Happy Birthday Chicago! Here's to 176 more
Mark Twain once said, "It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago. She outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them."
Chicago was only 46 years old when he wrote those words, but it had already grown more than 100-fold, from a small trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River into one of the nation’s largest cities, and it wasn’t about to stop. Over the next 20 years, it would quadruple in population, amazing the rest of the world with its ability to repeatedly reinvent itself.
And it still hasn’t stopped. Today, Chicago has become a global city, a thriving center of international trade and commerce, and a place where people of every nationality come to pursue the American dream.
A Brief History
The drawing pictured above is what historians believed Chicago in the early 1800’s looked like. From just a small town of three eighths of a square mile with only 150 people to 4,170 people on the day it became a city just 37 years later. On March 4, 1837, the act to incorporate Chicago as a city was passed and William B. Ogden was elected Chicago's first mayor.
Chicago’s first permanent resident was a trader named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a free black man who came here in the late 1770s. After Chicago became a city in 1837, it grew rapidly around the edges of the second Fort Dearborn, built in 1816. The fort persisted until 1857, when Chicago had a population of more than 80,000.
A Trading Center
Chicago was ideally situated to take advantage of the trading possibilities created by the nation’s westward expansion. The completion of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1848 created a water link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, but the canal was soon rendered obsolete by railroads.
The Great Fire of 1871
As Chicago grew, its residents took heroic measures to keep pace. In the 1850s, they raised many of the streets five to eight feet to install a sewer system – and then raised the buildings, as well. Unfortunately, the buildings, streets and sidewalks were made of wood, and most of them burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Chicago Fire Department training academy at 558 W. DeKoven St. is on the site of the O’Leary property where the fire began. The Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station at Michigan and Chicago avenues are among the few buildings to have survived the fire.
The White City
Chicago rebuilt quickly. Much of the debris was dumped into Lake Michigan as landfill, forming the underpinnings for what is now Grant Park, Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago. The nation’s first skyscraper, the 10-story, steel-framed Home Insurance Building, was built in 1884 at LaSalle and Adams. Only 9 years later, Chicago celebrated its comeback by holding the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, during which Chicago got its nickname “The White City" as the white stucco buildings and extensive use of street lights illuminated the city in white.The first Ferris wheel made its debut in Chicago at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Chicago refused to be discouraged even by the Great Depression. In 1933 and 1934, the city held an equally successful Century of Progress Exposition on Northerly Island.
1930’s and Beyond
By the 1950’s Chicago was on fresh feet—literally. Major expressways were completed within the same year, creating ease of transportation for commuters and visitors to and from the city. Museums and cultural institutions were opening, establishing a rise in the creative capital downtown; The Adler Planetarium became the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere in 1930. In 1973, the Sears Tower, now Willis Tower, was completed becoming the world’s tallest building at the time and Chicago’s nightlife and entertainment was some of the best in the country.
Throughout Chicago’s history, Chicagoans have demonstrated their ingenuity in matters large and small. Today, Chicago is home to a growing list of annual celebrations, attractions and amenities both visitors and residents enjoy including:
237 square miles of land
An estimated 2,695,598 residents
Dozens of cultural institutions, historical sites and museums
More than 200 theaters
Nearly 200 art galleries
More than 7,300 restaurants
77 community areas containing more than 100 neighborhoods
26 miles of lakefront
15 miles of bathing beaches
36 annual parades
19 miles of lakefront bicycle paths
11 Fortune 500 companies, the metropolitan area hosts an additional 21
Within the walls of Chicago today, nearly 43 million people visit annually and a record 23.07 million overnight business and leisure travelers pass through the downtown area. And with almost 3 million residents, it goes without saying that Chicago has come a long way since a hilly flat plane along a waterfont.
Happy Birthday, Chicago. Here's to 176 more!