Friday, February 11, 2011

DANIEL BURNHAM. Manifest Destiny

In the mid eighties, I believe, on some kind of whim, without plan or destination, I drove north on US 93 from Las Vegas as far as Ely, Nevada. White Pine County. It was the most distant, godforsaken, hopeless place I had ever seen. By contrast (and some 100 years earlier) Daniel Burnham made the trip to Ely with some real expectations -- and characteristically -- a plan.

In a Chapter titled "The Long Childhood" Thomas Hines mentions Daniel Burnham' s "Nevada adventures and misadventures." And how "political and financial defeat had met him in the West."

In 1869, just 20 years after the Mexican War gained much of the American West as US Territory, Daniel Burnham left Chicago to prospect for silver in White Pine County Nevada. Nevada would have been "news." recently obtaining statehood. But more importantly, the California Goldrush of 1849 and the Comstock Lode of 1859 had proved that fortunes could be made in the new West (big fortunes). And the newly completed Union Pacific connecting Chicago to San Francisco made Nevada accessible.


Would Daniel Burnham have heard the words "Manifest Destiny" at the kitchen table of his parents home on the shores of Lake Erie? Had they discussed the Mexican War? Matthew Perry? Vera Cruz? Maybe. Maybe enought to spark young Burnham's imagination? Maybe.  But, surely, Daniel Burnham understood "Progress." And surely he understood that this trip would be one of the last great adventures in the disappearing American wilderness -- sweetened by the (possible) acquisition of some serious cash.


The "prospecting" scheme appears to have been hatched by Col. Cummings (can that be Col. Cummings of Fort Dearborn...earning his reputation during the Black Hawk Wars and cholera epidemic of 1832?) and financed by longtime friend Edward C. Waller (son of hugely successful attorney Henry Waller -- who just happened to be in Europe while son Edward was chipping away in Ely). The story is that Daniel and Edward returned to Chicago -- dead broke-- with a cattle drive. An interesting story, but it is doubtful that Edward Waller was EVER broke. Financed by his father, Edward went on to become a VERY successful Chicago real estate developer -- conceiving the Rookery (a Burnham and Root commission in 1888) and becoming an important patron of Frank Lloyd Wright.

A ride on the first transcontinental railroad. An adventure in the backwoods mountains of Nevada. A chance to see the disappearing west (one Buffalo Bill Cody could only recreate at the Columbian Exposition of 1893). Cowboys. Indians. A cattle drive to Chicago. An enduring friendship. And maybe, even, first hand stories of Fort Dearborn, Black Hawk and the founding of Chicago?

A plan that didn't quite play out? Well, yes. But, defeat? I think not.


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