Chicago History (brief)

The site that would be the grand City of Chicago was initially an Indian village, ‘discovered’ by Father Jacques Marquette, a French-born missionary of the Jesuit order, and Louis Joliet, a Canadian explorer and mapmaker. Marquette and Joliet, after exploring the Mississippi River Valley, had struck out on their own and come across a large Indian village near the present city of Ottawa, Illinois (90 miles south of Chicago today). In the Fall of 1673 they were led from the Ottawa village to the area that is now Chicago.

In 1779 Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, Chicago’s first settler, established a trading post on the north bank of the Chicago River, and the population began to grow. Construction of Fort Dearborn began in 1803 at the mouth of the Chicago River. It was completed a year later and, though named in honor of the Secretary of War, trading flourished and things were generally peaceful.

Unfortunately, Fort Dearborn was evacuated eight years later when the War of 1812 broke out. With the attitude of the local Indians growing increasingly aggressive, the entire population of the settlement followed the troops out of Fort Dearborn. Many of those participating in the evacuation were massacred upon leaving the fort, and ultimately Fort Dearborn was destroyed. It was rebuilt in 1816 and occupied for twenty-one years, only to be abandoned in 1837. It stood until 1856.

1836 saw the beginning of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. 1848 would usher in the arrival of Chicago’s first ten miles of railroad track. Immigrants were arriving in droves, real estate value was growing, and the local Indians had been forced on to reservations. The population was thriving. In 1836 an application for city charter was presented to the state legislature. It was enacted into law on March 4, 1837, the day that Chicago became a true city. William B. Ogden, the first Mayor of Chicago, would serve a population of 4,170.

Chicago was a swampy area. The city’s original structures were built directly on the soft ground, which made sewers or cellars impossible. Streets were constantly muddy and unhealthy, and traffic through them was (and ironically still is) always a problem. A Drainage Commission was created in 1852, and four years later Chicago’s streets and buildings were raised to a height that would insure proper drainage, some up to seven feet. This engineering feat was performed by George M. Pullman, who had solved similar problems along the Erie Canal. Early paving of the newly-raised streets consisted of planking. Macadam was later used, followed by wooden blocks, and finally paving stones.

On Christmas Day in 1865 the great Union Stockyards were opened. They quickly grew and spread over a square mile, between 39th and 47th and from Halsted to Ashland. The Stockyards were built to satisfy a booming meat packing industry. Until the arrival of the railroad, herds of cattle awaiting sale usually grazed in pastures provided by tavern owners. Decentralization of the regional markets and packing plants started a spiraling decline in the stockyard. The Chicago Union Stockyard eventually went out of business at midnight on Friday, July 30, 1971. A thriving industrial park now sits on the site.

At around 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, 1871, a fire started in the cow barn of the Patrick O’Leary cottage at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago’s West Side. No one is sure how the fire was sparked, but the two most-popular suspects are 1) Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lamp, and 2) the evil going’s on of a man named “Peg-leg” Sullivan. Either way, the fire quickly spread and reached the business district by 1:30 a.m., having jumped the south branch of the Chicago River. It didn’t take long for the blaze to spread northward and cross the river’s main branch. The next day it burned as far northward as Fullerton Avenue. By the time the fire was finally out, 300 people were dead, 90,000 were homeless, and damages estimated $200 million. But Chicago, The City of Big Shoulders, quickly rebuilt itself. By 1875 it had regained its original grandeur and little evidence of the disaster existed.

Chicago, again proving its building prowess, built the world’s first skyscraper on what is now the Field Building. “The Home Insurance Building” stood at the northeast corner of LaSalle and Adams. The first nine stories of this revolutionary structure were completed in 1885, and two more were added in 1891. Featuring a load-carrying structural frame (the “Chicago Skeleton”), it was the first of its kind and would prove to be the stimulus and main component of larger skyscrapers destined to come. Major William Le Baron Jenney was the building’s brilliant architect.

Yet another of Chicago’s great feats of architecture is the Chicago Water Tower. Constructed of Joliet limestone (quarried in Illinois), the tower was completed in 1869 by architect William W. Boyington. It is one of the relatively few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In May of 1969, the year of its Centennial Anniversary, the Chicago Water Tower was selected by the American Water Works Association to be the first American Water Landmark in the United States.

Chicago’s first elevated trains began operation in 1892. Some of the earliest tracks built are still standing and in use.

The Columbian Exposition is universally known as a hallmark of the city’s crowning achievements and firmly cemented Chicago as one of the finest cities in the world. Many other major cities vied for the honor of hosting the exposition, including New York City, Washington D.C., and St. Louis. Competition between the cities was heated, so much that Chicago was christened “The Windy City” by Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun.

Opening on May 1, 1893, the exposition commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. 630 acres of Jackson Park were transformed from what was little more than a stagnating swamp into an extravagant “White City” of classic fountains, statues, and buildings. Today’s Museum of Science and Industry is built around the original structure of the exposition’s dazzling “Palace of Fine Arts.” Created under the general supervision of Daniel H. Burnham, the Columbian Exposition gained Chicago and its inhabitants worldwide recognition and greatly enhanced what was already a booming population. The exposition ran for six months and attracted 27,539,000 visitors, nearly half of the population of the United States at that time.

In 1900, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal accomplished a gigantic engineering feat with reversal of the flow of the Chicago River.

A dark chapter of Chicago’s history opened on the morning of July 24, 1915. The Eastland, a lake passenger-steamer, cast off from the Chicago River Dock at the Clark Street Bridge with 2,572 passengers on board. The ship immediately listed away from the dock, righted itself momentarily, and slowly rolled over on her side to settle on the river bottom. Many of the passengers (all Western Electric Company employees and their families) were able to jump from the Eastland and escape drowning, but 844 others weren’t so lucky. These unfortunate sightseers perished in or under the steamer before rescuers could reach them. This massive loss of life makes the sinking of the Eastland by far the worst disaster in the city’s history.

The 1919 World Series proved to be the most notorious in baseball history. Eight players from the Chicago White Sox (afterward forever regarded as the “Black Sox”) were accused of a monumental scandal: throwing the series against the Cincinnati Reds. The final details of the scandal, or the extent to which each man was involved in it, have never been clear. All eight of the “Black Sox” were acquitted of criminal charges, though they were banned from playing professional baseball for the rest of their lives.

On December 17, 1938, construction of Chicago’s first subway began on North State Street near Chicago Avenue. Because the earth consisted primarily of watery clay, mining was difficult and dangerous. Luckily, there were no cave-ins throughout the entire five-year dig, and the subway opened on October 17, 1943.

In 1942, the University of Chicago began the Atomic Age with the world’s first nuclear chain reaction.

In 1958 transit officials around the globe visited Chicago to see another first for the city. On June 22 of that year, the West Side Subway opened as the first project providing rapid rail transit in the grade-separated right-of-way of a multi-lane automobile expressway (think of the Blue Line as it heads north en route to O’Hare, or the southern half of the Red Line toward 95th Street).

In 1963 William Hartmann, a Chicago architect, approached the famous artist Pablo Picasso with an invitation to create a model for a sculpture that was to be erected in the city’s Civic Center. On August 15, 1967, the “Chicago Picasso” (as it is generally referred to) was unveiled. The 50 foot-high sculpture weighed 162 tons and was constructed from a 42-inch model created by Picasso himself. Other wonderful pieces of sculpture by famous artists can also be found around the city.

The Sears Tower was finished and became the world’s tallest building in 1973. It continued to be the undisputed tallest building in the world until February 13, 1996, when the Twin Petronas Towers in Malaysia were finished. However, on July 10, 1997, the Council on tall Buildings and Urban Habitat announced four new categories for the measurement of tall buildings. The categories are 1) height to the structural or architectural top, 2) height to the highest occupied floor, 3) height to the top of the roof, and 4) height to the top of the antenna. The Sears Tower continues to lead the world in categories 2 and 3 (which are clearly the most pertinent). It is 1,450 feet high to the top of the roof, and the highest occupied floor is 1,431 high. The Sears Tower stands a quarter-mile above the ground at its 110th (top) story, comprises 4.5 million gross square feet of office and commercial space, and its base rests on two city blocks. It was designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and was built in under two and half years.

In 1983 Harold Washington was elected Chicago’s first African-American mayor. And in 1991 the Harold Washington Library Center opened as the new main branch of the Chicago Public Library. It is the largest public library in the world.

1994 saw Chicago hold the opening ceremonies and the first game of the first World Cup Soccer championship held in the United States.

In 1996 The Museum of Contemporary Art was moved to its new home on Chicago Avenue, just east of Michigan Avenue. It is the first new museum building constructed in Chicago in 60 years.

1996 was also the year that Chicago hosted the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

July 1998 was a bad month for the Chicago’s northwest neighborhood of Ravenswood. That month it was overrun with Anoplophora Glabripennis, better know as the Asian longhorned beetle. This potent pest was found boring into the neighborhood’s majestic trees, where it would lay its eggs. Its young would then hatch and feast on the trees, effectively killing them as well as turning them into thriving breeding grounds. Having no known predators and without a proven biological or chemical control method, the only effective avenue available for stopping the beetles was to cut down and burn an infested tree. As it stands, over 1,400 trees have been removed and destroyed. Replanting efforts are in progress, but it will be a long time coming before the young trees reach the grandeur of their predecessors.

Also in 1998, the Chicago Bulls won their 6th NBA Championship in 8 years.