09:30 AM - 11:00 AM
21 October 2023

Roswell B. Mason: Railroad Builder, Chicago Mayor

History & Heritage

Roswell Mason lived in an exciting transition period when transportation was moving from canals to railroads. He started his Civil Engineering career in 1822 as a rodman on an engineering crew on the Erie canal. Between 1823 and 1837 he worked on several other canals, until in 1837 he was made Chief Engineer on the Housatonic Railroad. In 1846 he was hired as Chief Engineer for the New York & New Haven Railroad. In 1851 he moved to Chicago and became the Chief Engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad and spent the next 5 years leading the construction of 704 miles of railroad, the longest railroad in the world at the time. In 1857 Mason was the key witness for the railroads in the famous Rock Island Bridge lawsuit. The steamboat Effie Afton hit a pier of the Rock Island Bridge across the Mississippi River, and sank. The boat company sued the railroads claiming bridges blocked boat navigation on the rivers. Mason and the attorney for the case, Abraham Lincoln, became good friends. In 1869 Mason was elected to a term as Mayor of Chicago with a promise to fight corruption in City Hall. On October 9, 1871, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern in her barn, starting one of the worst fires in U.S. history. Despite all of Roswell Mason’s Civil Engineering accomplishments, he is probably most remembered for his expert handling of events during and after the Chicago Fire.