Chicago Elevator First


This History article examines the city’s important role in 19th-century elevator progression.

Chicago played a critical role in the development of the modern passenger elevator during the 19th century. Aspects of this rich history have been explored in past articles and in your author’s book A History of Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century (available at elevatorbooks.com). However, none of these prior efforts addressed the question of the “first” elevator in Chicago. 

Questions about “firsts” are, from a historical perspective, complicated. To begin with, is the search for the first freight elevator, the first passenger elevator, or both? Is the search focused on the first use of an elevator in a particular building type? This investigation will attempt to find the answer to these questions and begins, as all modern searches do, with the internet.

The first link that appears when Googling “first elevator in Chicago” is for a Northwestern University Library “exhibits” page, which contains the following quote: “Chicago’s first steam-powered passenger elevator was in 1864. By 1870, C.W. Baldwin and William E. Hale in Chicago had developed hydraulic elevators, faster and smoother than the steam elevator.” A search for the origin of these claims leads to Frank A. Randall’s 1949 book History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago

“Chicago had a steam elevator in 1864 in the Charles B. Farwell Store, at 171-175 N. Wabash Avenue. In 1870, C.W. Baldwin of Chicago invented and installed the first hydraulic elevator in a store building for Burley and Co. on W. Lake Street.”[1] 

In 1964, Carl Condit reiterated this claim in his book, The Chicago School of Architecture

“The first steam-driven elevator in Chicago was installed in the Charles B. Farwell Store, at 171 North Wabash Avenue, in 1864. This was superseded in 1870 by the hydraulic elevator, the first of which was built and installed by C.W. Baldwin in the store and warehouse of Burley and Co. on West Lake Street.”[2]

While the repetition of these claims clearly implies that they “must” be true three times, their usefulness for this investigation was as a starting point. Furthermore, a closer look at these claims revealed a few problems. The first problem was that Charles B. Farwell did not have a store at 171-175 North Wabash Avenue in 1864. Additionally, it was not Charles, but his brother, John V. Farwell, who had a store in Chicago. Additionally, in 1864, the store was located at 44-46 Wabash Avenue; in 1870, John Farwell built a new store (destroyed in the 1871 Chicago fire) at 106-112 Wabash. Lastly, no contemporary accounts from 1864 or 1870 mention the presence of a “steam elevator” in either building. Thus, this claim appears to be false.

However, the pursuit of this claim was useful in that it led to John V. Farwell, who had begun his career with Cooley & Wadsworth & Co. in 1847. The company’s store was originally located at 205 Water Street. In 1857, it moved into a new building at 44-46 Wabash Avenue. The building, designed by Asher Carter & Augustus Bauer, was described as a “mammoth establishment” by the Chicago Tribune:

“The store at Nos. 42, 44 and 46 Wabash Avenue, occupied by this firm, is certainly one of the very finest, for the purposes of its design, in the Union. The main floor is 60 X by 120 ft, lighted on three sides, and below this a basement of the same size, high and well-lighted; above the main floor is a large salesroom of the same size, and above this are three immense store rooms. The building has a front of Athens marble and, architecturally, is very handsome. The entire building is to be heated by steam.”[3]

Farwell’s success at the firm was such that, in 1863, the business became Cooley, Farwell & Co., which became J.V. Farwell & Co. in 1865. The company quickly became one of Chicago’s leading retail firms. Prior to his death in 1908, Farwell recorded a series of “recollections” of his lengthy and successful career, which were later published by his son. One of his memories concerned the construction of the 1857 building: 

“We were then at 205 South Water Street. Our goods were hoisted into the second floor with a rope elevator, but business grew so fast that Mr. Cooley and myself determined to move to Wabash Avenue as soon as we could and build a larger store with a steam elevator.”[4] 

The building’s size (a basement plus five upper floors) warranted the investment in a steam elevator. The fact that the building was heated by steam meant that a boiler was in place to furnish the steam required to power the engine. While, unfortunately, no contemporary account that corroborates Farwell’s recollection has been found, based on this evidence, it may be reasonable to claim that Chicago’s first steam-powered elevator dates from 1857. This year is of interest, because that would make this installation contemporaneous with Otis’ installation in NYC’s E.V. Haughwout Building. Regrettably, the builder of the 1857 Chicago elevator remains a mystery.

The second claim, that Cyrus W. Baldwin installed the first hydraulic elevator in a building for Burley and Co. on West Lake Street in 1870, also appears to be false. The story of Baldwin and invention of the water-balance elevator was the subject of a previously published three-part article, “The Water-Balance Elevator” (ELEVATOR WORLD, August-October 2017). That investigation revealed that Baldwin installed his first four hydraulic elevators in New England in 1870 and 1871, that he did not arrive in Chicago until 1872 and that the installation of his first elevator in Chicago occurred that same year in a five-story building designed for Hale, Emerson & Co. The importance of this event was that it introduced William E. Hale to the world of vertical transportation. This led to the establishment of William E. Hale & Co., which played an important role in the elevator industry for the remainder of the 19th century.

An important first not directly addressed by either claim concerns the question of what (and where) was the first passenger elevator in Chicago. It is very unlikely that the 1857 steam elevator in the Cooley & Wadsworth & Co. building was designed to carry passengers. If this use had occurred, it would have received extensive coverage in the local press, and no such accounts have been found. One contender for the first passenger elevator in Chicago is a machine allegedly installed in the Richmond House hotel in 1865. The six-story hotel, designed by William B. Olmsted, opened in 1856. In January 1865, it came under new management, and the owners embarked on an extensive remodeling campaign. According to the Chicago Tribune, the plan to bring the hotel up-to-date included “arrangements to have an elevator placed in the house, enabling guests to reach their apartments in either story with ease and comfort.”[5] The fact the newspaper chose to place special emphasis on the word “elevator” suggests that a passenger elevator was something new in the city. However, the statement that the hotel’s new owners had “arrangements to have an elevator placed” in the building appears to speak of a future installation; thus, the precise date of this potential first cannot be confirmed.

The first confirmed passenger elevators in Chicago date from 1868. One of these elevators was installed in the Tremont House hotel. Like the Richmond House, this was an older hotel that had undergone a substantial remodeling. The five-story building, designed by John M. Van Osdel, was built in 1850. In 1868, the Chicago Evening Post reported that “one of Atwood’s vertical railway elevators — the best and safest now in use — has been put in for conveying guests to upper floors.”[6] The Chicago Tribune, in its reporting on the installation, noted that the elevator cost more than US$7,000.[7] The elevator was designed by Leonard Atwood and manufactured by Leonard Atwood & Co., which had offices in NYC and a factory in New Haven, Connecticut. The company advertised itself as manufacturer “of Atwood’s patent hoisting machinery, and vertical railway elevators for hotels, stores and public buildings.”[8] 

Atwood was not, however, the only Eastern company working in Chicago. In 1868, Otis Brothers installed a passenger elevator in Field, Leiter & Co.’s new building, according to the Chicago Evening Post, which wrote, “A steam elevator saves customers from the weariness of climbing stairs. They step into a little saloon, the conductor pulls his rope, and up they go with a bound, or down, with a whisk.”[9]

While the “identity” of first passenger elevator in Chicago cannot be stated definitively, one important first can be confirmed without question. The Open Board Building, designed by Laban B. Dixon & Frederick B. Hamilton, was completed in November 1870. The top four floors of the five-story building were “devoted exclusively” to use as offices. The Chicago Tribune reported that access to these floors would “be had by means entirely new to Chicago and which will make offices on the fifth floor even more desirable than on the floors nearer the ground.”[10] The “new” means of access was a steam passenger elevator, which would “land a person on the fifth floor in the same time and with less exertion than would be required to reach the second floor in the ordinary way.” [10] A detailed review published in the Chicago Tribune after the building opened reinforced the importance of this installation and placed the event in a national context:

“The crowning recommendation is that these upper floors are speedily reached, and without fatigue, by means of a passenger elevator, which is to be kept in constant use during business hours, making even the fifth story accessible in 30 s. These offices are not only thus easy to access, but, when reached, are found remarkably light and cheerful and are, moreover, rented at exceedingly low prices. The elevator has become well-established as an essential feature of every first-class hotel, but it is entirely new here in a business block. It has been demonstrated, however, in New York, in the case of the Equitable Life Insurance Society Co., on Broadway, and so successfully that the upper stories are preferred to those nearer the ground, the light and air being more abundant and pure.”[11]

These statements confirm that the Open Board Building was the first office building in Chicago to employ a passenger elevator. The Chicago Tribune’s reference to NYC’s Equitable Building — the first office building in the U.S. to employ passenger elevators — is also of interest in that the Open Board Building was scheduled for completion in November 1870, only five months after the opening of the Equitable Building. Therefore, it may be safe to assume that the Open Board Building was the second office building in the U.S. to employ a passenger elevator. Not a “first,” but not bad, for America’s Second City.


[1] Frank A. Randall. History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago, Urbana: University of Illinois Press (1949).
[2] Carl Condit. The Chicago School of Architecture, University of Chicago Press (1964).
[3] “Our Merchant Princes: A Mammoth Establishment,” Chicago Tribune, February 12, 1857.
[4] Some Recollections of John V. Farwell, Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. (1911).
[5] “Richmond House,” Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1865.
[6] “The Tremont House,” Chicago Evening Post, July 15, 1868.
[7] “The Tremont House,” Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1868.
[8] Ashcroft’s Railway Directory for 1868, NYC: John Ashcroft (1868).
[9] “Chicago Everywhere,” Chicago Evening Post, August 5, 1869.
[10] “Open Board Building,” Chicago Tribune,” October 7, 1870.
[11] “Open Board Building – Something New,” Chicago Tribune,” February 1, 1871.

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