The Hidden Smokestack and the Ghost Post Office

Lake Street Bridge

There are things in Chicago that you can’t see because they are not there.  And then there are things in Chicago that you can’t see because they’re right in front of you.

In the photo above there are two things of note.  First, is the bridgetender’s house, one of two for the Lake Street Bridge across the Chicago River.  It was built in 1916 and is a fine piece of design by E.H. Bennett.  It is also a historic location.  This is where Chicago’s “First Post Office” was located.

The post office was one of the most important buildings in the city back when Chicago was still an outpost in the wilderness.  It was established in 1833 inside the general store owned by John Hogan.   The store wasn’t really much to look at — a very basic one-story utilitarian log cabin.  Drawings of the building at the time it was still standing make it look like it was three basic cabin designs put together in an attached row.  One drawing even shows indian teepees nearby.

But there’s a reason that we put “First Post Office” in quotation marks above.  That’s because this wasn’t the first post office in Chicago.  Even though there is a plaque nearby erected in 1937 by the Chicago’s Charter Jubilee Committee and “Authenticated by the Chicago Historical Society,” the first post office was actually the former Kinzie house, where Jonathan Bailey lived.  Bailey was Chicago’s first postmaster and worked from home, taking in mail from Niles, Michigan, and relaying it to the city’s early settlers.  He was appointed Chicago postmaster in 1831, but the Hogan cabin didn’t even exist until 1833.  Hogan started out as Bailey’s postal clerk, and later became postmaster, himself.  It was only then, after Bailey ditched swampy Chicago for the bustling metropolis of Saint Louis, that Hogan became the city’s second postmaster.

The second interesting thing in the photograph above is just to the left of the bridgehouse.  It looks like some kind of support or monument or other important piece of historic infrastructure.  It’s actually a smokestack.  Thousands of people walk past it every day and never even notice it; perhaps assuming it’s part of the bridge.  They might be right.

The reason we know it’s a smokestack is that we’ve seen it belching diesel smoke.  Both times were very early on Sunday mornings, suggesting that we keep accidentally catching some kind of a monthly generator test.  But a generator for what?  Some of the nearby skyscrapers?  For the lights in the CTA Blue Line tunnel directly below?  For lifting the Lake Street Bridge up and down?  Sadly, in spite of a good bit of research, this answer remains a mystery.   If you have a theory, or an answer, please leave a comment below and let us know.


Location: North Wacker Drive and West Lake Street, The Loop

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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