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The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago
A Biography of William B. Ogden
Jack Harpster
Other Formats
328 pages, 6 x 9, 26 Illus.

About the Book

William Butler Ogden was a pioneer railroad magnate, one of the earliest founders and developers of the city of Chicago, and an important influence on U.S. westward expansion. His career as a businessman stretched from the streets of Chicago to the wilds of the Wisconsin lumber forests, from the iron mines of Pennsylvania to the financial capitals in New York and beyond. Jack Harpster’s The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago: A Biography of William B. Ogden is the first biography of one of the most notable figures in nineteenth-century America.

Harpster traces the life of Ogden from his early experiences as a boy and young businessman in upstate New York to his migration to Chicago, where he invested in land, canal construction, and steamboat companies. He became Chicago’s first mayor, built the city’s first railway system, and suffered through the Great Chicago Fire. He had diverse business interests that included real estate, land development, city planning, urban transportation, manufacturing, beer brewing, mining, and banking, to name just a few. Harpster, however, does not simply focus on the business mogul; he delves into the heart and soul of the man himself—Ogden was a dedicated family man, a noted raconteur, a respected philanthropist, and a friend to many of the era’s rich and powerful.

The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago is a meticulously researched and nuanced biography set against the backdrop of the historical and societal themes of the nineteenth century. It is a sweeping story about one man’s impact on the birth of commerce in America. Ogden’s private life proves to be as varied and interesting as his public persona, and Harpster weaves the two together into a colorful tapestry of a life well and usefully lived.


Jack Harpster is the author of John Ogden, the Pilgrim (1609–1681): A Man of More Than Ordinary Mark


“This is a much needed full-length biography of William Butler Ogden, an uncommon doer who helped to shape Chicago, the Midwest and the   American railroad network.  The ‘real’ Ogden comes alive, a personality that previously has not been fully revealed.”—H. Roger Grant, author of Visionary Railroader: Jervis Langdon Jr. and the Transportation Revolution

“This is an insightful biography of a hugely important figure in Chicago history. Had Ogden not settled in frontier Chicago and become its preeminent capitalist and urban builder, the city might have remained a backwater settlement. Harpster has given us a nuanced and balanced treatment of Ogden’s raucous life and times.”—Donald L. Miller, author of City of the Century, The Epic of Chicago and the Making of Modern America     


Illinois State Historical Society Scholary Award, Award of Merit 2009

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