I exit the el at Clark and Lake, buy 19 dollars and 20 cents worth of stamps at the postal branch inside the James R. Thompson Center, and step outside onto the pink granite sidewalk lining La Salle Street. I've come here on a nature pilgrimage. Precisely 161 years and one month ago, on October 6, 1834, the last bear in Chicago was killed in this vicinity, and I've come to trace the path of its last few moments of life.
I discovered the description of its death in a book called Chicago Antiquities, self-published by Henry H. Hurlbut in 1881. The Chicago Collection at the Sulzer Library on Lincoln owns one of the 500 copies that were printed. The text on the flyleaf describes its contents as "original items and relations, letters, extracts and notes pertaining to Early Chicago; embellished with views, portraits, and autographs." Hurlbut interviewed John Sweeney, the carpenter who shot the bear, and according to him the animal first appeared in the area of Randolph and La Salle, a corner currently anchored by the two State of Illinois buildings, City Hall, and the Bismarck Hotel. Though plotted at the time, the streets in this area didn't yet exist. According to Hurlbut's reconstructed account, the bear "happened to be rambling through the thicket, or woods, in the neighborhood of Randolph Street, somewhere between LaSalle St. and the River" when it was encountered by Samuel George, a man who made his living baking bread in a shop on Lake Street.
There's no sign of anything resembling a thicket at Randolph and La Salle, and precious little nature at all as I contemplate my surroundings on a chilly November afternoon in 1995. The stone walls of the buildings rise up at right angles from the rigid plain of sidewalks. Across the way from me, on the west side of La Salle, a line of frail locust trees shivers in the wind. To my left, seven ginkgos grow out of metal grates in front of City Hall. All have lost their leaves and appear forlorn in their naked state.
After spotting the bear, Samuel George bolted back to the settlement to alert the residents. According to Hurlbut, "the wild deer, and the wolf, and the Indian, still lingered about, and many a settler who had journeyed to what they termed this far-away frontier, had brought from Ohio or New York, Pennsylvania or Vermont, his trusted rifle or shot-gun....In short, many had the shooting-irons ready loaded; and, of a crowd of villagers, whom the hallo-belloo had aroused, among the first who answered the summons were Ashbel Steele, who kept the...tavern on Lake Street, and John Sweeney, a carpenter, who had arrived here in the spring of that year. Bailey Courtney, a tailor, was also electrified with the news, and Courtney had a dog, and the dog too was excited, and they all hastily pushed forward to the onslaught. Coming in sight of the bear, we may say that Steele got the first shot at the varmint, which had started off on a trot, but the charge failed to hit him, and, as the dog was yelping at him furiously, he was induced to climb a tree."
The crew headed south after the bear, so I walk in that direction too. Across the street, on the west side of La Salle near Washington, six hawthorns stand like bare-limbed sculptures in black granite planters. On the east side, where I'm walking, tropical crotons and fig trees are clustered together behind the windows of American National Bank. A thin film of steam clouds the glass that separates them from the cold. For the next two blocks there are no trees at all, no signs of any representative of the natural world, until I reach Harris Bank on the south side of Monroe, where a few tall locusts stand. City trees have a rough life; it's a rare one that lives to be more than 40. These guys are the most mature specimens I've encountered thus far, but I suspect they weren't around when Kennedy was shot, much less when the bear was.
"Sweeney's turn now came and as the bear was quietly resting at the base of the limb [of a tree at the intersection of La Salle and Adams]...he says he deliberately took aim at the bear's head just back of his ears. Mr. S. assures us, that before he had time to blow smoke from the rifle, bruin came tumbling down very carelessly."
The bear would have a rough time finding a tree to climb at Adams and La Salle today. There are none in front of the Rookery, or 208 S. La Salle, or 190 S. La Salle, or the LaSalle National Bank buildings, and their stone facades reveal nothing of the bit of natural history that unfolded on this spot.
"Briefly we may say, the bear was dead," concludes Hurlbut. He "was drawn by an ox team on a sled to the meat-market of Edward Simmons on Lake Street, where his weight was found to be 400 lbs., and where he was skinned and dressed....The prevailing and notable food of the village then for some days was bear meat; all the taverns and most of the private houses had each a piece; every frying pan and gridiron in the settlement...was for a season redolent and reeking with bear's fat."
As I explore this stretch of roadway and history I'm puzzled by the idea of the thicket and brush that recur in the description and by the thought of a tree large enough for a bear to climb in the midst of what I was told was prairie. Upon my return from the pilgrimage I call Gerould Wilhelm at the Morton Arboretum. A coauthor of Chicago's botany bible, Plants of the Chicago Region, he's more likely than most to understand what transpired in the downtown landscape.
Wilhelm reminds me that Jean-Baptiste-Point Du Sable and various other settlers started moving into Chicago in the late 1700s. By 1834 their influence, particularly their drive to suppress wildfires, was apparent in the areas surrounding the settlement, even though they hadn't been "improved" in the sense of being cleared or built on. "This was more than enough time for parts of the land to grow up in brush," Wilhelm says. "It wouldn't have been a land anyone would describe as forest, but there could have been scattered trees." His best guess for what the bear might have climbed in its desperate attempt to escape its enemies was a black oak, a tree that thrives on sandy prairie soils.
Odd to think of the landscape of 1834 already being under the influence of the culture that would transform the prairie into the cement jungle I know and love today, where I ride the el and run my errands. Strange even to think of a book being written in 1881 about the "antiquities" of a city only 50 years old. Hurlbut acknowledges this irony in his introduction, justifying the title by the colossal nature of the change that had occurred. "A few decades have affected what in most cases the efforts of centuries have been required to accomplish," he writes. Since then we've piled on another hundred years, a blink in time by Eastern Hemisphere standards. But it's been more than enough time to shape the land into a state that would be unrecognizable to Sweeney--and even less so to a 400-pound black bear.