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Chicago history and timeline

Chicago is one of America's biggest and brightest cities. Perched on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Windy City has the third-highest urban population in the US. Officially incorporated in 1837, the city of Chicago is now home to famous landmarks such as Wrigley Field, Willis Tower, and the Cloud Gate sculpture.

Chicago's story begins in the pre-Colombian era, so let's go back in time and explore the history of Chicago.

Pre-Columbian Chicago and the First Europeans

Before Europeans arrived, the Chicago region was home to several Native American tribes derived from the Algonquian culture. Two of the major tribes associated with the area were the Miami and the Potawatomi. By 1670, the Miami had founded a small settlement near the site of modern Chicago.

This settlement occupied a strategic portage – an area of muddy ground connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Understandably, this natural crossing attracted the interest of European explorers. In 1673, Native Americans from the Kaskaskia tribe guided the Jolliet-Marquette expedition – a French group led by Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette – to the Chicago Portage.

The French maintained relations with the tribes around the Chicago Portage and constructed forts and missions in the area. However, they didn't attempt to settle there.

Chicago's first non-native settler was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable – an ex-slave from Africa who married a Native American woman. In approximately 1790, Point du Sable founded a farm near the mouth of the Chicago River. It wasn't long before a thriving settlement sprang up around the farm. Chicago's history had begun.

Conflict, Growth, and America's Transport Hub: 1790 to 1870

Shortly after Point du Sable established his farm, Chicago rapidly began to expand. In 1795, the United States won the Northwest Indian War after defeating a confederation of Native American tribes. Many tribes ceded land to the US Military, including the land that would become Chicago.

To protect their new possession, the US Military constructed Fort Dearborn on the south bank of the Chicago River in 1803. However, in 1812, a group of Potawatomi warriors attacked the fort. In what became known as the Battle of Fort Dearborn, the US garrison was forced to evacuate and the Potawatomi burned down the fort. After the land was reacquired in 1816, Fort Dearborn was rebuilt and remained in service until 1837.

In 1830, the surveyor James Thompson was commissioned to create a plan for the town of Chicago. This marks the official start of Chicago's history as an urban center. When Thompson drafted his plan, Chicago had 100 inhabitants. By the time the town was granted a city charter in 1837, the population had skyrocketed to nearly 4000 people.

Even before Chicago officially became a city, entrepreneurs saw its potential as a huge transport and trade hub. The Illinois and Michigan Canal was opened in 1848, placing Chicago at the center of a shipping route connecting the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

After receiving its first railway in 1848, Chicago became a hub for over 30 railway routes by the 1850s. Even at this time, Chicago was seen as the main transport hub of the United States. The major railway routes from the East Coast terminated in Chicago, while new routes to the West Coast started out from the city.

It wasn't long before factories and warehouses were founded to take advantage of Chicago's national transport links. Natural resources uncovered by the colonization of the West flooded back through Chicago to the East Coast. By 1854, Chicago's population had ballooned to 30,000 people.

But the site wasn't without its problems. Due to its proximity to the Chicago Portage, the city was built on low-lying ground that frequently flooded. The lack of drainage also meant that the city suffered from terrible living conditions and frequent disease outbreaks. One of the worst was a massive cholera outbreak in 1854.

In 1856, the city government hatched a plan to (quite literally) raise Chicago out of the mud. Engineers used jackscrews to raise Chicago's buildings and streets by up to five feet, hauling the city out of the boggy mud it had originally sat on. An extensive sewer system was also built to improve sanitation.

One of the most impressive achievements was the raising of the Brigg's Hotel. Despite the brick building weighing over 22,000 tons, engineers lifted the hotel while guests continued to go in and out! The plan worked, and by 1870 Chicago's population had eclipsed 300,000 people.

The Great Fire and Rising From the Ashes: 1871 to 1920

On October 8th, 1871, a huge fire erupted in Chicago. The blaze caused immense devastation, destroying 17,000 buildings in a 3-mile radius. Approximately 300 citizens died, and 100,000 people – a third of the city's population – were left homeless. The tragedy attracted donations and financial support from around the world, and Chicago quickly began to rebuild.

More disarray followed in 1877. As part of the Great Railroad Strike, railway workers in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and working conditions. For four days, protesters from various industries joined the railway workers and took to the streets. Although many protests were peaceful, some devolved into riots as protesters clashed with and police. As many as 30 rioters died, while up to 100 citizens and 13 policemen were injured.

As the 1800s progressed, Chicago continued to grow and thrive. Danish architect Jens Jensen helped transform several of the city's parks, including Columbus Park and Garfield Park. In 1893, Chicago hosted one of the most influential world fairs in history – the World's Columbian Exposition – which attracted 27.5 million visitors. Some of the temporary buildings were so striking that the area was called the “White City”.

This was a golden age for Chicago's architecture. Famous landmarks like the Art Institute of Chicago (1879), the Field Museum (1893), and the Navy Pier (1916) were all built in this period. Wrigley Field, one of the oldest baseball stadiums in America, was built in 1914.

Prohibition, Gangsters, and Violence: 1920 to 1934

One of the most infamous periods in Chicago's history was the Prohibition era. In January 1920, a blanket ban on the production, selling, and consumption of alcohol was voted into law by Congress. However, crime lords and organized gangs began smuggling alcohol into the US from Canada and Mexico.

In cities like Chicago, secret bars sprang up where citizens could drink alcohol in secret. These clandestine bars were known as speakeasies. Chicago had thousands of speakeasies hidden across the city, and various organized crime gangs battled to control the alcohol supply.

One of the most famous gangsters of Prohibition-era Chicago was Al Capone. After coming to Chicago in 1919 from New York, Capone rose from a bouncer to become the crime boss of the Chicago Outfit. Capone seized control of large parts of Chicago's bootlegging operations and cultivated relationships with corrupt politicians to protect himself from persecution.

However, on Valentine's Day in 1929, seven members of the North Side Gang – one of Capone's biggest rivals – were lined up and gunned down by four men. The attack became known as the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. It's likely that Capone was involved, making law enforcement even more eager to bring him down.

After being called “Public Enemy No. 1” by several prominent citizens, Capone was arrested on 22 counts of tax evasion. Capone was sent to prison in 1932, and a year later, Prohibition was repealed across the United States.

Another infamous gangster was John Dillinger, whose gang raided nearly 30 banks and police stations across the Midwest, including around Chicago. Dillinger was romanticized by the media and narrowly escaped conviction after murdering a police officer in Indiana. Dillinger was killed by law enforcement in Chicago in 1934.

The Adler Planetarium was built in 1930, while the Museum of Science & Industry opened its doors in 1933.

World War Two to the Present Day

During World War Two, Chicago was the location of a crucial development for the Allied victory. On December 2nd, 1942, the Manhattan Project carried out the world's first controlled atomic reaction on the campus of the University of Chicago. This experiment paved the way for the creation of the atomic bombs that forced Japan to surrender in 1945.

Chicago's population growth continued until the 1950s and 1960s when it finally began to drop as families spread to the suburbs. In 1950, Chicago had over 3.5 million residents. The population wouldn't increase again until 2000.

Nowadays, Chicago attracts millions of tourists a year – with approximately 30.7 million visitors in 2021. Famous landmarks old and new are some of Chicago's main attractions, including Willis Tower (1973) and Millennium Park (2004) The famous Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as “the Bean” was added to Millennium Park in 2006.

Famous landmarks

  • Art Institute of Chicago – 1879
  • Field Museum – 1893
  • Wrigley Field – 1914
  • Navy Pier – 1916
  • Adler Planetarium – 1930
  • Museum of Science & Industry – 1933
  • Willis Tower – 1973
  • Millennium Park – 2004
  • Cloud Gate sculpture – 2006


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