The Dibben’s Choose Chicago

Chicago After the Fire (1874)
Library of Congress

Why would John and Olive Dibben decide to move to Chicago, Illinois to start their new life? I have wondered what they heard about the city that helped make their decision to move there from England in 1873. Perhaps they heard about the Chicago Fire in the English newspapers that occurred on October 8, 1871, and the rapid development that happened afterward. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, over 100,000 people lost their homes in the Chicago Fire, but by the end of 1872, most of the city had been rebuilt. The population grew from 298,977 in 1870 to 503,185 by 1880. This was a fast-growing, industrial city that needed immigration to supply all the laborers required to work in their factories. They especially needed skilled workers to make rails for all the railroad tracks connecting the country. What better opportunity for a blacksmith?

Bessemer Steel Process 1876 by Alfred R. Waud – Library of Congress

I have been unable to find any shipping or immigration records, so the Dibben’s may have entered through Canada first and then traveled by boat or railroad to Chicago. When they arrived in Chicago, John found work as a blacksmith at the North Chicago Rolling Mill Company.

Rolling Mill was the first “large iron and steel plant in the Chicago area.” When they added a Bessemer furnace in the 1870’s, “it allowed them to produce steel rails in huge quantities.” The company employed over 1,500 men in the 1870’s and expanded to over 6,000 in the 1880’s between their facilities in North Chicago and South Chicago near the Pullman Company. (Encyclopedia of Chicago)

John worked for 30 years at Rolling Mill as a blacksmith, laborer, pitman, steelworker, and in later years as a watchman until his retirement in 1912.

John and Olive first take a residence close to the mill as you will see in the map below, but they move often as their circumstances improve getting further away from the factory into a nicer neighborhood. (You can click on the map to see the years they lived in the different residences.) They finally settle at their home on 994 Wood Street from 1881-1902.

Chicago Map 1878
David Rumsey Collection – Rolling Mill in RED Dibben homes in BLUE

After coming to America, John and Olive had four more children in addition to Harry: Eleanor in 1875, Mary in 1878, Robert in 1881 and Walter in 1886. Sadly, their daughter Mary died in the same year she was born. Childhood illnesses could be just as fatal in America as they were in England. Fortunately, four of their seven children survived until adulthood.

Next Time: John and Olive Dibben did not come to America alone and there is another part of this story that I didn’t fully understand until I started digging into the Chicago City Directories and remembered a story my Grandmother told me.

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2 Responses to The Dibben’s Choose Chicago

  1. Kristie Paylor says:

    Oh, you left is with a cliff-hanger. Have you looked into what was going on in their home area in England, at the time, maybe via historical newspapers, to get an idea of why they left?

    Hope you are well.

    Kristie Paylor, RN, BSN, CMAS
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    • Rachelle says:

      I have been trying to find out more about the social history of the time period and what happens to all the brothers and sisters. I do have some ideas, but we may never know the ultimate reasons. Hopefully, you will enjoy the next few blog posts that do explore the opportunities they had in America and who decided to take the risk.

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