Chicago History

Chicago is the largest city in Illinois and the seat of Cook County. Situated on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago is a global city and serves as the center of culture, politics, industry, transportation, medicine, and higher education for the Midwest. Chicago’s vast metropolitan area (the third largest in the U.S.) is known informally as “Chicagoland” and encompasses ten separate counties, including two in Indiana and one in Wisconsin.

The area was originally inhabited by several Native American tribes, who named the land Checagou. The meaning of “Checagou” is still a matter of debate; some say it was an honorific meaning “strong” or “great” while others claim it meant “wild onion” or “skunk,” as the marshlands at the time were ripe with the smell of rotting leeks. In the 1770s, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the child of a Haitian slave and a French pirate, built a trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River. Known to the natives as “Black Chief,” Du Sable became a prominent member of the Potawatomi tribe.

The U.S. Army constructed Fort Dearborn across the river from du Sable’s trading post in 1803. Subjected to frequent attacks by the Potawatomi (who were allied with the British), General William Hull ordered the evacuation of the fort during the War of 1812. The soldiers and their families fled for Fort Wayne in Indiana, but were ambushed by the Potawatomi. Of the 148 evacuees, 86 were killed and the rest were ransomed to the British as prisoners. The Potawatomi burned Fort Dearborn to the ground the next day. The region remained empty of U.S. citizens until 1816, when the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi ceded the land to the U.S. in the Treaty of St. Louis.

In 1830, the Illinois State Legislature appointed a commission to dig a canal that would connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. To finance the canal, the commissioners were authorized to lay out a town and sell lots. Plats were filed and construction began on Chicago in 1830. It was incorporated as a town in 1833 and, as its population soared, as a city in 1837. The Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848, which allowed shipping from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. That year also saw the completion of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. With its road, rail, and water connections, Chicago grew into a transportation hub. During the Civil War, Chicago’s manufacturing and retail sectors dominated the Midwest and the Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. rose to prominence. Chicago’s meat-packing industry rivaled that of Cincinnati’s, and the city became known as “hog butcher to the world.” The city was devastated by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but that did little to curtail the city’s growth. Reconstruction began immediately and actually served to bolster the city’s economy. The first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was constructed in 1885, and the University of Chicago was founded in 1892. Just one year later, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition at Jackson Park.

Chicago has accrued a number of nicknames over the years, but is perhaps most famously known as the “Windy City.” The origin of this moniker is a point of contention among Chicagoans. Some claim it refers to the wind generated by Chicago’s proximity to Lake Michigan, while others say the name began as a derogatory reference to the Chicago political machine’s propensity for “blowing a lot of wind.” One popular story attributes the “Windy City” name to New York Sun editor Charles Dana, who coined the phrase in 1893, which Chicago was competing with New York to host the World’s Columbian Exposition. “Don’t pay any attention to the nonsensical claims of that windy city,” Dana wrote in an editorial. “Its people could not build a World’s Fair even if they won it.”

Lake Michigan, which is still the primary source of fresh water for Chicago, had become highly polluted by the city’s sewage and industrial runoff from the Chicago River. Chicago began addressing these issues in 1855, with the construction of the first comprehensive sewer system in the U.S. In 1900, the city took the drastic step of reversing the Chicago River’s flow with the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. This solved the problem of the drinking water, but the Chicago River (which many residents referred to as “the stinking river”) would remain polluted until the city beautification projects of the 1990s.

The 1920s saw another industrial boom in the city, with the construction of the Merchandise Mart and the Chicago Board of Trade Building. It was also the era of Prohibition, with its widespread violence as North Chicago’s Dion O’Banion and Bugs Moran warred with the South Side’s Al Capone. With 1955 came Mayor Richard J. Daley and the start of the Chicago Democratic Machine, a political system that still dominates Chicago today. Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, was elected mayor in 1989, and has proven to be one of the city’s most popular mayors, despite a number of corruption scandals. Chosen by Time Magazine in 2005 as the best big-city mayor in the U.S. (and described in that article as wielding “near imperial power”), Daley has presided over the modernization of the Chicago Transit Authority, the construction of Millennium Park, and a number of initiatives to improve the environment and beautify Chicago.

Today, Chicago maintains its status as the transportation hub in the U.S. Chicago is home to the third-largest inter-modal port in the world (after Hong Kong and Singapore), and is the only city in North America where six major rail lines meet. Seven interstate highways run through Chicago, and the city is served by Midway International Airport and O’Hare International Airport. The Chicago Transit Authority handles all public transportation, including the busses and the elevated trains (known as the “L”).

Chicago claims to have more parkland than any other city in the U.S., ranging from lakefront harbors to forest preserves. The more than 220 parks and facilities are managed by the Chicago Park District. Grant Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, is home to the Art Institute of Chicago and Buckingham Fountain, as well as the Museum Campus that links the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Field Museum of Natural History. The park, named for Ulysses S. Grant, features a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Strangely enough, a statue of Grant is on prominent display in nearby Lincoln Park (known for its statuary and the Lincoln Park Zoo). Garfield Park Conservatory is regarded as one of the largest and most impressive conservatories in the U.S., featuring thousands of plant exhibits from around the world.

Chicago also has a thriving arts and culture scene, with nearly a hundred different theaters throughout the city. Most prominent are the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, and the Lookingglass Theatre. Since 2000, the Broadway in Chicago program has brought numerous Broadway shows to the city. Chicago is acknowledged as the birthplace of improv comedy, and is home to Second City and I.O., two prestigious comedy troupes. Also located in the city are the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Chicago also has its own style of blues that sprang up during the first half of the 20th century and was honed by musicians like Buddy Guy, Jimmy Dawkins, and Muddy Waters. This musical heritage is honored every summer at the Chicago Blues Fest. In recent years, Chicago has become a center of the alternative music culture, hosting annual gatherings like Lollapalooza and the Intonation Music Festival.

A number of iconic media personalities have come from Chicago. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both worked as film critics for Chicago’s daily papers (Siskel for the Chicago Tribune and Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times). Phil Donahue’s talk show was located in Chicago for a time, as was Jerry Springer’s. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios is located in Chicago as well. Chicago is also a huge sports town, with teams in football (Chicago Bears), basketball (Chicago Bulls), hockey (Chicago Blackhawks), and soccer (Chicago Fire). The city also boasts two Major League Baseball teams, the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox. Chicago has also entered a bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, and is currently in the front running (along with Los Angeles).


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