Person:Charles Walker (57)

  1. Elihu Walker
  2. Charles Walker1802 - 1868
  3. Mary Louisa Walker1810 -
  4. Almon WalkerABT 1811 - 1854
  5. Cornelia A. WalkerABT 1818 - 1839
Facts and Events
Name Charles Walker
Gender Male
Birth? 2 FEB 1802 Burlington Flats, Otsego, New York, United States
Death? 28 JUN 1868 Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States

Viewed through the perspective of the years, one comes to realize how great was the work, how permanent the values and how broad the outlook and clear the vision of Charles Walker. He labored not alone for his own time and locality but for all ages, inasmuch as he instituted business activities which have not, nor will they for many years to come, cease their fruition in the life of the great western metropolis. Coming to Chicago ere the city had a corporate existence, he believed that it must ultimately become the great center of trade and commerce of the west and he lived to see his prophecy fulfilled. Moreover, in all of his work he labored for the end in view that his acts might count as factors for good in the greater city which he believed was coming. His name therefore should be inscribed high on Chicago's roll of fame and his memory honored as that of one whose "works do follow him." The extent of his operations made him known throughout America as its foremost grain merchant and yet, when the hour of his departure came, it was not his wealth that was the subject of general discussion, but his upright life that conformed so closely to the pattern of Christian manhood.

Mr. Walker started upon life's journey almost with the opening of the nineteenth century, his birth having occurred in Otsego county, New York, February 2, 1802. His parents were Colonel William W. and Lucretia (Ferrell) Walker, both natives of Massachusetts. The Walkers are of English ancestry—a family prominent in Cromwell's time and also during the early colonization of New England, where representatives of the name lived as early as 1640. The grandfather of Charles Walker removed from Massachusetts to Rindge, New Hampshire, where he conducted successful operations as a dealer in cattle. His son, Colonel Walker, left the New England home in which he had been reared to seek his fortune in central New York, settling at Plainfield, Otsego county, when that district was then a wilderness. In the course of an active life he attained almost everything that men covet as of value—success in business, prominence in political life, honors in the church. His high purpose and principles ever commanded the respect of his fellowmen and he placed before all else the question of Christian duty and privilege.

While reared upon what was then in a manner the western frontier, the youthful environment of Charles Walker was that of culture, refinement and Christian ideals, and again in his life there is proof of the fact that "train a child up in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." A few enterprising farmers of the neighborhood were the builders of the little log school in which he mastered the early branches of learning, but throughout his life he remained a keen and observant student in the school of experience and each day learned that which he turned to practical account in his later years. His parents, realizing that his school advantages were very little, instructed him during the long winter evenings, and he made such progress in his studies that at the early age of fifteen he was qualified for and began teaching—a profession which he followed through the winter months until he attained his majority. When eighteen years of age he began devoting his leisure hours to the study of law, but close confinement impaired his health and at the advice of physicians he gave up the idea of becoming a representative of the legal profession.

Country riding through the summer months, during which he made purchases of sheep and cattle for his father, greatly improved his health and on attaining his majority he turned his attention to commercial pursuits, engaging to clerk in a little store at a salary of eight dollars per month. He soon acquainted himself thoroughly with mercantile methods of that day and resolved that in the following spring he would engage in business on his own account. In 1824, therefore, he made his way to New York, where he purchased goods, his capital consisting of thirteen hundred and fifty dollars, of which he had saved three hundred and fifty dollars from his former earnings, while five hundred dollars was given him by his father and five hundred dollars loaned him by a neighbor. In early manhood, as throughout his later life, one pursuit did not monopolize his attention and soon after opening his store he made his first purchase of grain. The next spring when he went east to buy goods he took with him a fine drove of cattle, which he disposed of at the Bull's Head cattle yard' in New York city. where the Bowery theater now stands. Close application to his business and enterprising methods soon made him the leading merchant of his vicinity and he also dealt extensively in the products of the surrounding country, which he shipped to the east and south.

Accident in the spring of 1833 made him the purchaser in New York of a cargo of rawhides from Buenos Ayres, which he shipped to his tannery at Burlington Flats and manufactured the leather into boots and shoes for the western market. He had been studying the western country, recognized the possibilities for and the indications of its development and decided to permanently extend his business to that section. Accordingly in 1834 he sent his brother, Almond Walker, as his representative in opening a store at Fort Dearborn, and early in the spring of 1835 Charles Walker started for Chicago "with ready means, enlarged and liberal views, and extensive business experience and acquaintance, in the vigor of manhood, with a widespread and favorable reputation in the east, to unite his fortune with the destinies and contribute his energies to the development of the unknown resources of this then village."

His faith in Chicago and his belief in its future were not chimerical. They were based upon a thorough study of existing conditions and an understanding of the geographic situation and of the resources of other parts of the country, all leading him to the belief, which he openly expressed, that Chicago would be the metropolis of the west. He did not hesitate, therefore, to begin business operations here nor to invest his capital, and the years brought him the reward of his remarkable business discernment and ability. At that time there was no regular line of boats across the lakes and while waiting at St. Joseph for transportation to Chicago he bought hides, to which were subsequently added purchases made in and about Chicago. He then shipped to the east—the first shipment made from Illinois to any point as far east as Utica or Albany.

In 1836 he formed a partnership with E. B. Hurlburt, under the firm style of Walker & Company, for the purpose of importing agricultural implements and household utensils from the east and also for the conduct of a general mercantile enterprise, receiving in exchange for his goods the various products of the west. Believing, too, that investment in land was most judicious, he rode as far north as Green Bay and became the owner of large tracts of government land at Madison (then known as Four Lakes), Beloit and other Wisconsin points. He laid the foundation of his success so securely that when the financial panic of 1837 came on he weathered the storm, although hundreds of his competitors were swamped. It required careful manipulation of his business interests to meet his commercial paper as it matured and to avoid financial embarrassments, but this hour of trial and test fully proved his splendid business ability and aptitude for successful management. In 1838 the firm purchased a few bags of grain of the surrounding farmers, which were sent to Mr. Walker's mills in Otsego county, New York, this being the first shipment of grain from Chicago to an eastern market and the first grain sent around the lakes. He had up to that time continued to make New York his home, although spending fully half of his time in superintending his western operations.

In 1839 the famous struggle between the old Safety Fund and the so-called Red Dog, or free banking system, was at its height. His home county in New York sent him as a representative to the legislature, where he was largely instrumental, though opposed by the money power of the state, in securing the adoption of the popular system of redemption and exchange which has since been in effect. In 1842 he joined Cyrus Clarke, of Utica, New York, in forming the firm of Walker & Clarke for receiving western produce, and, recognizing the advantage of being on the field for the conduct of this business, he removed his family to Chicago in May, 1845. From that time until his retirement his operations in the grain trade constantly increased until he occupied the foremost position among the grain merchants of the country. A crisis in the grain trade in 1847 eaused the ruin of some of the oldest and best houses of the United States but. though the firm of Walker & Clarke suffered heavy losses, they managed to keep above board and after that crisis was passed extended their operations until, in 1851, it was found that the firm of C. Walker & Son of Chicago, Walkrr & Kellogg of Peoria and Walker & Clarke of Buffalo were the largest purchasers of grain from the farmers of the United States. It was soon after that that Mr. Walker suffered a serious illness that compelled him to leave the financial management of his business to his eldest son, but he continued a financial factor in the firm under the style of C. Walker & Sons until 1855, when he retired altogether, leaving his two sons to carry on the business. When he retired he was the oldest grain merchant of the country in years of continuous connection with the business, having operated in that field for thirty-one years. He did a work the value and influence of which can hardly be estimated. He called the attention of the world to the great grain production of America and created for it a market in the centers of trade abroad.

While his work in this connection alone would entitle Mr. Walker to the grateful remembrance of the Chicago people, it by no means compassed the scope of his activities. He became a prominent figure in railroad building and in 1847 was chosen one of the directors of the Galena Railroad when the effort was made to continue the construction of that line that had previously been begun and then abandoned. It was difficult in that early day to secure support for railway projects, as lines were built through a comparatively unsettled district and it took remarkable foresight to realize that Illinois would become one of the greatest grain producing sections of the country and that its railroad shipments should exceed those of any other state of the Union. The public, and even the directors of the railroad, had little faith in its successful consummation. Mr. Walker, however, worked for the project with an unfaltering hope and, as one of the committee for soliciting additional subscriptions, traveled over the country to the west and as far north as Beloit. When affairs had reached such a crisis that immediate disaster was imminent he was appointed a member of "a committee of the believing," and when it became necessary that the directors should become individually liable for a large sum of money to secure the iron to lay the first division of the road, Mr. Walker did not hesitate to be among the first to do so. He remained one of the railroad directors, taking an active part in the construction and management of the road, saw its successful completion and then in other fields operated as largely and capably- for railroad building. He became the president as well as one of the directors of the Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad when the plans were formed to construct that line across Iowa to the town of Clinton. On the 14th of June, 1859, this line was completed as far as Cedar Rapids, thus bringing Chicago into direct connection with the rich Cedar river valley, producing extensive crops that before were marketed in St. Louis. In time his judgment became to be recognized as so sound that his indorsement of any measure would secure for it a large following. He realized as few men have done the possibilities of a situation and foresaw with clearness its outcome, and continually he labored with the belief in mind that Chicago would become a city of a million population.

Mr. Walker was married twice. In 1826 he wedded Mary Clarke, of Brookfield, New York, who died in June. 1838, leaving three children: Charles H., Mary C. and George C., all now deceased. In 18H he married Nancy Bentley, of New Lebanon, New York, who passed away in August, 1881, leaving a son and daughter: William B.; and Cornelia, who is the widow of Thomas G. McLaury, at one time a prominent grain merchant and real-estate operator of Chicago. Mr. McLaury was a leader in the social life of the city, becoming one of the founders of the Chicago Club and a valued member of the Calumet Club. He was also an active worker in Trinity Episcopal church and while the advantages of wealth were his, he also realized its responbilities, and in every respect fully met his obligations to his fellowmen. At his demise he left two sons: Walker G. McLaury, now of the National City Bank; and Donald B. McLaury, who graduated from Yale in 1910, and is now studying law.

The death of Charles Walker occurred on the 28th of June, 1868. The later

years of his life were largely spent in retirement from business and yet he was

ever an active man, constantly engaged with benevolent or educational projects

if not with business enterprises. He was one of the earliest projectors, wisest

counselors and most generous supporters of the old Chicago University. He was

one of the organizers and thereafter held membership in the First Baptist church,

of which he became a senior deacon, and it was by his advice that the Second

Baptist church of Chicago was established on the west side. His religious belief

was a permeating influence in his life. He sought to closely follow the Golden

Bule in all of his relations with his fellowmen and this developed in him such a

high standard of personal and business honor, such a strong spirit of helpfulness

and such quick and efficient charity that he came to be regarded by those who knew

him as one of the most faithful followers of the teachings of Christ. At the time

of his death one of the Chicago papers spoke of him as "the noble, generous,

philanthropic citizen and devoted Christian * * * who was so well known,

so active, so prominent in the public enterprises and philanthropic movements of

the city. No other man, living or dead, ever did more toward building up and

beautifying Chicago or aided more largely in promoting the moral and social

prosperity of this community."

Perhaps no better estimate of the character of Mr. Walker and his life work can be given than by quoting from the comments of the press at the time he departed this life. The Republican said editorially: "For ten years his name and that of his house were convertible terms for stability and keen, for-reaching business enterprise, unsullied by imputation of overgrasping on the one hand or illiberal or narrow scope on the other. There have been times in the past history of the business revulsions of the country when the blast of disaster seemed to strike most strongly the new and full-spread enterprises of our young community, but Mr. Walker's sagacity and prudence were always those of the good shipmaster, and he rode out gales in 1837 which called for the highest business qualities, and in his case not in vain. Had Mr. Walker been a man of avaricious grasp, combined with his great faculties for securing a hold upon property, his estate might have been among the amplest in the possession of any Chicago citizen. But he accumulated something better than uncounted millions; and while he always rated among our most solid men and made his surroundings those of well deserved competence, he belongs to a class of men concerning whom the first question was not always 'what is he worth?'—a query suggestive, in too many instances, of asking after the best trait, with the very strong imputations that wealth is all. Mr. Walker was a citizen of noble type. Believing in Chicago as the future home of a million people, and the fact destined to be realized within the period of his own lifetime or its possible span, all his devisings were for that future city which he saw beyond the straggling and temporary buildings about him. So closely was this Mr. Walker's policy that it brought him into contact and cooperation with whatever marked or helped our growth. Thus his own career, the few closing years of which were passed in retirement enforced by infirm health, is made very nearly the record and register of the progress of a city he so largely helped to build."

The Chicago Board of Trade, of which he was a member, passed the following resolutions on the morning when Mr. Walker's death was announced to it:

"Whereas, this board has learned of the decease, on yesterday, of Charles Walker, one of our oldest and most highly respected citizens, and who was long largely identified with the commercial interests, not only of this city, but of the whole country, and who was among the founders of this board, and one of its first presidents; and

"Whereas, we deem it due to his memory that this body should give expression to its sense of the general loss felt in the demise of one so well, so long and so favorably known; therefore

"Resolved, that in the death of Charles Wralker we recognize the loss to tlncity of Chicago of one of her purest and best citizens, one, who by his sagacity and foresight was among the first to claim for it that future which we now recognize as its destiny, and who was ever foremost in all enterprises that tended to contribute to its highest prosperity.

"Resolved, that while we bow with reverence to the decrees of that God whom he so long and faithfully served and who has now called him to that rest which remains for those who put their trust in Him, we claim the privilege of pointing to his record of life and his character as worthy of imitation by all who would attain to that place in the affections of their fellowmen that will cause their memories to be held in high regard and who would desire for their epitaph: 'Well done, good and faithful servant and brother.'

"Resolved, that to the bereaved family and friends of the deceased we tender our heartfelt condolence and sympathy; but we rejoice that in their hour of affliction they are not called to mourn as those who have no hope in the future for him who has been called away from their midst.

"Resolved, that these resolutions be engrossed on the records of this board, and a duly certified copy of the same be transmitted to the family of the deceased.

"Resolved, that as a mark of respect to the memory of our brother, this board do now adjourn."

A touching tribute to the character of Mr. Walker was made by Charles Randolph, one of the former presidents of the board, after which the board adjourned. Mr. Randolph said: "Mr. Walker was one of the pioneers, not only of this city, but of the great west, and today very much of the enterprise and the thrift which distinguished this people can be traced back to the original centers of which he was one of the most prominent. Mr. Walker came to this city in 1835. It was then a place of very trifling magnitude. He came here and established a business, which at that time required considerable nerve. He founded a small business, whicl> in the course of a few years became the largest house of its class in the country. And I venture the assertion that there was no man throughout the length and breadth of this community whose commercial standing was higher than that of Charles Walker. He was identified with all the public improvements carried on in this traveling over Europe in the interests of the house, spending five months in Russia. He holds membership in the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Stock Exchange, the New York Produce Exchange, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Duluth Board of Trade and the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce.

  1.   Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, a Century of Marvelous Growth v. 4.