Before the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum building was built, the Chicago Academy of Sciences made its home in the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building.
211 years ago, on December 16, 1803, Matthew Laflin was born. Though he was born on the East Coast, he will always be recognized as a Chicago pioneer. His father was in the gunpowder business and Laflin followed in his footsteps. In fact, it was gunpowder that first brought him to Chicago. When construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal began in 1837, Laflin came west, eager to supply the Canal’s construction company with gunpowder. It was his first visit to the young city, but he recognized the potential it had. In the following two years, he established a western presence for the Saugerties Powder Works and took charge of all its western sales, establishing plants in and around the Chicago area.
After selling his stock and severing ties with the gunpowder industry, Laflin turned his attention to real estate. He began purchasing land in and around the city. With the $900 he made by selling his gunpowder stock, he purchased nine acres of land, later selling it for $4,000. While he purchased land for hundreds of dollars, and sold it for thousands, he lived to see it worth millions.
In addition to being a real estate tycoon, he helped establish the city’s first stockyards, aided in founding the Chicago Board of Trade, held a controlling interest in the city water works, and helped refinance the Elgin Watch Company.
While he was a pioneering influence in the city as a whole, we remember him for the generosity he showed the Chicago Academy of Sciences at a time when it was in need of some major financial help. In October of 1871, the Academy was dealt a crushing blow when its building and holdings were decimated in the Great Fire. The Academy worked to regroup, finally moving into the lakefront Interstate Exposition Building in 1885 (this building was later destroyed to make way for the Art Institute of Chicago). While this gave the Academy a public face, it was only a temporary solution, so the Academy’s Board of Trustees turned its attention to rebuilding.
In October of 1892, Laflin gave the Academy the help it was looking for. Through his son George, Laflin offered to give the Academy $75,000 towards the construction of a new museum, on the condition that an agreement could be reached for the Lincoln Park Commissioners to provide the land and $25,000 to be used for completion. An agreement was made, and the new building’s keystone was laid in October of 1893. Upon its opening on October 31, 1894, the building was dedicated to Laflin.
Although the Academy’s collections are no longer housed in the Laflin Memorial Building, the building remains an important part of our legacy, and symbolizes an important turning point in our history.
For more information, check out the Magazine of Western History, Volume 14.