"home rule" irishman's clay pipe and other forgotten remnants found at division and wells

at the southeast corner of wells and division in chicago’s near north neighborhood, excavation and the choreography of new development have been happening for some time. just last march, ground was broken on the mega-project at atrium village, which will transform a mid-rise residential complex constructed in 1977 into the site of four new high-rises. the original atrium village was conceived of by four local churches, with the goal of creating mixed-housing for chicagoans from different income levels and ethnicities. the building permit for the new project describes an end-resulting 400-unit, 31-story building, surrounded by a parking structure and ground level retail. plans also set aside land for the cta to rebuild the brown line stop at division (which was built at the turn of the century and demolished in 1949). all this signals the latest wave of transformation and displacement around the cabrini-green neighborhood.

in a couple visits paid to this lot while it remained empty, urban remains sought to find whatever buried historical fragments would undoubtedly be unearthed in breaking ground and excavating the block. not much of note was recovered but a single antique soda bottle and a clay tobacco pipe fragment. specifically, the first article was an iron pontiled “g. lomax” soda bottle which corroborates the image conjured by old maps, that there was activity or potentially a residence at the site in the 1850’s. the bottle’s maker, george lomax, emigrated to chicago in the 1850’s from england, and is listed as a 41-year old “master soda maker” in the 1860 census. his first botting operation was of mineral water, at canal street between lake and fulton but he was later the proprietor of his own soda water. the business ceased with his death in 1863, and definitively dates the artifact to the mid-19th century.

the second artifact recovered and photographed for posterity was a simple clay pipe, plain except for the cryptic phrase “home rule” inscribed in it. the phrase is a striking clue to its history. clay tobacco pipes with the same slogan stamped in the surface have been found in a number of privy pits in several cities, and more than likely belonged to first or second-generation irish immigrants. the slogan can be attributed to a movement seeking irish independence from british rule - a cause promoted as early as the 1850s but which gained popularity abroad from 1870-1900. the pipe’s presence in chicago most certainly marks the area’s demographic at that time, but also gives insight into the pride or solidarity experienced by the pipe’s owner.

fittingly, the corner of division/wells marks a neighborhood’s edge and a site of transition, but is also rich in its history of shifting populations and struggles over housing. in 1853, william ogden developed the nearby goose island, which quickly became a haven for poor irish immigrants (many of them squatters, who nicknamed the island kilgubbin, for the area of ireland where many had come from). the island was itself part of the neighborhood that would be dubbed “little hell” for its proximity to a large gas house at crosby and hobbie streets, whose furnaces lit the night sky and emitted the aura of burning coal.


at the time of the great fire of 1871, the land just west of goose island and north of the river remained relatively unoccupied, and post-fire re-building efforts initiated construction of make-shift houses there for people who had lost property in the conflagration. the neighborhood had been more or less a stretch of swamp, but was soon to be filled with roughly built shanties, “put up without respect for compass or street lines.” in addition to irish squatters, working class swedes heavily populated the neighborhood, having been gradually pushed north by the swift industrial developments around chicago’s waterways. in fact, in the two decades to follow the fire, a population would swell to become the largest swedish ‘town’ outside of the sweden and finland.


“little hell” was not just shaped by the nearby furnace, but by its slum-like conditions, and the generations of violence it became well-known for. little hell produced the north side’s first gangsters, and by turn of the century was dominated by a tight-knit population of approximately 13,000 italian-americans and sicilian immigrants. gang-related crimes and homicide were rampant. a particular intersection, “death corner” (virtually one block south and west of division/wells) was both the district’s gathering place and a hot-spot for unsolved murders. still chicago police were famously unable to win the cooperation even of terrorized residents. into the 1920’s, homicides in the area were fueled by bootlegging conflicts and mob rivalries intensified with prohibition.

the same neighborhood would seemingly keep its holding pattern into the mid-20th century. the demarcations that made “little hell” as a place were obliterated in the 1950’s during an “extension” or northern construction of towers in the cabrini-green housing projects. into the next decade, the neighborhood became more heavily racially segregated, and virtually all white residents had left the projects or shifted to adjacent neighborhoods. the post-war housing built from the 1940’s-1960’s did little to alleviate the poverty of its residents or change the area’s unstable reputation.

after waves of “renewal” efforts razed subsidized housing in cabrini-green, the latest seem to have at last gentrified the blocks adjacent to downtown. even as the landscape is continuously altered, the remnants of those who lived there long ago will perhaps remain unseen for longer than we imagine. recovering objects from just below the lived surface gives one the uncanny feeling that a place can ‘speak’ to its own history. almost anything unburied contains information – a household product or a trinket- but just a small string of text will let you literally read a message straight from the past. “home rule” echoes into the next centuries with the stray discovery of a miniature artifact.


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