The History of Chicago, Illinois
History of Chicago
The glaciers that carved out the Great Lakes many, many moons ago also cleft the Midwest United States into two drainage basins; one that feeds the Great Lakes and another that feeds the Mississippi River.
French explorers discovered a portage between the two water systems that spanned a width of only 2 ½ miles in 1673, whereby the Atlantic Ocean, through the Great Lakes and into the Chicago River, could be linked to the Gulf of Mexico, through the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers into the mighty Mississippi.
The Indians called this place Chicago, meaning “onion swamp.”
The Native American tribe, the Illinois, from whence the state got its name, called this place home up until the time that the Miami Indians, from what is now Michigan, drove them out in the 1660s; the Pottawattamie, who came here from Canada, around 1800, in turn replaced the Miami. France claimed the area in 1671, but then gave the land to England in 1763.
In 1803, Fort Dearborn was built on the site by the United States government. The fort was evacuated during the War of 1812, in which the United States fought against the British. Pottawatomie Indians were responsible for the ambush of the evacuees---killing 86 men, women and children---in what became known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre. The fort was burnt to the ground, but was later rebuilt in the year 1816.
In 1830, Chicago featured a grand total of six log cabins, which sat near Fort Dearborn. Surprisingly, only sixty years later, Chicago would become the second largest city in America---growing faster than any city in the history of the world.
Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837 with a population of 4,000; it boasted 398 dwellings, 5 churches, and 10 taverns.
The number of residents grew to 30,000 by 1850; 300,000 by 1870; 1,000,000 by 1890; 1,700,000 by 1900; and 3,400,000 by 1930.
Chicago was the 6th largest city in the world in 1900. The population at that time was 12% Irish and 10% German.
In 1848, the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened, which realized the dream of linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River for commercial shipping. Immediately, staples such as sugar, cotton, and food were being transported into the city on barges from the south, while lumber, clothes, and machinery were making the return voyage.
It was shortly thereafter that a New York newspaperman declared Chicago the “Windy City”---not because it is the 12th windiest city in America--- but because of all the “hot air” he was hearing from Chicago’s city leaders (“windbags” he said) about the bright future of the place.
By 1850, a massive influx of Europeans, consisting mostly of Irish, and also a large contingent of Germans, meant that ½ of all Chicagoans were immigrants. From 1842-1858 the city built it first waterworks, sewage system, gaslights, and formed its first fire and police departments. In 1850 many Chicago residents lived in wooden shacks. Cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis were commonplace.
The Great Chicago Fire
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned for three days, and destroyed a third of the city (20,000 buildings). 300 people were killed, and the 100,000 people who were left homeless faced a freezing winter without shelter or food. There were no government programs in those days, but not to worry. The concerned citizens of Chicago took care of everybody, even finding a way to provide 55,000 with free medical care through private charity.
Chicago would rebuild better than before. The city made out of wood was replaced with a city of glass and concrete buildings, and brick dwellings. Chicago was rebuilt with alleys made for fire engines; the alleys being far easier to maneuver than the crowded city streets. Peddlers, who would come to sell fruits and vegetables from outlying farms, as well as sundry household goods, soon used these alleys as well.
The world’s first skyscraper was built in Chicago in 1884. At the time, most residents had no running water and half of all children born died by five years of age.
There was much unrest with labor unions from 1877-1886 (and again in 1937). In 1885, the entire city of Chicago was raised twelve feet, up out of the mud, by using jacks.
In the late 1880s tunnels were built under downtown Chicago that were used for little electric trains, which carried necessary coal and goods into the downtown area, and then carried the city’s rubbish and cinders back out. These trains continued to operate until the 1950s when the use of coal became somewhat obsolete.
Chicago Stock Yards
The Chicago Stockyards produced a stench that would permeate the entire city on days that the wind would blow out from the southwest. The “Union Stock Yards” operated from 1865-1971, and Chicago became known as the “hog butcher of the world.”
Chicago’s stockyards processed more meat than anyplace in the world up until its business peaked in the 1920s; at that time 40,000 people were employed there in different capacities. This peak in business led to the rise of the first international corporations, including both the Armour and Swift meat companies. Numerous factories then sprang up around the stockyards that produced many different items such as buttons, gelatin, glue, fertilizer, soap, and leather goods.
The Chicago River was used as a sewer for decades. In 1891, waterborne disease ran rampant, and 10,000 people perished of Typhoid Fever in that year alone. The problem was corrected by reversing the Chicago River’s flow in 1900; this was done to keep contaminants out of Lake Michigan, whence fresh water was drawn. This was accomplished through the construction of the Sanitation and Ship Canal.
Jane Addams (1860-1935) started Hull House in 1889 to solve the social problems caused by conditions in an industrial city. Hull House is a settlement house---a community center that provides information and other assistance to (primarily) immigrants in a poor part of town. Addams and her staff would help people find employment; provide day care and after school programs for children; and also provide other services. Addams efforts were replicated in 500 American cities, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Chicago L Train & Worlds Fair
In 1892, one of the most famous landmarks of Chicago opened; it was called the “L” train network. Unlike a subway, this system is elevated above the street. The “L” was the first electric rapid transit system. Where it makes a circle downtown is known as “The Loop,” though that nickname for the heart of Chicago predates the system.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (World’s Columbian Exposition) was the greatest such event ever produced. The grandeur of it proved that Chicago had fully recovered from the Great Fire that had occurred 22 years earlier.
Electricity was demonstrated to the public for the time at this Exposition. Ragtime music was publicly performed for the first time ever. The Fair also featured the first Ferris Wheel. Hamburgers were introduced to America; along with the other food products that made their debut, such as Quaker Oats, Cracker Jack, and shredded wheat.
In the early 20th Century, Italian immigrants began to pour into the city of Chicago.
By 1920, there were 350,000 Poles living in Chicago (more than any in any city in the world outside Warsaw), along with 190,000 people of Scandinavian descent, and another 70,000 of Hungarian descent. The city also had the 3rd highest Greek population, and the 4th largest Croatian population of any city in the world.
Countless Americans from rural areas moved to the big city as agriculture became more mechanized. The black population doubled during World War One, as southern blacks escaping bad cotton harvests came north seeking the “promised land” during the Great Migration.
Race riots broke out in 1919 as the newly arrived blacks clashed with immigrant groups. 120,000 more blacks came to Chicago during the 1920s, seeking work at the steel mills and railroads. Great black communities existed with beautiful boulevards and fine churches. These communities had their own elected officials, policemen, firemen, lawyers, doctors, and teachers.
There were 234,000 blacks living in Chicago by 1930, and 492,000 by 1950, with the steady influx from the southern United States. By 1970, 23.5 percent of black Chicagoans owned their own homes.
By that same year, the city also counted some 80,000 Mexicans and 80,000 Puerto Ricans as living in the city as well.
Chicago During the 1920s
Prohibition and the resultant Chicago gangland wars dominated the news in the 1920s. 1,000 gangs ran the liquor business in Chicago including that of Al Capone.
100,000 Chicago Bungalows were built in the 1920’s alone. At one point, nearly a third of the houses in the Chicago area were bungalows. These provide a unique architectural visage in the city.
Enrico Fermi conducted the first nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942. Chicago was the arsenal of the Free World for both World Wars.
Chicago Riots 1968
After the race riots of the 1960s---strangely enough soon after the passage of the most sweeping civil rights legislation for blacks in the nation’s history---many whites fled to the suburbs out of concern for the safety of their families.
The other big event of the 1960s was the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Although, I myself was a hippie, I did not disagree with the actions of Mayor Daley when his police started clubbing rioters protesting the Viet Nam War. It was an illegal protest, and the protestors were amply warned that their asses would be kicked if they left Grant Park, which they did.
True radicals led the protestors. The police were pelted with chunks of concrete, bags of urine (pre-prepared), rocks, and food. The American Flag was desecrated. When it was over, 135,000 people sent letters to Mayor Daley in support of the police action versus what was only 5,000 letters received against them. The public overwhelmingly made it clear that they supported law and order over against anarchy.
Today, Chicago is the fourth most important business center in the world, and is # 1 in America for the wholesale distribution of goods.
Chicago features the Board of Trade, the world’s oldest and largest futures and options exchange; the Chicago Stock Exchange, the largest volume securities exchange in America outside New York; the Mercantile Exchange, the world’s largest commodities exchange.
Chicago has the world’s busiest airport; the 3rd largest seaport in the world; and 1/3 of the U.S. railways pass through its boundaries.
The Chicago Metropolitan Area is home to 9.6 million souls.
Chicago boasts 26 miles of impeccably maintained lakefront; 31 beaches; 35 museums; 131 forest preserves; over 500 parks; and is also home to 50 colleges and universities.
Chicago has been so influential in world affairs that there are “Chicago Schools” of not only Architecture, but also of Economics, Writers, Painters, City Planners, Sociologists, and Economics.
Famous Chicagoans of the past who contributed greatly to the progress of the city include inventor and captain of industry Cyrus Hall McCormick; meatpacking tycoon Philip Armour; entrepreneur Marshall Field; inventor and businessman George Pullman; architect Louis Sullivan; and the writer Carl Sandburg.
Maxwell Street & Old Town Chicago
When I was a young man I had four places I loved to visit in Chicago. I grew up straight across Lake Michigan in Benton Harbor, MI. My favorite place was Wrigley Field, as I was and am an ardent fan of the Chicago Cubs.
The Museum of Science and Industry is one of two places still utilizing a building from the Chicago World’s Fair (the other being the Field Museum). The museum’s 2,000 exhibits include spacecraft, military aircraft, a Boeing 727 airliner, a captured German submarine, and a coalmine.
Maxwell Street was a huge open-air market where you could buy a Rolex for ten dollars---and the birthplace of Chicago Blues. Black musicians brought the Delta Blues with them in the Great Migration of the 1930s & 1940s. In Chicago it was amplified and played outdoors---on Maxwell Street.
This market was the forerunner of today’s flea markets. You could buy nearly anything from around the world, some of it illegal, much of it stolen---but the authorities looked the other way.
Old Town was the enclave of the hippie culture. I remember it as a magical place. It was filled with music, beads, incense, pop art posters, black lights, head shops, and yes, hippies galore. It was Chicago’s version of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods.
I have driven on Lake Shore Drive many times, and I have always been puzzled by something I see out in the lake. I have asked numerous people, both Chicagoans and visitors, and no one has ever been able to tell me what it is. Today, I researched it myself and have finally found the answer: Water Cribs, 2 miles off-shore where the fresh drinking water is inducted from Lake Michigan.