Monday, December 17, 2012

They called it the Wigwam

They called it the Wigwam, that wooden building that stood at the corner of Lake and Wacker in Chicago. It was a temporary building and thus perhaps the name; a one-purpose building that stood for a while and then was gone.

It was made entirely of wood and lighted with gas. There were no seats, except on the platform. The more than 10,000 guests all stood and were in constant danger of fire. The Chicago Tribune said it was “strong, compact and weatherproof.” The floor and galleries “to be a series of broad stairs or platforms on an incline which will allow short men every advantage.”

It was built for a tall man, a future President, who stood 6 feet and 4 inches, but he would never visit the building. Later, a short man, only 5 feet and four inches, would give his final address to the American people here. Once its mission was completed, the old Wigwam moved along like the Indian tribes before it.

You probably have already guessed that a Scottish man built the building. It cost $5,000 in 1860 and the money was donated by friends - mostly Republicans. On one side of the building was a large eagle and shield supporting a flagstaff. A banner was to fly with the statement “Irrepressible and Undivided.”

The Wigwam was built to hold the 1860 Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. On the appointed day, the Wigwam was filled with the supporters of Lincoln and, when Norman B. Judd placed his name in nomination, the building shook with cheers. The state of Indiana seconded the nomination and the Governor did a “comic, capering dance with hat and cane.” Cannons were fired from the tops of buildings and thousands cheered in the streets. The nomination was complete and as the Wigwam rattled from the cheers - its mission was now fulfilled.

The Wigwam was also the place where Senator Stephen Douglas made his last address to the Nation.  He said, “I express it as my conviction before God that it is the duty of every American citizen to rally around the flag of his country.” Thirty days later Douglas was dead and buried in Illinois’s smallest state park on 35th Street on the south side of Chicago.

The old Wigwam died a few years later on Sunday, November 14, 1869. It was then described as the worst building in all America. The Tribune reported that “Dense clouds of smoke obscured the moon, while at the same time angry flames illuminated the nearby streets.” Crowds of people came to watch the old building die and when it was over all that remained were “blackened beams, crisped rafters and charred cinders.” The President was dead. Douglas was dead. The Wigwam folded and now only a small plaque marks the spot.

The carpenter who built the building was John McEwen (sometimes spelled MacEwen). Born in Perthshire, Scotland in 1823, he came to Chicago in 1849 and married his wife Elizabeth in 1857. Elizabeth was ten years younger than her husband and the union would produce four children - John J., Paul, Alfred and Mary. McEwen was “well known as an early day builder and contractor” or so the paper said.

Putting McEwen’s life together from the sources that I have available has been difficult. We know that Elizabeth died July 2, 1901, at their residence, 512 LaSalle Ave. The short announcement does not say where she was buried. John McEwen died in 1909 but the Chicago Tribune does not carry any notice of his death or any comments.

John McEwen, like the old building at Lake and Wacker, just folded his tent and left.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

One of our members and a reader of our postings owns a bed and breakfast in Appleton, Wisconsin. The web site is The direct number is 866-803-7814 and speak to Tom. Beautiful. You might want to visit sometime.

History Club Meeting Dates and Subjects:

January 5, 2013 - “Our Society’s History, 1875-1885", Wayne Rethford, speaker

February 2, 2013 - “Sir Winston S. Churchill, The Greatest Statesman of the Twentieth Century.” Daniel N. Myers, speaker

March 2, 2013 - “Remembering Marshall Field’s”, Leslie Goddard, speaker

1 comment:

  1. John McEwen died March 31, 1909, and on April 3rd he was buried in Graceland Cemetery. His obituary (in the Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1909) notes that he died at his home, 512 La Salle, age 86, and calls him a "noted" builder.