"It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago. She outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them." - Mark Twain, 1883
Chicago was only 46 years old when Mark Twain 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.
Chicago’s first permanent resident was a trader named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a free black man apparently from Haiti, who came here in the late 1770s. In 1795, the U.S. government built Fort Dearborn at what is now the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive (look for the bronze markers in the pavement). It was burned to the ground by Native Americans in 1812, rebuilt and demolished in 1857.
Incorporated as a city in 1837, 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. Today, 50 percent of U.S. rail freight continues to pass through Chicago, even as the city has become the nation’s busiest aviation center, thanks to O’Hare and Midway International airports.
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.
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. Only 22 years later, Chicago celebrated its comeback by holding the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, with its memorable “White City.” One of the Exposition buildings was rebuilt to become the Museum of Science and Industry. 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.
In the half-century following the Great Fire, waves of immigrants came to Chicago to take jobs in the factories and meatpacking plants. Many poor workers and their families found help in settlement houses operated by Jane Addams and her followers. Her Hull House Museum is located at 800 S. Halsted St.
Throughout their city’s history, Chicagoans have demonstrated their ingenuity in matters large and small: