Friday, August 20, 2021

The Lake House, Chicago's First Luxury Hotel and Fine Dining Restaurant.

The Lake House opened in 1835 as the first luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant, becoming famous for its French cooking. The hotel stood on the north side of the Chicago River on what was then the lakeshore, across the river from Fort Dearborn near where the Wrigley Building stands today.
This photograph was taken between 1857 and 1859 when the Lake House was a Hospital for the poor. The Rush Street bridge opened in 1857.

This impressive brick hotel was four stories in height plus a basement and elegantly furnished at $90,000 ($2,792,000 today). The building was surrounded by one of the only sidewalks in the town.

The men whose "Lake House Association" enterprise built the hotel and restaurant were Gurdon S. Hubbard, John Harris Kinzie (John Kinzie's son), General David S. Hunter (First Lieutenant, Fifth Infantry, Commandant of Fort Dearborn (December 14, 1830, to May 20, 1831), Dr. William Bradshaw Egan (Illinois House of Representatives (1852-1854), and Major James B. Campbell (real estate investor)

The Lake House Hotel was the first restaurant in Chicago to serve live oysters, transported from New England by sleigh in 1838.

I've been asked several times how fresh oysters could come from the East Coast.

First of all, oysters were kept alive on Ice while being transported. If an oyster's shell opens, they die. Dead oysters carry dangerous bacteria for humans.

Chicago's first fresh oysters were delivered in 1838 by sleigh from New Haven, Connecticut. This spurred Chicago’s earliest love affair with the oyster. By 1857, there were seven "Oyster Depots" and four "Oyster Saloons" in the city, and the population was 109,000 in 1860. Peaking in the Gilded Age of the 1890s (population of 1,001,000 in 1890) and waning with Prohibition, oyster consumption was plentiful in old Chicago. Believe it or not, ice cream parlors also served oysters because they had all that ice.

In the 1890s, express-service refrigerated train cars shipped oysters and other perishable foods around the country. The cars did not come into general use until the turn of the 20th century.

The Lake House was Chicago's first foray into fine dining and offered some East Coast imports to their well-heeled clientele. It was the first restaurant in Chicago to serve dinner in courses and to use white tablecloths, napkins, menu cards, and even toothpicks.
Michigan Street was renamed Hubbard Street (440N 1 to 299E)

The first Rush Street bridge, a swing bridge, opened in 1857 (destroyed in an accident in 1863), but before then, a ferry at the Lake House, said to be "the safest and the pleasantest on the river," was free.

In the words of James Buckingham, a sophisticated British gentleman who visited in 1840, the hotel was "superior . . .  excellent . . .  Elysium (paradise)."

On November 30, 1845, a group of Scots in Chicago gathered at the Lake House to celebrate the Scottish culture and identity on Saint Andrew's Day. They formed the "Saint Andrew Society," similar to the one on the East Coast.

The Lake House was sold to the Sisters of Mercy in 1850. On February 27, 1851, the "Illinois General Hospital" was given over to the charge of the Sisters of Mercy. On June 21, 1852, the Illinois State Legislature incorporated Mercy Hospital and Mercy Orphanage. In May 1853, finding the hospital (Lake House) inadequate to accommodate the increasing number of patients, the Sisters moved the patients to a large frame building on Kenzie Street.

John Johnson and Frederick Knickerbocker purchased the Lake House building and reopened the hotel and restaurant.

A shocking calamity occurred on September 19, 1856. At about seven o'clock in the morning, the boat at the Lake House ferry capsized while crossing from the North to the South Side of the river. It was crowded with passengers, all men, and most laborers going to work. Many succeeded in swimming ashore. Others were picked up by boats. It was supposed that a large number drowned, but as only ten bodies were subsequently found, it was concluded that the fatalities were not as bad as first believed. 

The boat was not the regular ferry boat in use because the regular boat was being repaired. The substitute was the old flat scow ferry that had been used at Wells Street. It really was not fit for use. Those who crowded upon the boat in such numbers did not know its unseaworthy character. They were so impatient to cross that they took the boat out of the charge of the ferryman and left him on the shore. When the boat was a few feet from the shore, the ferryman slacked the line as a vessel approached. The coroner's verdict declared this act imprudent, but it could not have caused the accident. The over-capacity boat immediately careened because it became unbalanced as the weight shifted, and all of the passengers were thrown into the river.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 leveled the building.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. I wonder what "Leland's Ham" was.

    1. I'd guess that Leland's Ham, what named after a chef or cook's name for his dish.

  2. Who would have thought there would be find dinning in the 1835 & from the east coast a world away back then Neil you are the very BEST


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