Charles Tyson Yerkes: The Streetcar Baron Who Got Rich Twice

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It was a good place for a man who liked money and knew politics—“the only great city in the world,” according to a local novelist, “to which all its citizens have come for the avowed purpose of making money. ” The town was booming. During the decade Yerkes lived there, the number of factories would triple and the amount of capital invested in them swell by more than 300 percent. Yerkes started out quietly, assessed the situation, and saw that as this voracious city swallowed up its suburbs, it would need more and more streetcar lines. He knew it was altogether better to give an alderman a quarter of a million dollars to swing him a franchise than it was to pay the city a million to secure one in the accepted manner. In 1886 he got an option on the North Chicago City Railway Company, raised $6 million in capital stock to build a new line, let the job out to a construction company he controlled, which did the work for $3 million, and pocketed the difference. Thus launched, he absorbed more lines, set to work on them through a maze of interconnecting companies, broke his competitors with lawsuits and injunctions, watered stock and watered it again—and, to be sure, made some real improvements. He scrapped some fifty horsecar lines and replaced them with cable traction, electrified two hundred and forty miles of right-of-way, put down five hundred miles of new track, and built the famous Downtown Union Loop. But none of this won him the love of the populace. The equipment was inadequate, there was never enough of it, and often two companies would cover the same stretch of track, so that a passenger had to come up with two fares for one ride. There were complaints. Yerkes answered them with an epigram that became as famous in its day as William Henry Vanderbilt’s “the public be damned”: “It’s the strap-hangers that pay the dividends.”

Mr. Dooley felt Yerkes and the fire had the same effect on Chicago.

Protests reached a peak in 1895 when the complaisant legislature passed the Humphrey bill, which extended Yerkes’s franchises for a solid century without a penny of financial return to the city. Despite the offer of half a million dollars in cash, Gov. John Altgeld vetoed the bill. “I admire that man!” exclaimed Yerkes, and then went on to publicize the governor’s “radicalism” so effectively that it helped lose him the 1896 election.

Yerkes foresaw no trouble with Altgeld’s successor, but the financier had at last become just too gaudy. On the night his pet aldermen were debating a law that would reinstate the Humphrey bill’s provisions, an armed crowd surrounded City Hall. Yerkes lost.

By the turn of the century his power had eroded. He was no pauper, however; when he finally cashed in his chips, he got something on the order of $20 million. Then, in a gesture of superb contempt, he turned over his business records to the city before going East. They revealed, among other things, that of the $118 million securities of Yerkes’s companies, $72 million had been pure water.

Yerkes had not forgotten how to consolidate municipal transportation, and he spent his last years, until his death in 1905, putting together the mighty underground system of the city of London.

He was best remembered, however, in Chicago—and remembered as a force on somewhat the same order as the fire. Commenting on a proposal to commemorate that catastrophe, Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley said: “We’ve had manny other misfortunes an’ they’re not cillybrated. Why don’t we have a band out an’ illuminated sthreet cars f’r to commimerate th’ day that Yerkuss came to Chicago? An’ there’s cholera. What’s th matter with cholera?”