Isham Randolph, Poet

I’ve written in the past about Isham’s 26 stanza poem, written for Admiral Dewey on his visit to the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal.  You can see the entire poem on page three of this album.  I’ve found plenty of examples of Isham’s technical writing, but no other examples of his poetry, until this gem showed up in a memorial, quoted in the Society of Western Engineers, no date is given for its creation, but it is attributed to Isham,

The memorial also had a more detailed record of Isham’s railroad career, which I’ll add to the Wikipedia entry soon.  It also gave the names of his three sons (I only knew one) and his wife.  I found the name of his wife in census records, but not his son’s beyond Col. Randolph (who the memorial says was a Major?)  It also says that Isham helped to organize a regiment of engineers during World War One, and quotes the conclusion of a speech he gave them before their departure for Europe.  Though not poetry, it speaks to the poetic character of the man,

One last quote from the piece, not from Isham, but from the memorial writer, suggesting that a volume of Randolph’s writing, including his poetry, should be published.

I haven’t collected enough of his writing to “gather and edit a volume,” but I have pulled a bit together over the course of the last year, so – I guess I’m the guy that’s doing what this author asked for, just a hundred years later than he expected.

What Badges Would Isham Have Collected?

[blackbirdpie url=”!/plural/status/177170929053483008″]

My pal @plural (Jason Gessner)’s funny tweet inspired a second (shorter) post explaining badges in terms of Isham Randolph.  (for those just joining, Isham Randolph was the chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the canal that reversed the flow of the Chicago River, I’m sort of obsessed with him.)

So, Jason, in response to your tweet – Isham Randolph is an excellent example of an entrepreneurial learner who would have benefited a great deal from OpenBadges.  Here, in convenient bullet format, I present my argument:

  • Isham began his career by learning carpentry from a man (whom he owned, sadly, he was a slave owner) on his plantation, he was not formally apprenticed or trained. citations
  • Isham worked his way up from axeman to chief engineer of the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad, leveraging his on the job learning to advance his career. citations
  • Isham became chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary district, dug the CS&S canal, then used his achievement to gain an appointment to the Panama Canal Committee. citations

So, in short, he would have had at least three badges, all of which were important to his career, none of which would was considered formal learning at the time: carpentry, surveying (probably engineering management), and canal building.

Ebin. J. Ward v. Isham Randolph

I’ve started to collect any historic records from the Sanitary District of Chicago during the Sanitary & Ship Canal dig on a Google bookshelf.  I’ve found 8 books, including several volumes of the official proceedings of the board of trustees.  All pretty dry stuff, but given enough time could paint a solid picture of the actual construction of the canal.  My guess is that not many of the volumes were printed, and really only for archival purposes.  Isham Randolph mentions them in his memoir, so I’m also guessing that they were mostly held by people involved with the department.

The first two volumes I found, 1891 and 1892 were from the collections of Michigan University and the University of California.  The 1892 edition has this signature on several of the front pages:

I googled “Ebin J. Ward” and found this record at the Chicago Public Library, “The Illinois water-power-water-way / an attack by Ebin J. Ward ; and defense by Robert Isham Randolph.”  Kind of cool, the Google books scanned copy is from the personal collection of one of Isham’s professional rivals.  One of these days I hope to come across a scan of something from Isham’s collection.

Some other clips –

McAvoy Brewing Company

I added two new Wikipedia entries tonight, both are pretty stubby in nature – McAvoy Brewing Company and John H. McAvoy.  I ran into the McAvoy Brewing Company a few years ago at the Quincy Brown Line stop, that’s the station that’s all old-timey, with a bunch of 1800’s advertisements on the platform.  One of them is a J.C. Leyendecker (I think) illustrated advertisement for McAvoy Malt Marrow.  McAvoy Brewing was a Chicago Company, founded by John H. McAvoy and H.V. Bemis in 1865.   Leyendecker was McAvoy’s great nephew by marriage, but entered into his illustration career a decade after McAvoy’s death in 1893.  So, it’s not entirely clear (to me) if he ever worked for the company as an advertisement illustrator.

Regardless, I was pretty stoked to find a 1800’s Chicago brewery with my name on it, even though I can’t find a shred of evidence linking me to John, it’s still pretty cool.  I bought a few advertisements for the company on Ebay, and have them waiting to be framed to hang over my desk.  On a bit of a respite from the whole Isham Randolph / Robert Isham Randolph project, I thought I’d dive into the history of the company a bit.  What I found was interesting, but hard to express in dry Wikipedia format.

Bemis founded the company several years before McAvoy moved to Chicago.  McAvoy was a successful entrepreneur, and was flush with fresh-sold tannery cash from an operation he set up in South Haven Michigan when he moved to Chicago in 1864.  I don’t know why he chose to get into the brewing business, but he bought into the Bemis Brewing Company, and founded McAvoy & Bemis Brewing in 1865.  The company built a state of the art brewery on the lakefront at 24th street (now the location of McCormick Place).  Dennis McClendon, of Chicago Cartographics, was kind enough to find me a map location of the brewery from the Robinson fire insurance map of 1886.  You can even see McAvoy’s house around the corner from the brewery.

The McAvoy Brewing Company Brewery as of 1886

The Tribune ran a great piece describing the brewery building in 1883 defying the world to build a better brewery, an excerpt describes the “fine furniture”:

Come on world! Try and build a better Brewery!


Kind of a big deal

Despite the obvious richness of the brewery facade, there’s hints of trouble in 1884 when Bemis retires, citing ill health.  The brewery is re-incorporated as the McAvoy Brewing Company, just in time for a series of creditors to demand payment.  Although the Tribune calls out both events, they never connect the dots.  Bemis, despite his supposed failing health, would go on to run the (at the time) well known Hotel Richelieu in Chicago until his suicide in 1906 at the age of 63.  The suicide note again calls out his ill-health.

McAvoy died several years previous, in 1889, but not without making a reasonable mark on the city.  In 1869, he was elected Alderman of the 3rd ward, and helped finance a ‘People’s Party’ movement in 1873.  The party platform mostly revolved around opposition to Blue Laws which required tavern closures on Sunday.  The blue laws, and the opposition to them were the chief reason the 1873 mayoral election went to Harvey Doolittle Colvin (at least, according to Bob Skolnik in his book Beer, A History of Brewing in Chicago).

Not all of McAvoy’s political career was transparent actions that ultimately boosted sales of McAvoy’s Bock, he was also elected President of the Chicago City Council in 1871, just two short months after the fire.  McAvoy’s speech after receiving the position is good, and quoted verbatim in the Tribune,

McAvoy's Speech, just 2 months after the Great Chicago Fire

McAvoy served as council president under the mayorship of Joseph Medill, the same mayor he would help unseat 2 years later during the kerfuffle over blue laws.  Doing the research for these articles read like a listing of Chicago streets and institutions, Medill, Sheridan, Hoyne – I’m not sure if the streets were named after these men because of their involvement in reconstruction, or years later – regardless, the articles read like road atlases.

The brewery was sold to an English syndicate in 1889, leading the way for mass consolidation of Chicago breweries (then the 4th largest brewing city in the US) under British syndicates.  McAvoy stayed on as the general manager of the company until his death in 1893.  During prohibition, the brewery shifted gears and started production of alcohol based children’s medicine (McAvoy Malt Marrow builds strong children!).  Skilnik’s book implies that many of the Chicago breweries also produced beer for the Torrio / Capone rackets, but doesn’t come out and say that McAvoy brewing was involved.  I don’t know when the company officially folded, there’s a post-prohibition mention in the Tribune that the brand was going to be revived, but I can’t find any mention of them after that.

The research for this project was pretty interesting.  I have a small list of sources for all of this information, most of it is from the Tribune (through the CPL search tool), with the general story of Chicago brewing filled in by Skilnik’s wonderful book.  Most of the pre-prohibition Chicago breweries are gone, and very few of them are remembered on Wikipedia.  At least the one with my last name attached to it (again, no relation) gets some recognition now, even if it’s a bit stubby.

Elgin National Watch Company

Elgin Central Time

The Elgin Clock at Union Station (from nsub1's flickr stream)

Chicago in the 19th century is well known as a meat packing city, as a railroad hub, and as a birthplace of the early labor movement.  Less well known is Chicago’s role in the history of time, both in the agreements of how time would be measured, as well as the watches that would do the measuring.  The clock at Union Station was built by the Elgin National Watch Company, founded in 1864 the company boasted B.W. Raymond, then mayor of Chicago, as an investor (possibly the reason that the city of Elgin ceded 30 acres of land to the enterprise). The watch company was started in Elgin, but was originally named “National Watch Company.”  It was called “The National Watch Company in Elgin” for a long time, and eventually renamed the “Elgin National Watch Company.”   The factory was modeled after large watch factories in the eastern U.S., factories that were quickly replacing watchmaking as a craft, and producing relatively inexpensive watches that could synchronize a nation spanning railroad network.

Before the railroads, every town would measure noon as the highest point the sun would reach in the day.  If they had a town clock, it would be set based on the position of the sun, not on an abstract idea of noon.  Given the pace of travel, ‘noon’ not aligning between distant towns wasn’t an issue.  With the railroads came coordination issues, noon needed to be the same within a reasonable distance.   A plan for time zones was created in Chicago in 1883, almost 20 years after the start of the Elgin Watch Company.

Watchmaking existed before the factories of the mid 19th century, but was a highly skilled craft.  A watchmaker could make 5 or so watches per year.  In his book, Watchmaking, George Daniels describes the revelation that even prior to full factory built watches, it was rare that a watchmaker would build each part of a watch on his own, “It became increasingly clear to me that it was not the practice for one man to make the whole watch by himself.  Over the centuries, it had become established that the simplest way to make watches was for the work to be divided into distinctive and entirely separate trades.”

In the 1869 Harpers article Making Watches by Machinery, the author tours the Elgin factory, and describes the modern watchmaking process.  Although on a large scale, each step of the process is similar to the process that Daniels describes – individuals making parts, but ultimately assembled by a skilled ‘watchmaker.’  Consolidating the work, and making standard parts were the real innovations in the factory.  At the time of the writing of the article, the factory was producing 125 watches per day, when the factory closed in 1964, Elgin had produced half of all the pocket watches ever made.

Elgin National Watch Company Factory, 1914




Isham has a Wikipedia Entry


Isham Randolph, the owner of a full Wikipedia page

After 8 months of on and off work, a trip to the Newberry Library, and dozens of articles logged and noted, Isham Randolph – the engineer that reversed the flow of the Chicago River, has a respectable Wikipedia article: Isham Randolph.

I’m pretty proud of the work, every sentence on that page has a reference, in some cases more than one. I’d estimate that that article equals around 20 – 30 hours of work. Not an enormous investment, but more than I would have thought, and more than what the end result really looks like. During the time I worked on it, several other contributors helped clean and correct some wikipedia-ish issues around copyright and formatting. No one else contributed research or content, I always held out hope that there would be another closet Isham Randolph enthusiast out there in the world, but it looks like I’ve found a niche of exactly one – me.

What’s next? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve started to pull together some articles on Col. Robert Isham Randolph, Isham’s son. In 1930, the Colonel, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution and World War I, was appointed as the chair of the Chicago Association of Commerce. Within 6 months, he had established The Secret Six, a (obviously) secret organization of prominent businessmen that threw their vast wealth behind the goal of ridding Chicago of crime. When I read this blurb from the Tribune, it blew my mind.

Wait, was he a businessman, or BATMAN?

So, what’s next?  A page for Isham Randolph’s son, who was apparently Chicago’s version of Batman.  It’s not an exaggeration, the Secret Six brought Eliot Ness to Chicago, and ultimately brought down Al Capone.  Sure, some crabby historians think that Randolph and the CAC created the furor over Racketeering for some nefarious  purpose, but I’m at the stage in my research where I’m totally buying the Secret Six as super-hero squad hook line and sinker.

Given the popular conception of Al Capone and the Untouchables, how could it be possible that it was all manufactured by a conglomerate of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen?  Would they really do something like that just to get Anton Cermak elected to the mayor’s office on promises of being hard on crime in 1931?  Just a few short months after the formation of the Secret Six?  It’s just a lot to fathom.  I’m going to go with the official line, but – wow, what if the Randolph family both reversed the flow of the Chicago River and elevated Al Capone from petty gangster to public enemy one just to get a mayor elected?!  What a family!


Mayor of Chicago (c. 1880) was a bit of a thug

Isham makes a bold claim in his memoir. On September 15th, 1880, his 3rd cousin, the Mayor of Chicago Carter Harrison Sr. led a mob attack on the rail line he was working on. I added it to Isham’s wikipedia page, knowing that Isham himself said that none of the accounts of the attack included the fact that Harrison led the mob. I found the Chicago Daily Tribune article detailing the attack from September 16th, 1880, and true to Isham’s claim, no mention is made of Harrison’s involvement. That said, the Tribune’s coverage of the attack is interesting, and a great window into a time when violence was a common political tool.

An Account of the Mob Attack on the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad - Chicago Daily Tribune September 16th, 1880

Isham Randolph’s Memoir, First Thoughts

In 1937, 17 years after Isham’s death, his sons published a collection of short autobiographical stories written by their father and organized in rough chronological order.  The book is called Gleanings from a Harvest of Memories. I read it, cover to cover, took a bunch of notes, and took photographs of the second half of the book for more detailed reading later.  It’s unclear if the stories were written by Isham, or by his sons remembering things that Isham told them.  In some cases, stories have dates and locations were they were written (or told?).  The stories fall into four major time periods – Isham’s youth in Virginia during the civil war, his early days as a surveyor on the B&O railroad, the big ditch (his name for the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal), and his post CS&S career.  What follows here isn’t a comprehensive overview of the book, just my first thoughts after reading it.

The Early Days – Virginia during the civil war (1848-1868)

I knew that Isham’s family owned slaves, I knew he came from a well known Virginia family, but it was still difficult to read the first section of his memoirs.  Like many men and women of his generation, he looks back on slavery as if it was some sort of rosy period of singing until the Union burnt it all to the ground.  It’s hard to read, hard to write about, and impossible to understand where he was coming from.  He was 13 when the war started, lost two brothers in the confederate army, and was 17 when the war ended.  In between, much of his families home was burnt during Sherman’s march to the sea and many of his neighbors attacked by marauders.  His father was attacked by one of the families slaves, and Isham sat with the attacker while he was kept in leg irons in a shed recovering from his wounds.

Railroad Engineer (1868 – 1893)

Isham tried to be a farmer, but it wasn’t his strong suit.  He learned how to build things from one of his families slaves, and used that skill as an axeman for the B&O railroad building the Winchester / Strausberg line.  He came to Chicago in 1870, and by 1880 was the chief engineer for the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad.  Carter Henry Harrison, the mayor of Chicago and Isham’s third cousin, opposed the expansion of the railroad, and led an armed mob to attack the line.  Isham says that the coverage of the attack didn’t mention that Harrison led it, but he saw him, “leading the charge on a black stallion.”  He also said that at the time, Harrison didn’t know they were related.  The mob attached Isham and his colleague, and almost hung the two of them, but they were saved by a Cook County sheriff, who ordered several Chicago policemen in the crowd to save the men.  Soon after, Isham visited Harrison.  He doesn’t say much about the meeting, but Harrison soon capitulated on the line expansion, and Isham says that they knew of their common ancestry at that point (August, 1883).

Chief Engineer, Sanitary District of Chicago (1893 – 1907)

Ten years after meeting Carter Henry Harrison, Isham is appointed as the Chief Engineer of the Sanitary District of Chicago (June 7th, 1893), and 4 months later (October 28th, 1893) Harrison is assassinated.  Isham doesn’t say why he was appointed, just that four men came before him (including Lyman Cooley – an engineer that would often clash with Isham about canal construction).  I find it hard to believe that his relationship with Harrison didn’t have something to do with his appointment, and I hoped it would be confirmed in the memoir, but the only confirmation I have is that they did know each other, and they did both openly acknowledge that they were related.  The actual digging of the canal (7 years of his life) gets just three pages, plus an additional 2 about the opening of the canal.  He says that 7 volumes sit on his shelf with every meeting and expenditure recorded, so he doesn’t feel the need to recount it again.  Clearly, I need to find copies of those books.

He does relate one story of a Sheriff that owned the work-rights to a portion of the dig equal to $5 million in work fees, but that wasn’t actually doing the work.  When he went to have the Sheriff removed, he was warned that he was politically connected, and to let him continue to milk the contract.  Isham pursued, and had the man removed.  It’s an early indication of much of his actions later in his career, there’s a few articles in the Tribune about Isham attacking graft and corrupt city contracts.

Then, 1900 rolls along, that canal is open, and there’s a few pages about a dispute with Canada over the water level of Lake Michigan being lowered by the canal.  Isham gives a speech, sticks it to the Canadians, and all is well.

Roosevelt and Taft (1907-1920)

The final sections of the book detail every interaction Isham had with President Roosevelt and Secretary of War (soon to be President) Taft.  His life post-big-ditch isn’t as interesting to me personally, so I glossed over this section a bit.  He details a lot of dinners he attended, trips to Panama with Taft, and other canal builders he met.  One interesting thing – Roosevelt was convinced that the Panama canal should be a ‘sea level canal’ (?), and Isham led a minority opinion that the canal should be a lock & dam canal.  Other engineers on the project accused Isham of being disloyal to the President, but Isham insisted that it was an engineering concern, not a political one.  The President agreed, read several reports written by Isham and other engineers, and came around to the idea.

Final Thoughts

The book reads like an old man rambling a bit.  I could hear him talking, which was eery.  The book was published in 1937, gifted to the Newberry Library in 1945 by Warner G. Baird (one half of Baird & Warner – a well known Chicago real estate company), and read by me in 2011.  Has anyone else ever read it?  Did anyone touch it after it was put in the secure stacks in 1945?  I have more work to do, trying to find some other sources that confirm some of his assertions, trying to find more detail of the actual dig (it amazes me that 7000+ men worked on the dig for 7 years and theres no easy to find journals from any of the workers), and maybe even trying to find some of Isham’s living relatives to see if they have anything extra to add about his life.  There’s something about the way Isham wrote, both in this book and in some of his other essays, that makes me think this is all worth researching, that talking about his life will lead to some bigger story about Chicago in 1900, about the belief of that era that engineering should trump nature and make up for our destructive impact on our environment.  There’s a big story there, but there’s also just the interesting story of a man that had a huge impact on his world, but never seems anything but open and humble in his writing.

Digital Historical Research

I’m headed to the Newberry Library this weekend to read Isham Randolph’s memoir “Gleanings from a Harvest of Memories.”  As I’m pulling my notes together, it’s amazing to me how little physical library work I’ve done to put together so much information about the man.  This is the first significant historical research I’ve done since college (more than 10 years ago), and a lot has changed.

All of my sources, excluding the memoir, have been online.  I’ve pulled dozens of articles from the Chicago Public Library – Chicago Tribune archive (you need a CPL card to access it), a few from the New York Times archive, and a couple of really great ones from the Library of Congress Chronicling of America project.   I used Harper’s archive to fill in a few ideas about the role of canal’s at the turn of the century, including this really great piece, Waterways of America (subscription required) that put the role of canals in 1900 in perspective (they were a big deal).  One of the most interesting sources has been Google Books.  They have a gigantic collection of digitized material, including a really fancy tool that lets me embed clips from books like so:

As I accumulated all this material, I thought about printing it all out and sorting it, and realized that was a terrible idea.  I originally tried to track it all in Evernote, but eventually concluded I would be better off in a more research oriented tool called Scrivener.  Scrivener is a great writing tool, and has a lot of features meant for organizing research.  I’d highly recommend it for non-trivial projects with a lot of PDF documents that need to be organized in some sort of reasonable fashion.  I haven’t used much of their writing tools yet, but I plan to as I boil all of this material down.

Digging Ditches is Dangerous

Digging the canal wasn’t easy.  New construction machines and techniques were influencing the dig, and organizing thousands of workers led to lots of issues.  Isham was hit by a train in 1899:

Isham hit by a train, Chicago Daily Tribune Oct 28, 1899

Obviously danger from construction would be a big concern, but less obviously, the biggest danger in the camps was your fellow workers.  Roving gangs terrorized the camps at night, as described in the closing paragraph of this New York Times piece on the dig,

Nightime in the camps, New York Times - January 13th, 1895

The line “politics has been successfully kept out of the rough looking army” is a bit sad.  Haymarket and Lucy Parson‘s 80,000 marchers on Michigan Avenue was a year and a half away.  There aren’t any mentions (that I can find) of any significant labor organization going on in the canal camps, but I have to assume it was attempted.   Later that year, the drainage commission promised action to “rout out the thugs”, but I haven’t yet found any follow up, or results of their actions.

Going after the thugs, Chicago Daily Tribune June 27th, 1895

The camps worked long days under difficult conditions.  Such a huge concentration of workers would be a prime target for organizers.  The 8 hour workday movement hit Chicago in 1884, so it’s easy to assume that the canal workers would have known that they could organize.

8 hour work days? Anarchy!