ILLINOIS STATE ARCHIVES
From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
COMMUNICATION FROM THE CORONER TO THE MAYOR CONCERNING UNSAFE ELEVATORS
January 13, 1879
Elisha Otis was manufacturing freight elevators in Yonkers, New York in 1852. The Otis company installed their first passenger elevator in 1857 in New York City. Power for these early hoisting cars was provided by steam engines. Faster hydraulic-driven elevators were introduced by Cyrus W. Baldwin, a Chicago based inventor, in the early 1870s. In Chicago the first steam-powered elevator was installed in 1864 in the Charles B. Farwell Store at 171 North Wabash Avenue. The city's first hydraulic elevator was manufactured by Baldwin and it was installed in 1876 at the Burley and Company store and warehouse on West Lake Street.
In the seventies and early eighties numerous five-story structures were built. They came to be known as "elevator buildings" in that their heights were proportional to the speed and safety of their elevators. Generally, for masonry buildings the bases of load bearing walls had to be twelve inches thick for the first story with another four inches for each additional story. Thus the load bearing walls of a five-story structure had to be at least twenty-eight inches at the base.
Chicago introduced the first skyscraper in 1885. The ten-story Home Insurance Building was completed that year at Adams and LaSalle Streets. Designer William Jenney had avoided massive supporting walls by employing an iron skeleton upon which floors and walls were hung. By 1889 the Otis Brothers of New York City had perfected the electric elevator. This development in combination with the metal frame structural design allowed buildings to soar.
In response to this and other communications the city council passed an ordinance for the inspection of elevators.
Points to Consider
What was the distance Charles O. Thompson, Jr., fell to his death? Approximately how many stories high was the building at 151 and 153 Fifth Avenue?
Which types of energy powered elevators at this time?
The last time you rode in an elevator did you notice any indication of municipal regulation of your conveyance?
Which kind of building did the elevator give rise to and how did these structures alter the urban landscape?