CAPT. JOHN PRINDIVILLE

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 129-131

CAPT. JOHN PRINDIVILLE, whose name is a synonym for honesty, courage and generosity among the early residents of Chicago, was born in Ireland, September 7, 1826.  The names of his parents were Maurice Prindiville and Catharine Morris.  While a boy at school Maurice Prindiville ran away from home and went to sea, making a voyage to India, thereby gratifying his thirst for adventure and forfeiting the opportunity to enter Trinity College at Dublin.  Returning to his native land, he there married Miss Morris, and in 1835 came with his family to America.  After spending a year at Detroit, he came to Chicago, where he was for several years in charge of Newbury & Dole’s grain warehouse.  With his family, he took up his residence in a log house on Chicago Avenue, at the northern terminus of Wolcott (now North State) Street, which was subsequently extended.  The locality was long known as “the Prindiville Patch.”  The nearest house was Judge Brown’s residence, on the west side of Wolcott Street, between Ontario and Ohio Streets, the only one between Prindiville’s and River Street, the intervening territory being covered with thick woods.  Indians and wild beasts were numerous in the vicinity at that time, and John Prindiville became quite familiar with the Indians and learned to speak several of their dialects.  His father and he were firm friends of Chief Waubansee and others, and always espoused their cause in resisting the encroachments of the whites upon their rights and domains.

As a boy John was noted for his dare-devil pranks, though always popular with his comrades, whom he often led into difficulties, out of which he usually succeeded in bringing them without serious results.  He was one of the first students at St. Mary’s College, which was located at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Madison Street.  Upon one occasion, he led a number of students upon a floating cake of ice near the shore of the lake.  The wind suddenly changed, and, before they were aware of their condition, floated their precarious barge out into the lake.  Upon discovering the danger, John promptly led the way back to shore by wading through water breast deep.   This prompt action, aided by his reputation for honesty and truthfulness, saved him from punishment at the hands of the college authorities.  He always had a great desire to live upon the water, and at the age of eleven years he gratified this tendency by shipping as a cook on a lake schooner.  Two of the first vessels upon which he sailed were the “Hiram Pearson” and “Constitution.”  His menial position made him the butt of the sailors, but he took so readily to the life of a mariner and performed his duties so thoroughly and capably, that he rapidly won promotion to more responsible posts, and when but nineteen years of age became the master of the schooner “Liberty,” engaged in the lumber trade between Chicago and other Lake Michigan ports.  For about ten years he was the skipper of sailing-vessels, abandoning the last of these in 1855, after which he commanded several steamers, although that was never so much to his taste as sailing.  In 1860 he forsook marine life, though he has been ever since interested in the operation of lake craft.   From 1855 to 1865 he and his brother, Redmond Prindiville, operated a line of tugs upon the Chicago River.  During this time, in August, 1862, he had a narrow escape from instant death by the explosion of the boiler of the tug “Union.”  Though not regularly in command of the vessel, he chanced to be on board at that time, and had just left the wheel, going aft to hail another tug, when the accident occurred.  Captain Daly, who took his place at the wheel, and several others were instantly killed.

As a skipper, Capt. John Prindiville was noted for quick trips, always managing to out-distance any competing vessels, though he made wreck of many spars and timbers by crowding on canvas.  One of his standing orders was that sail should not be shortened without instructions, though it was allowable to increase it at anytime deemed desirable.   He was ever on the alert and always took good care of the lives of his crew and passengers.  He was a strict disciplinarian, but was always popular with his men, who considered it a special honor to be able to sail with him, and were ever ready to brave any danger to serve him.  These included a number of those who had been accustomed to curse him when he first began his marine career in the capacity of cook.

In 1850 Captain Prindiville commanded the brigantine “Minnesota” (which was built in Chicago, below Rush Street Bridge), the first American vessel to traverse the St. Lawrence River.  Her cargo consisted of copper from the Bruce Mines on Georgian Bay, and her destination was Swansea, Wales.  Owing to the stupidity and incapacity of the pilot, she ran upon the rocks in Lachine Canal and was obliged to unload.  This was a disappointment to the youthful captain, who was ambitious to be the first lake skipper to cross the ocean.  He and his brothers owned the schooner “Pamlico,” the first vessel loaded from Chicago for Liverpool.  This was in 1873, and the cargo consisted of twenty-four thousand seven hundred bushels of corn.

November 17, 1857, occurred one of the most disastrous storms which ever visited Lake Michigan, an event long to be remembered by the families of those who were sailors at that time.  A number of vessels were wrecked off the shore of Chicago, and many lives were sacrificed to the fury of the elements.  The number of fatalities would have been far greater but for the bravery and hardihood of Captain Prindiville and his crew, who manned the tug “McQueen” and brought many of the men to land in safety, though at the peril of their own lives.  For this act of bravery and humanity, on the evening of that day, Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, in behalf of the citizens, who had assembled at the Tremont House, tendered him a purse of $700 in gold.  This valuable testimonial he modestly declined, recommending that the money be distributed among the families of the crew of the “Flying Cloud,” all of whom had been lost in the storm.  This is only one of the many instances of his courage and self-sacrifice in behalf of others.  It is an acknowledged and well-known fact that he has saved more human lives than any other navigator on Lake Michigan.

Captain Prindiville is the father of eight living children, the offspring of two marriages.  On the 18th of November, 1845, Miss Margaret Kalehr became his bride.   After her death he married Margaret Prendergast, a native of Burlington, Vermont, who came to Chicago with her parents about 1840.   Of his three sons, Redmond is now an ex-captain of lake craft, and resides in Chicago.  James W. and Thomas J. are associated with their father in the vessel and marine business.

Captain Prindiville has been a steadfast Roman Catholic from boyhood, and is now a communicant of the Cathedral of the Holy Name.   He is broad-minded and tolerant toward all sincere Christians.  He is a member of the Royal Arcanum, and in national politics has been a life-long Democrat, but gives his support to any good citizen for local office, irrespective of party fealty.  He has been a member of the Chicago Board of Trade since 1856, and is now one of the oldest citizens connected with that body.  His noble, self-sacrificing spirit and unquestioned integrity of character have won a host of friends, by whom his memory will be cherished long after the mere man of millions has passed into obscurity.

                                -- Submitted on May 14, 2000 by Sherri Hessick ( shessick@flash.net )