William Hamilton Mitchell may have been one of the last.
By Megan McKinney
When he went to sleep forever during the night of March 8, 1910, William H. Mitchell would have turned 93 the following morning. He had used those years well, accomplishing far more than could be expected of any three men. He had married three women, sired three families, traveled by foot from Missouri to California and founded a dynasty that would be known throughout the Western world—plus China. It is that dynasty, the banking Mitchells, we will study over the coming weeks.
As a young man William left the Ohio farm of his 1817 birth to establish a flour flat-boating business, transporting the refined grain from Pittsburgh to Chicago.
However, the Gold Rush was beckoning, and in 1849—like his fellow future tycoon, Philip D. Armour—he walked through the great America West.
Beside him was his ox team as they slowly moved to join other 49ers in California, where he made money transporting goods and the gold some miners were finding.
Then it was back to the Mississippi River, where he joined the Alton Packet Co. as an active promoter, but not for long.
In 1852, he sold out and, according to legend, “built” the Alton and St. Louis Railway, later the Chicago and Alton.
While still in Alton, William found his life calling when he became president of the First National Bank of Alton. Although he remained a banker, in 1874, he moved on to Chicago and soon became permanently identified with Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, which was established with $500,000 capital. At the same time another Real Man was emerging from college. William’s 21-year-old son, John J. Mitchell, began learning banking from the absolute bottom, messenger boy. During the next four years he worked his way up through Illinois Trust and Savings to assistant cashier—at a point when the bank was slipping badly. The $500,000 capital was drifting down to $100,000.
According to a Chicago Tribune article three decades later, “Directors were gloomy. There was talk of closing the bank.” But William Mitchell’s son, assistant cashier John J., thought he could pull the bank through the depression…”Try it,” said the bank directors to young John J. “We’ll make you president—we’ll give you a chance.”
He did. And they did. Suddenly, William, was working for his son, John J.
The future Illinois Trust and Savings headquarters built in 1896 from a design by Daniel Burnham.
Thus begins the amazing story of John J. Mitchell, assistant cashier turned bank president, with the Tribune article of July 7, 1907, continuing, “Today the Mitchell bank is the largest financial institution in the west and its president (still John J. Mitchell) receives a larger salary than that paid any bank official in America, with one New York exception.”
Classic Chicago Publisher Megan McKinney will continue the John J. Mitchell story next week in her series on the Mitchells of Chicago. Stay with us over the coming weeks and you will come to the dynasty’s final treasure, below.
Villa La Pietra in the low hills above Florence, Italy.
Author Photo: Robert F. Carl