Q: I've been trying to find out why William B. Ogden Island was given the nickname, Goose Island. Sources say the island received its name from the early Irish immigrants raising geese in their backyards. While this is a warm, fuzzy story, is it true?
Although I would love to say I unearthed a hitherto unknown and exciting tale of how Goose Island came to named, sometimes a goose is just a goose. But the Irish may or may not have kept them in their backyards.
The oblong island lies on the North Branch of the Chicago River, tilting slightly to the northwest, and bounded roughly by North Avenue and Chicago Avenue. Division Street cuts straight through the center of the island, and many motorists passing over the bridges at Division probably have no idea they have just crossed an island.
One of the most authoritative sources for early Goose Island history is the typewritten manuscript by Charles Winslow titled "Historic Goose Island." The document, completed in 1931, includes valuable interviews with early island residents.
Based on this source and early newspaper accounts, historians believe the Goose Island name pre-dates the Irish settlement that became so closely associated with the area. In fact, Goose Island may have referred originally to a different, smaller island that was located about a mile further south, near the juncture of the north and south branches of the river. This island was reportedly a popular resting spot for flocks of migrating geese and other birds, giving rise to the name.
So where do the Irish come in, and how did the name transfer?
In the mid-1840s a devastating blight struck the potato crops in Ireland, leaving hundreds of thousands hungry and penniless. Perry Duis writes in his book, Challenging Chicago, that, as a consequence of the famine, "three large landholders in Kilgubbin, County Cork, and County Mayo evicted their peasants and paid for their passage to America." (93) These Irish peasants made their way to Chicago.
Jobs in Chicago in the late 1840s were scarce, and the Irish arrived with little money or resources. As a result, they became squatters, erecting a shantytown on unoccupied land just north of the river, near the site of the "original" Goose Island. When the Irish moved their settlement northwards to the present-day Goose Island, they took the island's name with them.
Accounts from the period clearly state that the Irish settlers raised livestock on the island, including cows, chickens and pigs. Whether or not they actually raised geese in their backyards is a bit unclear, but that certainly became the popular story.
As for the name "William B. Ogden Island," that seems to be a nickname, rather than an official name. William Ogden, Chicago's first mayor, was a major landowner of much of the Goose Island area. In 1853, he was responsible for having the North Branch Canal dug that transformed Goose Island into a true island. Consequently, the land was sometimes referred to as "Ogden's Island."
By the 1890s, Goose Island had developed an unsavory national reputation for its slums, crime and industrial pollution. In 1896, a news item in the New York Times about a fire at the American Varnish Works on the island described Goose Island as "a dilapidated locality." Partly in an attempt to combat this image of the neighborhood, Chicago alderman considered making "Ogden's Island" the official name in 1891, but the change apparently was never made. (Duis 107) Goose Island persists as the accepted name for the area.
In addition, the neighborhood has entertained many other nicknames throughout its early history. The Irish settlers gave the area the name "Kilgubbin" for the home they left in Ireland. In the 1860s, flames and smoke from the Peoples Gas coal plant on the island gave the neighborhood the name "Little Hell." And, finally, the fumes from tugboats moored at the island in the early twentieth century gave one unfortunate area the name "Smokey Hollow." (Duis 103)
But, whatever you want to call it, Goose Island has played an important role in Chicago's industrial history, and today it continues to thrive as a Protected Manufacturing District. For more information on island's history, check out the Goose Island photo essay in the Encyclopedia of Chicago online.
"Big Blaze in Chicago." New York Times. Oct. 27, 1896.
Duis, Perry R. Challenging Chicago: Coping with Everyday Life, 1837-1920. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Winslow, Charles S. "Historic Goose Island," typescript, 1931.
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