History of Chicago

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I. The Pottawatomies and Beyond

The waves of the great lake lapped against the shore, but the water would not be stopped. For miles Lake Michigan flooded the land, seeping into every crevice it could find with an unsatiable thirst to reclaim the geographic region that it had dominated for thousands of years. But even the great lake could not defeat the ice age, and by the time the area was settled by local Indian tribes, it had been beaten back to what is roughly now the state of Illinois, border.

In the time of the Indians there wasn't much to see except for swamp and mosquitoes and the onion root the Pottawatomies called 'chicakagou.' Still, the area known to the U.S. government in later years as the Chicago Portage did have its usefulness. A canoe could be easily carried over the portage from Lake Michigan to a river that fed into the Mississippi, linking the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The portage was the key to the navigation, and thus commerce, of an entire region. The Indians knew this for a long time, and so did the French.

Years before any European attempted to find the Mississippi by way of the Chicago Portage, the Indians of the Great Plains - Pottawatomie, Chippewa, Ottawa - used this region as meeting ground. All easily reached the site by canoe, proving that location is real estate's only law hundreds of years before the first Eastern huckster tried to sell a chunk of this stinking swamp to some sucker with a bag full of coins and a head full of dreams. For the Indians, the land belonged to no one but itself. But by the time they came to grips with the white man's conception of land it was too late.

In 1673 the Chicago Portage was 'discovered' by a Frenchman, Louis Joliet. A year later a member of Joliet's expedition, a Jesuit missionary named Pere Marquette, further explored the region. It was to be his death. He contracted a para-typhoid disorder during the winter of 1674. Even though sick, he continued to preach to the Indians, but died in the spring of 1675 for his troubles. Not much happened for another hundred years. The occasional trader would come by, do his business with the Indians, and be glad to be rid of the swamp and the diseases it exhaled.

The first non-native to settle the land was Pointe De Sable, a fugitive slave from San Domingo. By 1779 a small settlement had sprung up around his camp and De Sable's stake was eventually purchased by another trader, who in turn was bought out by Jonathan Kinzie in 1804. Kinzie was an Easterner with an eye for a sweet deal. Even though it was still swampland, he knew that this land was something special, and with the right men and the right tools it could be beaten and shaped into a form that would be most profitable. He was right.

As the settlement grew the government began to see it is a gateway to the Western frontier, and erected Fort Dearborn where the Chicago River and Lake Michigan kissed. The Indians were none too happy about this situation and in 1812 they massacred most of the soldiers and their families. Kinzie escaped and came back in 1814 when the fort was rebuilt. From then on, there would be no stopping the settlement of the area.

II. Growing and Flexing

By 1833 Chicago was a lively frontier town. The Indians were thrown out by way of a treaty, which paid them an annuity for two years under the provision that they would be west of the Mississippi by 1835. With the area free of Indian threat, land speculation picked up with a fury. The promise of a quick buck drew more and more people to the area and, in 1837, Chicago was officially incorporated as a city.

Eastern merchants descended upon Chicago to seek their fortunes, and they found them. The beginnings of such great enterprises as Marshall Fields', Carson Pirie Scott's, Sears and Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward's can be traced to this period. The Illinois and Michigan canal opened in 1848, enabling a ship to enter Canada from the St. Lawrence River and make its way all the way to the Mississippi. Rail lines soon followed, and Chicago became the nation's inland shipping hub. With the opening of the Union Stockyards on the western fringe of town, Chicago did, as poet Carl Sandburg famously put it, become the 'hog butcher to the world.'

Even though the city was now thriving there were still problems. Streets were terribly paved with mud bubbling and spilling through the cracks, the swamp land had yet to be beaten back, and the citizens were plagued by mosquitoes and thus malaria. On top of all this, many of the buildings in the downtown business center were sinking into the muddy, swampy foundations on which they were built.

George Pullman, an Eastern engineer, came west to Chicago and convinced the people that the solution to their problems was simple: raise the buildings. Using an ingenious series of jacks, Pullman and his crews successfully raised Chicago out of the mud. This would not be the first time that the fates of Pullman and Chicago would intersect. Later, Pullman would open his Pullman Palace Car Company and construct his planned community, The Pullman District, whose worker-residents would revolt against unfair wages and unjust treatment in a bloody strike in 1894.

But in the 1850s and '60s things couldn't have looked brighter. Chicago became known as the 'Gem of the Prairie,' 'The Garden City,' and a hundred other euphemisms that brought in more and more people. In just a few years, Chicago grew from a small frontier town to a booming metropolis on the lake, drawing not only Easterners but a slew of European immigrants.

And then disaster struck.

III. The Best and the Worst

The summer of 1871 was a scorcher. Rain was scarce, a dangerous thing for a city primarily made of wood and drastically under equipped to fight fires. It was bound to happen. Catherine O'Leary was an Irish immigrant living on De Koven street on the city's Southwest side. On the evening of Oct. 8 a small fire began in her barn and started to spread. The cow knocking over the lantern into a pile of hay has become the stuff of legends, but no one really knows what started the blaze that would forever become known as the Great Chicago Fire.

It quickly became a conflagration worse than the disastrous London fire of 1666. The fire swept across the Chicago river and burnt the business center of the city to the ground. It continued north, destroying everything in its path all the way to Fullerton Avenue before it finally burnt itself out. Firefighters were powerless, the city was at the mercy of nature, and thankfully the clouds finally granted Chicago a few precious drops of rain, which started to beat the flames into submission 25 hours after the fire began. Ironically, Mrs. O'Leary's house was untouched.

The damage the fire wrought cannot be overestimated. Most of the city was in rubble, 100,000 people were homeless, 17,450 buildings were burnt to ash. Banks and bank records were destroyed as well as property records, leaving people penniless. At the time, losses were estimated at $200 million dollars. The heat from the fire was so intense that people trying to photograph it from miles away could not because their film melted in their camera. Metal coins were fused together. Fireballs rolled out ahead of the main blaze. Today, at the Chicago Historical Society, you can see many relics from the fire, including petrified cookies and the fire wagon that was first called out to combat the blaze.

But frontier towns have spirit and fortitude, and the people of Chicago would not be defeated. They would start again. Perhaps the most touching epithet to the fire was a sign left by real-estate man W. D. Kerfoot. Once the heat dispelled enough for people to return, Kerfoot erected a sign on the site of his former business: 'All gone except wife, children, and energy.'

The fire of 1871 was the best thing to ever happen to the city. Chicago was rebuilt from the ground up, bigger, better, and more uniquely American than any other city in the country. Seeing a tabula rasa to inscribe their art upon, legions of architects flocked to the city to join the ranks of local builders. Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John Root, Dankmar Adler, among other renowned architects, pulled up their sleeves and went to work, and in the process created something new and bold, a special brand of design where 'form followed function,' and where buildings rose to the sky supported by gridworks of steel. Such masterpieces as the Rookery Building, the Monodnak Building, the Auditorium Building, and the Marquette Building took shape to thrill and invigorate not only the city, but the rest of the country as well.

Contrary to popular opinion, Chicago's nickname of the 'windy city' was not coined because of the chilling winds coming off of Lake Michigan. Chicago, at this time, was a brilliant huckster, a self-promoter that beat loudly upon its chest to send out a signal to the rest of the world that this is where the future was. To prove itself, a group of Chicago politicians and businessmen set out to secure Chicago as the site of a 1893 World's Fair commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' 'discovery' of America. A bitter rivalry ensued among Chicago, St. Louis, Washington D.C., and especially New York. Writing in the New York Sun, editorialist Charles A. Dana roared not to listen 'to the nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not build a World's Fair even if they won it.'

Dana was wrong on both accounts. Chicago did win the contest, and they did build the fair. And what a fair it was. Under the guidance of Daniel Hudson Burnham, whose motto was 'make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood,' a gleaming city of white was erected in Jackson Park. The best talents of the country were called upon to fashion this neoclassical Utopia of marble, water, and green spaces breathtakingly landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead.

The main part of the fair was the 'White City' centered around the 'Court of Honor.' Flanking it were monstrous buildings that housed the world's art treasures, ingenuity, and, most of all, hopes for a better, and more technological, tomorrow. The other part of the fair was the moneymaker. The Midway Plaisance featured freak shows, Little Egypts' provocative dance, 'ethnological' displays of other countries, rides, and the monumental Ferris Wheel, which has been recreated today on Navy Pier, but at a much smaller scale. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was Chicago's finest hour. Or was it?

The White City was just that: white. African Americans were denied jobs on the fair's construction and many were turned away at the gates. Bowing to pressure from Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and other black activists, the fair committee created Negro Day to showcase the progress of blacks in America. But the day turned into a nightmarish mockery, with vendors hawking fried chicken and watermelon, and the black patrons being shamelessly harassed by the white staff and other fairgoers. Douglass was appalled. Things were no better in the midway. The 'Ethnological' displays had little ethnology but lots of commodity. The mock countries on display were designed to show how superior the West was and how backwards all other countries were. Many of the alleged natives brought in to work the displays were merely Chicago's homeless dressed up in costumes.

The fair hurt in other ways as well. Louis Sullivan was appalled by the neo-classical design of the buildings and claimed that the fair 'set American architecture back fifty years.' Furthermore, on what was to be the last day of the fair, celebrated with pomp, circumstance, and fanfare, the corrupt but beloved mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, was assassinated by a disgruntled office seeker. What was to be a day of triumph, turned into one of sadness and despair. The fair closed silently, and arsonists and looters destroyed many of the buildings. Today, all that is left of the White City is the Museum of Science and Industry, standing alone in Jackson Park on a site that once contained all the hopes and aspirations of a generation.

IV. 'Chicago Aint Ready for Reform Yet'

Many people benefited from the fair, but perhaps those who benefited the most were the men and women plying their trade along the levee. The Levee District was a vice area just south of the staid and stodgy Loop. Visitors to the fair thronged to the district to indulge in gambling, prostitution, and, for those who weren't afraid of the Chinese, the rich and intoxicating smoke of the opium dens. For years, the Levee was the seat of the corrupt First Ward, run by two of Chicago's greatest characters, Michael 'Hinky Dink' Kenna and John 'Bathhouse' Coughlin. Theirs was an empire that consisted of the riches of the Loop and the spoils of vice. They had in their fat pockets business men and madams, stock brokers and gamblers. And people loved them. They were the hit of the city, flamboyant, outspoken, and brash as only a Chicagoan can be. For years they reigned as the 'Lords of the Levee,' but changing social tides brought their empire to an end.

The late 1890s was a time of social reform and Chicago was in need of reforming, even though one politician screamed that 'Chicago ain't ready for reform yet.' Politicians were on the take, corruption ran through city government like molten lead, monopolies were squeezing the money from people's pocket books, poverty was rampant, working conditions terrible, and children labored for pennies. It was a situation that any decent city couldn't tolerate.

Most of Chicago wasn't decent, but under the leadership of Jane Adams and her settlement house movement begun at The Hull House, the lives of thousands of immigrants were made better. At the same time the former baseball player turned minister Billy Sunday, along with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, turned their eyes to the Levee. Increasing public outrage at Hinky Dink's and Bathouse's shenanigans ended up in the breakup of the Levee. Billy Sunday did, in fact, shut Chicago down.

While unions and social workers, with the aid of such writers as Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser, were able to alleviate some of the conditions of the poor, the vice that had been contained in the Levee spread through the city. With no centralized base of control, gangs formed to stake their claims, and with the enactment of Prohibition and the coming of Al Capone from New York City, both in 1919, Chicago was to enter its bloodiest era, one that still stains the public imagination.

V. The Conflicts of the Past are the Conflicts of Today are the Conflicts of Tomorrow

There was nothing heroic about Al Capone. As a culture, we have mythologized him and his era, but Capone was a bloodthirsty killer who ruled Chicago by the gun and by the power he wielded with his pocketbook. During prohibition, Capone had an almost stranglehold on liquor supply to the city, and to keep that control he used any means necessary. Perhaps from this atmosphere of violence sprung the race riots of 1919. Among those allegedly involved with the hunting down and beating of dozens of African Americans was Richard J. Daley, who would become one of Chicago's most famous mayors.

Prohibition ended with the repeal of the Volstead act in 1933, but it did not end the culture of fear and violence. Racial tension would intensify over the coming decades. Even though Capone was in jail, 'The Outfit' continued to run vice in the city. And with the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, things only got worse as people lost their jobs and homes.

There were bright moments in the 1930s, though. In 1933 Chicago once again hosted a World's Fair, The Century of Progress. Chicago pioneered the broadcasting industry with the advent of commercial radio, and would go on to pioneer in television a decade later. Chicago was a musical innovator as well. Jazz had crept into the city from New Orleans, and brought along with it the likes of Louis Armstrong. Chicago put its own spin on the music, polishing it and refining it into the force we know today. Benny Goodman learned to play the clarinet at Hull House and in the 1930s ignited America with his own brand of swing.

World War II shook America and Chicago out of the Depression, and Chicago was a big player in the manufacture and repair of war ships. Municipal Pier, now Navy Pier, became a temporary Navy Base and hundreds of Rosie the Riveters could be seen bustling to work each day. The end of the war brought another boomtime, and Chicago prospered with new building projects and the annexation of suburbs on the North and South sides. However, racial fear in the form of 'white flight' drove many families from the cities, and tensions once more resurfaced between blacks and whites, fueled further by the civil rights movement and the oncoming war in Vietnam.

1968 was a notorious year. The Democrats were in Chicago to nominate their presidential candidate. A large group of protestors assembled near the The Congress Plaza Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Fearing a violent uprising from these 'hippies,' Mayor Daley, The Boss, cracked down hard. Film footage of Chicago cops clobbering protestors is still hard to watch without cringing in embarrassment. Dissatisfaction set in, and many once proud neighborhoods began to crumble. The 1970s was a period of great urban decline; grandiosely well-intentioned but misguided public housing projects such as Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes gained a national reputation as the most dangerous slums in America. Economically and racially, things looked bleak. And then the 80s happened.

With the upsurge in the economy, building began once more in the Loop, with huge office towers going up all over the place, joining the ranks of the Sears Tower and the The John Hancock Tower. It was the busiest time for building in the Loop since Mies van der Rohe erected his steel and glass buildings 20 years before. Elsewhere things were changing as well. There was a reverse of the 'white flight' syndrome with an influx of wealthy and up-and-coming people, both black and white, returning to the city from the suburbs. Neighborhoods that had been in decline, such as Lincoln Park and Lakeview, had new life breathed into them.

This trend continues to this day and is now a huge problem for the city. Neighborhoods are swelling and rents are skyrocketing. Neighborhoods that were once enclaves of artists and free thinkers, such as Old Town and Wicker Park, have become gentrified and too expensive for its traditional residents to live in. This includes not just artists and renegades, but minority groups as well.

But problems and all, Chicago is a thriving metropolis, the proud home of millions.