The question of Sohlberg adjusted thus simply, if brutally, Cowperwood turned his attention to Mrs. Sohlberg. But there was nothing much to be done. He explained that he had now completely subdued Aileen and Sohlberg, that the latter would make no more trouble, that he was going to pension him, that Aileen would remain permanently quiescent. He expressed the greatest solicitude for her, but Rita was now sickened of this tangle. She had loved him, as she thought, but through the rage of Aileen she saw him in a different light, and she wanted to get away. His money, plentiful as it was, did not mean as much to her as it might have meant to some women; it simply spelled luxuries, without which she could exist if she must. His charm for her had, perhaps, consisted mostly in the atmosphere of flawless security, which seemed to surround him—a glittering bubble of romance. That, by one fell attack, was now burst. He was seen to be quite as other men, subject to the same storms, the same danger of shipwreck. Only he was a better sailor than most. She recuperated gradually; left for home; left for Europe; details too long to be narrated. Sohlberg, after much meditating and fuming, finally accepted the offer of Cowperwood and returned to Denmark. Aileen, after a few days of quarreling, in which he agreed to dispense with Antoinette Nowak, returned home.
Cowperwood was in no wise pleased by this rough denouement. Aileen had not raised her own attractions in his estimation, and yet, strange to relate, he was not unsympathetic with her. He had no desire to desert her as yet, though for some time he had been growing in the feeling that Rita would have been a much better type of wife for him. But what he could not have, he could not have. He turned his attention with renewed force to his business; but it was with many a backward glance at those radiant hours when, with Rita in his presence or enfolded by his arms, he had seen life from a new and poetic angle. She was so charming, so naive—but what could he do?
For several years thereafter Cowperwood was busy following the Chicago street-railway situation with increasing interest. He knew it was useless to brood over Rita Sohlberg—she would not return—and yet he could not help it; but he could work hard, and that was something. His natural aptitude and affection for street-railway work had long since been demonstrated, and it was now making him restless. One might have said of him quite truly that the tinkle of car-bells and the plop of plodding horses' feet was in his blood. He surveyed these extending lines, with their jingling cars, as he went about the city, with an almost hungry eye. Chicago was growing fast, and these little horse-cars on certain streets were crowded night and morning—fairly bulging with people at the rush-hours. If he could only secure an octopus-grip on one or all of them; if he could combine and control them all! What a fortune! That, if nothing else, might salve him for some of his woes—a tremendous fortune—nothing less. He forever busied himself with various aspects of the scene quite as a poet might have concerned himself with rocks and rills. To own these street-railways! To own these street-railways! So rang the song of his mind.
Like the gas situation, the Chicago street-railway situation was divided into three parts—three companies representing and corresponding with the three different sides or divisions of the city. The Chicago City Railway Company, occupying the South Side and extending as far south as Thirty-ninth Street, had been organized in 1859, and represented in itself a mine of wealth. Already it controlled some seventy miles of track, and was annually being added to on Indiana Avenue, on Wabash Avenue, on State Street, and on Archer Avenue. It owned over one hundred and fifty cars of the old-fashioned, straw-strewn, no-stove type, and over one thousand horses; it employed one hundred and seventy conductors, one hundred and sixty drivers, a hundred stablemen, and blacksmiths, harness-makers, and repairers in interesting numbers. Its snow-plows were busy on the street in winter, its sprinkling-cars in summer. Cowperwood calculated its shares, bonds, rolling-stock, and other physical properties as totaling in the vicinity of over two million dollars. The trouble with this company was that its outstanding stock was principally controlled by Norman Schryhart, who was now decidedly inimical to Cowperwood, or anything he might wish to do, and by Anson Merrill, who had never manifested any signs of friendship. He did not see how he was to get control of this property. Its shares were selling around two hundred and fifty dollars.
The North Chicago City Railway was a corporation which had been organized at the same time as the South Side company, but by a different group of men. Its management was old, indifferent, and incompetent, its equipment about the same. The Chicago West Division Railway had originally been owned by the Chicago City or South Side Railway, but was now a separate corporation. It was not yet so profitable as the other divisions of the city, but all sections of the city were growing. The horse-bell was heard everywhere tinkling gaily.
Standing on the outside of this scene, contemplating its promise, Cowperwood much more than any one else connected financially with the future of these railways at this time was impressed with their enormous possibilities—their enormous future if Chicago continued to grow, and was concerned with the various factors which might further or impede their progress.
Not long before he had discovered that one of the chief handicaps to street-railway development, on the North and West Sides, lay in the congestion of traffic at the bridges spanning the Chicago River. Between the street ends that abutted on it and connected the two sides of the city ran this amazing stream—dirty, odorous, picturesque, compact of a heavy, delightful, constantly crowding and moving boat traffic, which kept the various bridges momentarily turning, and tied up the street traffic on either side of the river until it seemed at times as though the tangle of teams and boats would never any more be straightened out. It was lovely, human, natural, Dickensesque—a fit subject for a Daumier, a Turner, or a Whistler. The idlest of bridge-tenders judged for himself when the boats and when the teams should be made to wait, and how long, while in addition to the regular pedestrians a group of idlers stood at gaze fascinated by the crowd of masts, the crush of wagons, and the picturesque tugs in the foreground below. Cowperwood, as he sat in his light runabout, annoyed by a delay, or dashed swiftly forward to get over before a bridge turned, had long since noted that the street-car service in the North and West Sides was badly hampered. The unbroken South Side, unthreaded by a river, had no such problem, and was growing rapidly.
Because of this he was naturally interested to observe one day, in the course of his peregrinations, that there existed in two places under the Chicago River—in the first place at La Salle Street, running north and south, and in the second at Washington Street, running east and west—two now soggy and rat-infested tunnels which were never used by anybody—dark, dank, dripping affairs only vaguely lighted with oil-lamp, and oozing with water. Upon investigation he learned that they had been built years before to accommodate this same tide of wagon traffic, which now congested at the bridges, and which even then had been rapidly rising. Being forced to pay a toll in time to which a slight toll in cash, exacted for the privilege of using a tunnel, had seemed to the investors and public infinitely to be preferred, this traffic had been offered this opportunity of avoiding the delay. However, like many another handsome commercial scheme on paper or bubbling in the human brain, the plan did not work exactly. These tunnels might have proved profitable if they had been properly built with long, low-per-cent. grades, wide roadways, and a sufficiency of light and air; but, as a matter of fact, they had not been judiciously adapted to public convenience. Norman Schryhart's father had been an investor in these tunnels, and Anson Merrill. When they had proved unprofitable, after a long period of pointless manipulation—cost, one million dollars—they had been sold to the city for exactly that sum each, it being poetically deemed that a growing city could better afford to lose so disturbing an amount than any of its humble, ambitious, and respectable citizens. That was a little affair by which members of council had profited years before; but that also is another story.
After discovering these tunnels Cowperwood walked through them several times—for though they were now boarded up, there was still an uninterrupted footpath—and wondered why they could not be utilized. It seemed to him that if the street-car traffic were heavy enough, profitable enough, and these tunnels, for a reasonable sum, could be made into a lower grade, one of the problems which now hampered the growth of the North and West Sides would be obviated. But how? He did not own the tunnels. He did not own the street-railways. The cost of leasing and rebuilding the tunnels would be enormous. Helpers and horses and extra drivers on any grade, however slight, would have to be used, and that meant an extra expense. With street-car horses as the only means of traction, and with the long, expensive grades, he was not so sure that this venture would be a profitable one.
However, in the fall of 1880, or a little earlier (when he was still very much entangled with the preliminary sex affairs that led eventually to Rita Sohlberg), he became aware of a new system of traction relating to street-cars which, together with the arrival of the arc-light, the telephone, and other inventions, seemed destined to change the character of city life entirely.
Recently in San Francisco, where the presence of hills made the movement of crowded street-railway cars exceedingly difficult, a new type of traction had been introduced—that of the cable, which was nothing more than a traveling rope of wire running over guttered wheels in a conduit, and driven by immense engines, conveniently located in adjacent stations or "power-houses." The cars carried a readily manipulated "grip-lever," or steel hand, which reached down through a slot into a conduit and "gripped" the moving cable. This invention solved the problem of hauling heavily laden street-cars up and down steep grades. About the same time he also heard, in a roundabout way, that the Chicago City Railway, of which Schryhart and Merrill were the principal owners, was about to introduce this mode of traction on its lines—to cable State Street, and attach the cars of other lines running farther out into unprofitable districts as "trailers." At once the solution of the North and West Side problems flashed upon him—cables.
Outside of the bridge crush and the tunnels above mentioned, there was one other special condition which had been for some time past attracting Cowperwood's attention. This was the waning energy of the North Chicago City Railway Company—the lack of foresight on the part of its directors which prevented them from perceiving the proper solution of their difficulties. The road was in a rather unsatisfactory state financially—really open to a coup of some sort. In the beginning it had been considered unprofitable, so thinly populated was the territory they served, and so short the distance from the business heart. Later, however, as the territory filled up, they did better; only then the long waits at the bridges occurred. The management, feeling that the lines were likely to be poorly patronized, had put down poor, little, light-weight rails, and run slimpsy cars which were as cold as ice in winter and as hot as stove-ovens in summer. No attempt had been made to extend the down-town terminus of the several lines into the business center—they stopped just over the river which bordered it at the north. (On the South Side Mr. Schryhart had done much better for his patrons. He had already installed a loop for his cable about Merrill's store.) As on the West Side, straw was strewn in the bottom of all the cars in winter to keep the feet of the passengers warm, and but few open cars were used in summer. The directors were averse to introducing them because of the expense. So they had gone on and on, adding lines only where they were sure they would make a good profit from the start, putting down the same style of cheap rail that had been used in the beginning, and employing the same antique type of car which rattled and trembled as it ran, until the patrons were enraged to the point of anarchy. Only recently, because of various suits and complaints inaugurated, the company had been greatly annoyed, but they scarcely knew what to do, how to meet the onslaught. Though there was here and there a man of sense—such as Terrence Mulgannon, the general superintendent; Edwin Kaffrath, a director; William Johnson, the constructing engineer of the company—yet such other men as Onias C. Skinner, the president, and Walter Parker, the vice-president, were reactionaries of an elderly character, conservative, meditative, stingy, and, worst of all, fearful or without courage for great adventure. It is a sad commentary that age almost invariably takes away the incentive to new achievement and makes "Let well enough alone" the most appealing motto.
Mindful of this, Cowperwood, with a now splendid scheme in his mind, one day invited John J. McKenty over to his house to dinner on a social pretext. When the latter, accompanied by his wife, had arrived, and Aileen had smiled on them both sweetly, and was doing her best to be nice to Mrs. McKenty, Cowperwood remarked:
"McKenty, do you know anything about these two tunnels that the city owns under the river at Washington and La Salle streets?"
"I know that the city took them over when it didn't need them, and that they're no good for anything. That was before my time, though," explained McKenty, cautiously. "I think the city paid a million for them. Why?"
"Oh, nothing much," replied Cowperwood, evading the matter for the present. "I was wondering whether they were in such condition that they couldn't be used for anything. I see occasional references in the papers to their uselessness."
"They're in pretty bad shape, I'm afraid," replied McKenty. "I haven't been through either of them in years and years. The idea was originally to let the wagons go through them and break up the crowding at the bridges. But it didn't work. They made the grade too steep and the tolls too high, and so the drivers preferred to wait for the bridges. They were pretty hard on horses. I can testify to that myself. I've driven a wagon-load through them more than once. The city should never have taken them over at all by rights. It was a deal. I don't know who all was in it. Carmody was mayor then, and Aldrich was in charge of public works."
He relapsed into silence, and Cowperwood allowed the matter of the tunnels to rest until after dinner when they had adjourned to the library. There he placed a friendly hand on McKenty's arm, an act of familiarity which the politician rather liked.
"You felt pretty well satisfied with the way that gas business came out last year, didn't you?" he inquired.
"I did," replied McKenty, warmly. "Never more so. I told you that at the time." The Irishman liked Cowperwood, and was grateful for the swift manner in which he had been made richer by the sum of several hundred thousand dollars.
"Well, now, McKenty," continued Cowperwood, abruptly, and with a seeming lack of connection, "has it ever occurred to you that things are shaping up for a big change in the street-railway situation here? I can see it coming. There's going to be a new motor power introduced on the South Side within a year or two. You've heard of it?"
"I read something of it," replied McKenty, surprised and a little questioning. He took a cigar and prepared to listen. Cowperwood, never smoking, drew up a chair.
"Well, I'll tell you what that means," he explained. "It means that eventually every mile of street-railway track in this city—to say nothing of all the additional miles that will be built before this change takes place—will have to be done over on an entirely new basis. I mean this cable-conduit system. These old companies that are hobbling along now with an old equipment will have to make the change. They'll have to spend millions and millions before they can bring their equipment up to date. If you've paid any attention to the matter you must have seen what a condition these North and West Side lines are in."
"It's pretty bad; I know that," commented McKenty.
"Just so," replied Cowperwood, emphatically. "Well, now, if I know anything about these old managements from studying them, they're going to have a hard time bringing themselves to do this. Two to three million are two to three million, and it isn't going to be an easy matter for them to raise the money—not as easy, perhaps, as it would be for some of the rest of us, supposing we wanted to go into the street-railway business."
"Yes, supposing," replied McKenty, jovially. "But how are you to get in it? There's no stock for sale that I know of."
"Just the same," said Cowperwood, "we can if we want to, and I'll show you how. But at present there's just one thing in particular I'd like you to do for me. I want to know if there is any way that we can get control of either of those two old tunnels that I was talking to you about a little while ago. I'd like both if I might. Do you suppose that is possible?"
"Why, yes," replied McKenty, wondering; "but what have they got to do with it? They're not worth anything. Some of the boys were talking about filling them in some time ago—blowing them up. The police think crooks hide in them."
"Just the same, don't let any one touch them—don't lease them or anything," replied Cowperwood, forcefully. "I'll tell you frankly what I want to do. I want to get control, just as soon as possible, of all the street-railway lines I can on the North and West Sides—new or old franchises. Then you'll see where the tunnels come in."
He paused to see whether McKenty caught the point of all he meant, but the latter failed.
"You don't want much, do you?" he said, cheerfully. "But I don't see how you can use the tunnels. However, that's no reason why I shouldn't take care of them for you, if you think that's important."
"It's this way," said Cowperwood, thoughtfully. "I'll make you a preferred partner in all the ventures that I control if you do as I suggest. The street-railways, as they stand now, will have to be taken up lock, stock, and barrel, and thrown into the scrap heap within eight or nine years at the latest. You see what the South Side company is beginning to do now. When it comes to the West and North Side companies they won't find it so easy. They aren't earning as much as the South Side, and besides they have those bridges to cross. That means a severe inconvenience to a cable line. In the first place, the bridges will have to be rebuilt to stand the extra weight and strain. Now the question arises at once—at whose expense? The city's?"
"That depends on who's asking for it," replied Mr. McKenty, amiably.
"Quite so," assented Cowperwood. "In the next place, this river traffic is becoming impossible from the point of view of a decent street-car service. There are waits now of from eight to fifteen minutes while these tows and vessels get through. Chicago has five hundred thousand population to-day. How much will it have in 1890? In 1900? How will it be when it has eight hundred thousand or a million?"
"You're quite right," interpolated McKenty. "It will be pretty bad."
"Exactly. But what is worse, the cable lines will carry trailers, or single cars, from feeder lines. There won't be single cars waiting at these draws—there will be trains, crowded trains. It won't be advisable to delay a cable-train from eight to fifteen minutes while boats are making their way through a draw. The public won't stand for that very long, will it, do you think?"
"Not without making a row, probably," replied McKenty.
"Well, that means what, then?" asked Cowperwood. "Is the traffic going to get any lighter? Is the river going to dry up?"
Mr. McKenty stared. Suddenly his face lighted. "Oh, I see," he said, shrewdly. "It's those tunnels you're thinking about. Are they in any shape to be used?"
"They can be made over cheaper than new ones can be built."
"True for you," replied McKenty, "and if they're in any sort of repair they'd be just what you'd want." He was emphatic, almost triumphant. "They belong to the city. They cost pretty near a million apiece, those things."
"I know it," said Cowperwood. "Now, do you see what I'm driving at?"
"Do I see!" smiled McKenty. "That's a real idea you have, Cowperwood. I take off my hat to you. Say what you want."
"Well, then, in the first place," replied Cowperwood, genially, "it is agreed that the city won't part with those two tunnels under any circumstances until we can see what can be done about this other matter?"
"It will not."
"In the next place, it is understood, is it, that you won't make it any easier than you can possibly help for the North and West Side companies to get ordinances extending their lines, or anything else, from now on? I shall want to introduce some franchises for feeders and outlying lines myself."
"Bring in your ordinances," replied McKenty, "and I'll do whatever you say. I've worked with you before. I know that you keep your word."
"Thanks," said Cowperwood, warmly. "I know the value of keeping it. In the mean while I'll go ahead and see what can be done about the other matter. I don't know just how many men I will need to let in on this, or just what form the organization will take. But you may depend upon it that your interests will be properly taken care of, and that whatever is done will be done with your full knowledge and consent."
"All very good," answered McKenty, thinking of the new field of activity before them. A combination between himself and Cowperwood in a matter like this must prove very beneficial to both. And he was satisfied, because of their previous relations, that his own interests would not be neglected.
"Shall we go and see if we can find the ladies?" asked Cowperwood, jauntily, laying hold of the politician's arm.
"To be sure," assented McKenty, gaily. "It's a fine house you have here—beautiful. And your wife is as pretty a woman as I ever saw, if you'll pardon the familiarity."
"I have always thought she was rather attractive myself," replied Cowperwood, innocently.