing the world famous "Loop" elevated tracks in downtown Chicago. He also has a crater on the surface of the moon named after him... go figure..

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