SILAS B. COBB

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 143-146

SILAS BOWMAN COBB.  In the entire history of the world it has been vouchsafed to but few men to witness the growth of a municipality from a few dozen in population to a million and a quarter souls.  No story of Chicago's development can be written without cognizance of Silas B. Cobb as one of its initial forces.  It was such sturdy, self-reliant and hopeful young men as he that began the development of her greatness, and carried forward her growth in middle and later life.  Ever since the little band of Pilgrims established a home on the rocky and frost-locked shores of Massachusetts, New England has been peopled by a race of enterprising and adventurous men, whose habits of industry and high moral character have shaped the destinies of the Nation.  It is not strange, then, that the hamlet planted by their descendants on the swampy shore of Lake Michigan in the 30s' should become the commercial, industrial and philanthropical metropolis of America.

Silas W. Cobb, father of the subject of this sketch, gained a livelihood by various occupations, being in turn a farmer, a tanner and a tavern-keeper, and the son was early engaged in giving such assistance to his father as he was able.  When other boys were applying themselves to their books, he was obliged to employ his strength in support of the family.  His mother, whose maiden name was Hawkes, died when he was an infant, and he knew little of maternal love or care, growing up in the habit of self-reliance which carried him through many difficult enterprises and made him a successful man.  He was born in Montpelier, Vermont, January 23, 1812, and is now entering upon the eighty-fourth year of his age.  He is keenly active in mind and sound in body, taking a participating interest in all the affairs of life.

At the age of seventeen, young Cobb was regularly "bound out," according to the custom of those days, for a term of years, as apprentice to a harness-maker, having previously made a beginning as a shoemaker, which did not suit his taste. Within a twelvemonth after he was "articled" to the harness-maker, his employer sold out, and the new proprietor endeavored to keep the lad as an appurtenance to his purchase.  Against this the manly independence of the youth rebelled, and the new proprietor was obliged to give him more advantageous terms than he had before enjoyed.  Having become a journeyman, he found employment in his native State, but he was not satisfied with the conditions surrounding him.  After nine months of continuous toil and frugal living, he was enabled to save only $60, and he resolved to try his fortune in the new country to the then far West.

Joining a company then being formed at Montpelier to take up land previously located by Oliver Goss, the young man – having but just attained his majority – in spite of his father's remonstrance, set out.  From Albany, the trip to Buffalo was made by canal packet, and in the journey from home to this point all his little savings, except $7, were exhausted.  The schooner "Atlanta" was about to leave Buffalo for Chicago, and Mr. Cobb at once explained to the captain his predicament.  The fare to Chicago was just $7, but this did not include board, and Mr. Cobb was delighted, as well as surprised, when the captain told him to secure provisions for the journey and he would carry him to Chicago for the balance.  After a boisterous voyage of five weeks, anchor was dropped opposite the little settlement called Chicago.  Its hundred white and half-breed inhabitants were sheltered by log huts, while the seventy soldiers forming the garrison occupied Fort Dearborn.  And now a new hardship assailed the young pioneer.  Disregarding the bargain made in Buffalo, the tricky commander of the schooner refused to let him leave its deck until his passage money had been paid in full.  For three days he was detained in sight of the promised land, until he was delivered by a generous stranger, who came on board to secure passage to Buffalo.  His first earnings onshore were applied by Mr. Cobb in repaying the sum advanced by his kind deliverer.   Before the boat sailed he found employment on a building which James Kinzie was erecting for a hotel.  He knew nothing of the builder's trade, but had pluck and shrewdness, and took hold with such will that he was placed in charge of the work, at a salary of $2.75 per day – a very liberal remuneration in his estimation.  The building was constructed of logs and unplaned boards, and did not require a very high order of architectural skill, but within a few days a man, seeking the position, called attention to the lack of experience on the part of the youthful superintendent, and clinched the matter by offering to do the work for fifty cents less per day.

Mr. Cobb now invested his earnings in a stock of trinkets and began to trade with the Indians, by which he secured a little capital, and resolved to erect a building of his own and go into business.  The nearest sawmill was at Plainfield, forty miles southwest of Chicago, across unbroken prairies.  Getting his directions from an Indian, Mr. Cobb set out on foot to purchase the lumber for his building.  There being no trail, he was guided solely by the groves which grew at long intervals, and found only one human habitation on the way.  From one of the settlers at Plainfield he secured the use of three yoke of oxen and a wagon, with which to bring home his purchase of lumber.  He was but fairly started when a three-days rain set in, and the surface of the prairies became so soft that the wagon sank deep in the mud, making progress almost impossible and compelling an occasional lightening of the load by throwing off a part.  After sleeping three nights on the wagon with such shelter as could be made with boards from the load, with the rain beating down pitilessly and the wolves' howling the only accompaniment, he arrived at the Des Plaines River, still twelve miles from his destination.  The stream was so swollen by the rains that it was impossible to cross with the wagon, and the balance of the load was thrown off and the oxen turned loose to find their way back to their owner, which they did without accident.  After the rains were over and the ground became settled, the trip was repeated, the lumber recovered and brought safely to Chicago.  these are some of the experiences of the pioneer, and can never be forgotten by those who pass through them.

When Mr. Cobb had completed his building, which was two stories in height, he rented the upper story, and began business on the ground floor.  The capital consisted of $30, furnished by Mr. Goss, who was a partner in the venture, and was invested in stock for a harness shop.  The industry and business ability of the working partner caused the enterprise to prosper and grow, and at the end of a year he withdrew and set up business on his individual account in larger quarters.  His business continued to grow, and in 1848 he sold out at a good advance.  He then engaged in the general boot and shoe, hide and leather trade, in partnership with William Osborne, and found success beyond his fondest anticipations, and in 1852 he retired from mercantile operations.  About the same time, he was appointed executor of the estate of Joel Matteson and guardian of the latter's five children.  When this trust closed in 1866, the estate was found to have been vastly benefited by his shrewd management of the trust.

With characteristic foresight, Mr. Cobb early began to invest in Chicago realty, and the wisdom of his calculations has been abundantly demonstrated.  He has also been identified with semi-public enterprises, or those which largely concerned and benefited the city, while yielding a return to the investors.  In 1855 he was elected a director of the Chicago Gas Light and Coke Company, and subsequently one of the Board of Managers.  This position he held until he sold his interest and retired from the company in 1887.  It was his executive ability which was largely responsible for the establishment of cable roads in the city, those on State Street and Wabash Avenue being constructed under his advice and direction, while President of the Chicago City Railway.  He is still active in the councils of that company, as well as of the West Division horse railway.  For many years he was among the controlling members of the Chicago & Galena Union and Beloit & Madison Railroads, now a part of the Northwestern System (see biography of John B. Turner).  Mr. Cobb is a Director of the National Bank of Illinois, and several blocks of fine buildings in the business district contribute to his income, as the result of his faith in the city and sagacity in selection.

While being prospered, he has not forgotten to add to his own felicity by contributing to the happiness of others.  He has been one of the kindest husbands and fathers, and not only his family but the city of his home have often shared in his benefactions.  When the effort to raise $1,000,000 for the buildings of the new University of Chicago was straining every resource of the Trustees, Mr. Cobb came forward unsolicited and donated $150,000, assuring the success of the movement.  The "History of Chicago, " by John Moses, says: "It is believed that up to the time when this subscription was made, few, if any, greater ones had ever been made to education by a Chicago citizen at one time.  A noble building, the Cobb Lecture Hall, now stands on the University campus, a monument of the builder's liberality and public spirit.  As long as the great university endures, this memorial of Silas B. Cobb's life will stand, the corporation having pledged to rebuild the hall if it should be destroyed."  The Presbyterian Hospital and Humane Society of Chicago are also among the beneficiaries of his generosity, and Mr. Cobb will be remembered as one of the city's largest benefactors, as well as a successful business man.

In 1840 Mr. Cobb married Miss Maria, daughter of Daniel Warren, whose biography appears elsewhere in this work.  He thus describes his first meeting with his future bride:   "I arrived in Chicago in the spring of 1833.  In October of the same year I was occupying my new shop opposite the Kinzie Hotel – in the building of which my first dollar was earned in Chicago.  Standing at my shop one afternoon, talking with a neighbor, my attention was attracted by the arrival at the hotel of a settler's wagon from the East. With my apron on and sleeves rolled up, I went with my neighbor to greet the weary travelers and to welcome them to the hospitalities of Fort Dearborn, in accordance with the free and easy customs of 'high society' in those days. * * * * There were several young women in the party, two of them twin sisters, whom I thought particularly attractive, so much so that I remarked to my friend, after they had departed, that when I was prosperous enough so that my pantaloons and brogans could be made to meet, I was going to look up those twin sisters and marry one of them or die in trying."  The same pertinacity and acumen which characterized his every undertaking carried him through seven years of toil and privation until he had won the prize, which indeed she proved to be.  Their wedding took place on the 27th of October.  Her twin sister married Jerome Beecher (for sketch of whom see another page).

Mrs. Cobb passed away on the 10th of May, 1888. Of her six children, only two survive.  Two daughters died in infancy, and Walter, the first-born and only son, and Lenore, wife of Joseph G. Coleman, are also deceased.  The others are: Maria Louisa, wife of William B. Walker, and Bertha, widow of the late William Armour.

Being a man of firm principle, Mr. Cobb has always adhered to a few simple rules of conduct, in the adoption of which any youth may hope to win moderate success, at least.  He early discovered the disadvantage of being in debt, and made it a rule as soon as he got out to stay out.  The other words forming his motto are: Industry, economy, temperate habits and unswerving integrity.  A few more words from the pen of Mr. Cobb will fittingly close this brief article.  On the guests' register in the Vermont State Building at the World's Columbian Exposition, appeared this entry over his signature:  "A native of Vermont, I left Montpelier in April, 1833, and arrived at Fort Dearborn, now the city of Chicago, May 29th of the same year.  I have lived in Chicago from that time to the present day.  Every building in Chicago has been erected during my residence here."

                                -- Submitted on 9/3/99 by Sherri Hessick ( slhessick@crosswinds.net )