The very first canal celebration turned into a riot.
The groundbreaking for the construction of the I&M Canal took place at Bridgeport (then a separate town from Chicago) on the 4th of July in 1836. A great deal has been written about what transpired that day, and sorting out fact from fiction is no easy task. We do know that Canal Commissioners Gurdon Hubbard and William B. Archer gave speeches celebrating the commencement of canal construction. Hubbard had first arrived in Chicago in 1818, and he noted the sharp contrast between the “uninhabited waste” that was Chicago in those days with the prosperous little village of the present day. (Chicago was not incorporated as a city until 1837.) After partaking of some refreshments the party boarded a steamer back to Chicago, but they were soon “assailed by a small corps of Irishmen, who stationing themselves at the stone quarry on the banks of the river, showered full vollies of stones amidst the thick crowd of ladies and gentlemen on the upper deck. The order was immediately given ‘to land.’ Some fifty passengers leaped ashore, some with bludgeons. . . The assailants were soon led, covered with blood and wounds captive to the boat, where they were safely lodged in the hold, and brought into town.
An earlier account appeared in the Chicago Democrat but it did not mention canal construction. “A few of our more turbulent citizens, and those who were lovers of fun and frolic, attempted to visit our neighboring town, Canal Port. . . and for that purpose having chartered the Steam Boat Chicago, and two schooners, started for that town.” The Democrat concluded that the altercation resulted in “a number of broken heads and bloody noses. Thus was the Fourth of July celebrated by the Chicagoans.”
An eyewitness, John L. Wilson, stated that “a squad of men on the banks of the narrow river, without any cause, began throwing stones into the steamer, breaking the cabin windows, and injuring one or two ladies, and keeping up the fusillade until a detachment of a dozen or more ‘old settlers’ jumped ashore (or rather, into the shallow water), and charged among them.” Canal Commissioner Gurdon Hubbard led others ashore, including Mark Beaubien and John H. Kinzie, to confront the ruffians. “The weapons used were only those brought into action in the ‘manly art of self-defense,’ but they proved exceedingly efficient,” remarked Wilson years later.