Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Robert George Clarke

Please note that research on the Clarke family is ongoing and this article reflects the most current documentation held by the museum. Text is subject to change as additional information becomes available and is interpreted by Clarke House Museum staff. 

Robert George Clarke, sixth child of Henry and Caroline Clarke, was born May 10, 1838 at the family home in Chicago. He came of age during the time the Clarkes were suffering from financial trouble associated with the Panic of 1837. As a boy Robert would have helped his father, Henry B. Clarke, with the family's dairy farming operation. Robert was just eleven years old when his father died of cholera in 1849 and seventeen when Caroline Clarke, his mother, completed the modifications to the house in 1855.

When Caroline Clarke passed away in January 1860, Robert took over as head of household. Even though his older sister Mary and her husband Frank Williams were present to help care for the family, Robert was the eldest surviving Clarke male (older brother Henry James died in 1856) and took responsibility for holding things together. At the time of the 1860 U.S. census Robert was twenty-one and working as a book keeper. His personal estate was valued at $1000.

Robert Clarke was successful in his business partnership, Palmer & Clarke, with brother-in-law Frank Williams (husband of Mary Clarke) and uncle Charles D. Palmer (Caroline's brother). They dealt in animal hides, furs, and wool. The 1867 Chicago City directory list Robert as working in the firm and still living with his siblings at Clarke House, listed as 596 Michigan Avenue. It was around this time that Robert Clarke  began courting his future bride Clara Gage.

Clara was born June 15, 1848 in Keene, Cheshire County, New Hampshire to David A. Gage (1822-1889) and Faustina Mulliken Locke (1819-1850). At the time of the 1850 census Clara's father ran a successful hotel and boarding house in Rockingham, Windham County, Vermont. Unfortunately, her mother died just months later in November 1850 when Clara was only two years old. Her father soon remarried to Eliza N. Wetherbee (c.1829-1894). The Gage family moved in with Eliza's father, Isaac Wetherbee (1797- ?) following the death of her mother in September 1859.

Clara's father was a shrewd and ambitious businessman. In 1860 he took his wife and daughter, along with older brother George W. Gage (1812-?)  to Chicago where they boarded at the Tremont House in July of that year. David and George Gage met and formed a business connection with hotelier John Burroughs Drake (1826-1895), part owner of the Tremont from 1855-1871. By 1862 they had formed the firm of Gage Bros. & Drake. David A. Gage also became superintendent of the Chicago Horse Rail Road. Two years later Gage had formed another partnership Gage, Waite, & Rice and had moved his family to the Shermon House at the northwest corner of Clark and Randolph of which his new company was the proprietor. David A. Gage is listed in the Chicago City Directory as residing at the Sherman House from 1862-1871.

Sherman House, 1858. Photograph by Alexander Helsler.  Robert Clarke's wife, Clara Gage, lived at this hotel with her father and stepmother from the time they met until their marriage in 1868. Image courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

It is unknown where or when Clara and Robert met. They both had lost parents and this may have been one of the shared experiences that drew them together. They both also came from well-established and, at least initially, well-do-do New England families. In 1860s Chicago, theirs would be considered a good match.

A week before their wedding date, Robert applied for a passport for his honeymoon trip with Clara abroad. See Robert Clarke's 1868 passport application. The couple married November 15, 1868 and took up residence at the Clarke family home at 596 Michigan Ave. Robert continued to work for Palmer & Clarke. In 1870, Clara and Robert had established their own home just down the street, next door to Clarke House at 604 Michigan Avenue. Robert, now a successful cattle broker, had grown his modest finances to a personal worth of $25,000. Clara herself held $50,000 in real estate and $2,000 in personal assets. The couple lived quite comfortably with an Irish domestic servant named Bridget Bigley.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 devastated the downtown Chicago hotel district, but did not reach the near south side where the Clarkes were living.  The Sherman House was laid to waste by the fire so, presumably, Clara's parents stayed with her and Robert in the months immediately following while the city scrambled to rebuild. In addition to ownership in Gage Bros. & Rice and the Frank Parmalee omnibus company, Robert's father-in-law, David A. Gage, had been elected Chicago City Treasurer in 1870. Gage was also appointed treasurer of the General Relief Committee following the fire, given charge over all monetary aid contributions sent to the city. On October 28, 1871, however, the Chicago Republican reported "there are anxious inquires concerning Mr. David Gage's use of the city funds since he has been Treasurer. Will he rise to explain?" Suspicion of illicit practices cast a dark shadow of the Gage-Clarke family and city authorities began to investigate where the money was going.

Chicago in ruins, 1871. With the Sherman House obliterated, Clara's parents probably stayed her and Robert following the Great Chicago Fire.

Clara gave birth to the couple's only child, son David Gage Clarke (named for her father), on March 25, 1872. Just a few months later Robert oversaw the sale of his childhood home to the Chrimes family. Robert could watch from his own front stoop as the mighty columns of his parents' Greek Revival mansion were removed and the house was jacked up then carted off by horses to 4526 S. Wabash Avenue in what was then the town of Hyde Park. With the old Clarke family home gone, Robert turned his attention to his own young family and their future.

Clara's parents soon returned to hotel living. Gage Bros.& Rice now operated the Grand Pacific Hotel, on Clark Street between Quincy and Jackson, which reopened in 1873. David A. Gage was not reelected City Treasurer and for good reason - he was at the center of an extraordinary scandal.  In December 1873 it was determined that Gage had grossly misappropriated city funds and the treasury was deficient to the tune of $508,703.58.  Read more about David A. Gage and his defalcation scandal here, beginning on page 856.  Disgraced by the embezzlement scandal, Clara's father and stepmother seem to have retreated to the comfort of family and are found in residence at the Clarkes' 604 Michigan Avenue house according to the 1875 and 1877 Chicago City Directory. David A. Gage is not listed as having any profession, a telling sign of his utter dismissal from the realm of Chicago business.

During the tumult occurring with his father-in-law, Robert seems to have tried to lead a normal life. By 1874 Palmer & Clarke appears to have dissolved and Robert is listed as working for C. L. Goodman & Co., a Chicago bread and cracker manufacturer which touted its "building [was] erected in the Burnt District and business fully resumed in 37 days after the fire of Oct. 8th and 9th, 1871."

From Cattle to Crackers: Advertisement for C. L. Woodman & Co. from The Railroads of Chicago. Chicago: The Western News Company, 1872. Robert Clarke is listed as working for this company in the 1874 Chicago City Directory.

In 1878 Robert had once again changed careers and is listed as manager of Anderson's Refrigerator Line and Coal Storage Company and, interestingly, boards at the Palmer House Hotel. The narrative given about his father-in-law in History of Chicago by Alfred Theodore Andreas mentions the Gages deeded property as payment for their debt. Further research is needed, but it is possible Robert and Clara's home at 604 Michigan Avenue could have been part of this land.

Gold had been discovered in Colorado in the 1870s and Americans rushed west to make their fortunes. Clara's father decided to escape his sullied past in Chicago and take on a new business venture in Denver, Colorado. David A. Gage and Michigan-born businessman Alexis M. Lay (1845-1921) formed the partnership Gage & Lay which ran the Grand Central Hotel at the intersection of Lawrence and 17th Streets in Denver. The1880 census lists Clara, her stepmother Eliza, and son David in residence with David A. Gage.  Robert's youngest brother Cyrus Clarke is also living in Denver in 1880, working as a miner. Robert Clarke was living away from his family working as a laborer and residing at 402 East 8th Street in Leadville. In 1881 Robert is listed as a clerk for the Little Chief Mining Company living at 123 East 4th Street in Leadville.

Grand Central Hotel, Denver, Colorado c.1880. Robert Clarke's wife and son lived at this hotel operated by his father-in-law, David A. Gage. Image courtesy of Denver Public Library Digital Collections.

Stock certificate for the Little Chief Mining Company in Leadville, Colorado.

Mines in Leadville, Colorado at the time Robert worked for the Little Chief Mining Company. Photo courtesy of www.miningartifacts.org.

Work was hard and days were long. Robert Clarke distinguished himself and went on to became the manager of the Gold Cup Mine in Tin Cup, Colorado. In 1896 Robert obtained a lease on the property. Unfortunately, three weeks later, he died  tragically in a mining accident on December 9, 1896 at the age of 58.

His death is described in Stampede to Timberline: Ghost Towns and Mining (1949) by Muriel Sibell Wolfe:

Three weeks after he took it [Gold Cup Mine] over it was still so early in the season that he and three other men improvised a toboggan with which to get down and up the ice-coated incline of the mine tunnel. One morning they started down as usual, but three hundred feet below the surface the toboggan caught on some caved-in rock. Three of the men jumped to safety and signaled the engineers to stop the hoist; but Clark [sic] stayed on the sled and succeeded in working it loose. Fifty feet of slack cable connected it to the hoist, and as the toboggan gathered speed Clark [sic] was unable to leap off. When the slack was taken up the sled stopped suddenly, throwing Clark [sic] headlong down the tunnel to his death.

Denver Republican. December 11, 1896.

Chicago Daily Tribune. December 10, 1896.

Robert's body was shipped from Tin Cup to Denver then returned to Chicago where he lay in state at sister Caroline Clarke Forman's home before being laid to rest at the Clarke family plot in Graceland Cemetery.

Clara and David remained in Chicago for many years following Robert's death. Later they are found living in Kansas City, Missouri where Clara died February 28, 1938. She was cremated and her remains were interred with Robert at Graceland. Their only son, David Gage, married a woman named Kathryn between 1930 and his own death March 11, 1944. The couple had no children. David too was cremated and placed in the Clarke family plot at Graceland Cemetery, Chicago along with his mother and father, Robert George Clarke.

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