The Richest Chicagoans of All Time

How do today’s billionaires and multimillionaires compare with yesterday’s? We put them through an inflation-equalizing machine to get the answer.

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Many ultrarich Chicagoans of old don’t crack our inflation-adjusted top ten. Some, like Samuel Insull, lost their vast fortunes well before they died. The city’s original energy czar-he ran Commonwealth Edison, Peoples Gas, and Chicago’s elevated trains, and built the Civic Opera House-Insull at his peak was worth $150 million ($1.7 billion in 2005 dollars). But the Depression brought an end to his empire, and when he died of a heart attack in a Paris subway station in 1938, Insull had only a monogrammed handkerchief and seven francs in his pockets.

In other instances, it was tough to determine a person’s peak worth. Philip Knight Wrigley, a member of the second generation of the chewing-gum dynasty, ran the company-and the Chicago Cubs-following his father’s death in 1932. P. K. was worth $100 million at the end of World War II, or $1.08 billion in 2005 dollars. (His assets included Santa Catalina Island in California; 400,000 shares of the oil company Texaco; and large estates in Wisconsin and Arizona.) But the extent of his fortune when he died in 1977 is unclear.

Here is a selection of some other Chicagoans whose fortunes didn’t quite stack up.

Philip D. Armour (1832-1901)
Estimated net worth: $50 million
Adjusted for 2005: $1.2 billion
The “Meat King of America” once ran the world’s largest meatpacking facility.

Charles Yerkes (1837-1905)
Estimated net worth (while living in Chicago): $30 million
2005: $699 million
The “Goliath of Graft” was the city’s transit king until leaving town around 1900.

Levi Leiter (1834-1904)
Estimated net worth: $30 million
2005: $648 million
In 1881, Leiter sold out his department store interest to his partner, Marshall Field, for $2.5 million.

Gustavus Swift (1839-1903)
Estimated net worth: $27 million
2005: $583 million
Swift revolutionized the meat business with such innovations as the first practical railroad refrigerator car.

Otto Young (1844-1906)
Estimated net worth: $20 million
2005: $431.2 million
Young co-owned The Fair, the Loop department store, and big chunks of downtown real estate.

A. Montgomery Ward (1843-1913)
Estimated net worth: $15 million
2005: $294.3 million
Ward built a national mail-order and department store business and fought to preserve the downtown lakefront.

Cyrus McCormick (1809-84)
Estimated net worth: $10 million
2005: $215.9 million
McCormick’s reaper transformed agriculture worldwide.

Potter Palmer (1826-1902)
Estimated net worth: $8 million
2005: $179 million
The man who made State Street that great street and then gilded the Gold Coast, Palmer left his entire estate to his wife, Bertha Honoré Palmer.

George Pullman (1831-97)
Estimated net worth: $7.6 million
2005: $177 million
The railroad sleeping car manufacturer was buried beneath tons of concrete to fend off angry workers.

John G. Shedd (1850-1926)
Estimated net worth: $15 million
2005: $165 million
In 1924, Shedd, the second president of Marshall Field & Company, helped launch Chicago’s lakefront aquarium.

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