Richard Robert Donnelley: Midwestern Business Pioneer
Richard Robert Donnelley, the founder of the company that would bear his name, arrived in Chicago in 1864. A native of Canada, Donnelley was drawn to the rapidly growing city because of its already substantial reputation as a printing center. By the time of the Civil War, Chicago boasted twenty-nine printing firms whose operations had spurred the development of type foundries, bookstores, and a vibrant community of indigenous writers. As Donnelley claimed in an early business prospectus, the city had all "the accessories of a literary center" including "two universities-those of Chicago and Northwestern-its law schools; its fine medical school; [and] its divinity schools."
In 1870, Donnelley restructured his business as the Lakeside Publishing and Printing Company. The company's plans included a six-story building offering "every convenience...editorial rooms for those engaged upon the periodical and works published by the company; fire-proof vaults for stereotype, and electrotype plates, etc.... commodious business and consultation rooms."
In the autumn of 1871, the new Lakeside Building was nearly complete; presses and other equipment had been moved in, and some manufacturing was underway. But on October 8 and 9, the great Chicago Fire swept through the city. Donnelley's son Thomas Elliott, only four years old at the time, later recalled racing with his father north across the Chicago River to escape the flames. The blaze destroyed the city's bustling business district and left 18,000 businesses in ruins. Among the casualties were over 100 printing offices, including Donnelley's new building, which was a smoking ruin.
Within days of the fire, which also destroyed his home, Donnelley boarded a train East to seek new presses, type, trimmers, and the other tools of his craft. His business partners, Edward Goodman and Reverend Leroy Church, withdrew after the fire, but Donnelley pressed ahead, rebuilding his business during the most dynamic period of growth for Chicago, and one of the most remarkable for any American city.