A Wedding in the Clouds (7-25-1925)

Even in 1925, brides were looking for ways to make their weddings distinctive. Dorothy McGonigie was set to marry Hartley Berglund. Her intended husband was a student aviator. That gave Dorothy the idea of staging Chicago’s first airborne wedding.

At 1 p.m. this Saturday afternoon, the two planes in the bridal party took off from the new flying field at 97th and Western. A crowd of 2,000 people waited on the ground. The planes climbed to 5,000 feet, then began a long glide downward.

Rehearsal Photo?

Rehearsal Photo?

In the first plane, the bride and groom stood before Rev. Fred Line of St. Paul’s-on-the-Midway Church and were joined in marriage, with the best man and maid of honor handling the rings. The second plane flew above, allowing the two flower girls to drop red roses on the newly-married couple. When the planes returned safely to earth, Rev. Line could joke that now he really was a “sky pilot.”

What happened to the newly-married couple in later years?  I don’t know.  But I’d like to find out.


Woodrow Wilson Road

As any true Chicagoan knows, Western Avenue is the longest street in the city.  Would you believe it was once named Woodrow Wilson Road?

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, died on February 3, 1924.  He’d been an icon of the Progressive movement and had led the country through the First World War.  The Chicago City Council wanted a suitable way to honor him.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

A few years before, when Theodore Roosevelt had died, the aldermen had changed 12th Street to Roosevelt Road.  What was good for a dead Republican president should be good for a dead Democrat one.  Since the city already had a Wilson Avenue, it was decided to use both the honoree’s names.

It’s not clear why the lawmakers chose Western Avenue for renaming.  On April 25 they officially re-designated the street as Woodrow Wilson Road.

The 12th-to-Roosevelt change had caused little controversy.  But now the property owners along Western objected to the expense involved in renaming their street.  Within a few weeks they’d gathered over 10,000 signatures asking that the old name be restored.

The Tribune sent its Inquiring Reporter to the corner of “Washington Boulevard and Woodrow Wilson Road” to gauge public opinion.  Most people said the change didn’t make any difference to them.  One young lady did say she favored the new name because “it sounds lots nicer, [and] we see enough old things around here.”

The property owners prevailed.  Less than a month after its original action, the council ordered the street changed back to Western Avenue.  A proposal to rename Navy Pier after Wilson was shelved.

Detroit still has a Woodrow Wilson Street

Detroit still has a Woodrow Wilson Street

In 1927 the council changed Robey Street to Damen Avenue without serious incident.  But when Crawford Avenue was renamed Pulaski Road in 1933, that set off a 19-year long battle  The lesson seems to be that nobody can predict when changing a street name will rub some people the wrong way

By the way, the move to change Woodrow Wilson Road back to Western Avenue was spearheaded by Alderman Joseph Kostner.  Today the city remembers him with a street named Kostner Avenue.




Then and Now, Division-Crosby

1953--Division Street @ Crosby, view west

1953–Division Street @ Crosby, view west

2015--the same location

2016–the same location

Our location is just east of Halsted Street.  In 1953 Ogden Avenue crossed through the area on a viaduct.  The neighborhood was mostly industrial then.  Low-rise public housing was already in place to the south, and construction of high-rises was about to begin to the north—the result would be the Cabrini-Green Homes.

The Ogden Avenue viaduct was torn down during the 1990s.  More recently, the high-rises of Cabrini-Green have been torn down.  The area had been gentrifying.



Billy Caldwell the Man

If you’ve lived on the far Northwest Side of the city, around Cicero and Peterson, you know the name Billy Caldwell.  There’s Billy Caldwell Woods, Billy Caldwell’s Reserve, Billy Caldwell Golf Course, Billy Caldwell Post of the American Legion.  And of course, Caldwell Avenue.

The neighborhood is called Sauganash.  That was Billy Caldwell’s other name.

Billy Caldwell is a figure of legend, but was a real person.  Untangling his story has kept historians busy for nearly two hundred years.
Billy Caldwell cigar band

Billy Caldwell cigar band

William Caldwell Jr. was born near Fort Niagara, in upper New York, in 1782.  He was the natural son of a British army officer and a Mohawk princess.  There’s some evidence that Billy’s first name was actually Thomas.

The boy didn’t have much standing in the society of his time—he was both a bastard and a “half breed.”  Billy was raised by the Mohawks, then spent some time in his father’s household.  At 17 he moved out on his own.

Caldwell apprenticed himself into the fur trade.  By 1803 he was chief clerk in the Forsythe-Kinzie firm’s new post at the mouth of the Chicago River.  About this time he married into the Potawatomi tribe.  His in-laws called him “Sauganash,” which translates as “Englishmen.”

In 1812 the Potawatomi attacked the American garrison at Fort Dearborn.  The story goes that Caldwell arrived on the scene just after the battle and saved the lives of the Kinzie family.  That’s the traditional account of what had happened.  Historians have been unable to verify it.

Caldwell fought on the British side in the War of 1812.  Afterward he lived in Canada.  When several business ventures failed, he moved back to Chicago.

Billy Caldwell was here!

Historical marker at Caldwell and Kilbourn—Billy Caldwell was here!

In Chicago Caldwell worked in the Indian trade, as a merchant, and as an appraiser.  He made friends among the settlement’s leaders.  Because of his tribal connections and his fluency in several languages, he smoothed relations between the Americans and the native peoples.

In 1828 the U.S. government recognized Caldwell’s work by building for him Chicago’s first frame house, near what is now Chicago and State.  The next year he was appointed chief of the Potawatomi.  And that needs some explaining.

The Potawatomi knew that the Americans were going to force them out of the area.  They wanted to get the best deal possible.  Even though Caldwell was Mohawk—and only on his mother’s side—they thought he could help them in treaty negotiations.  So they accepted him as chief.

In 1830 the Potawatomi started signing off their land.  Caldwell became a hero among the American settlers.  Chicago’s first hotel was named The Sauganash in his honor.  The U.S. government awarded him a 1600-acre tract of land northwest of the city, Billy Caldwell’s Reserve.  He lived there with his Potawatomi band for three years.

By the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi gave up the last of their land.  At 51, Caldwell was an old man for the time.  Now that the native peoples were leaving, there was no need for his unique services, and no reason for him to stay in Chicago.  He sold his reserve and left with his adopted tribe.

He’d lived a life on the margins, bouncing around among at least three different worlds, never fully part of any of them.  Billy Caldwell spent his final years with the Potawatomi near Council Bluffs, Iowa.  He died there in 1841.


Disco Demolition Night (7-12-1979)

When he was the voice of the White Sox, Harry Caray used to tell listeners, “You can’t beat fun at the old ball park.”  This was one time the fun got out of hand.

Steve Dahl was the morning DJ on WLUP-FM.  He didn’t like disco music.  Part of the reason was he’d lost his job at another station when it changed to an all-disco format.  Dahl and his radio sidekick Garry Meier lost no opportunity to trash disco.7-13--1-sign

Down at Comiskey Park, Bill Veeck was running the White Sox.  He was known for his zany stunts.  Someone—and there are different versions of who it was—came up with the idea of a Disco Demolition Night.

The date chosen was Thursday, July 12.  The Sox were hosting the Detroit Tigers in a twilight double-header.  Anyone who brought a disco record to Comiskey would be admitted for 98 cents.  Between games, Dahl would blow up a crate of the records.

On a normal day, the Sox drew about 16,000 fans.  But for this gala occasion, over 50,000 people crammed their way into the park.  Another 15,000 were turned away.

During the first game, fans started sailing their records around like frisbees.  Fights broke out, beer cups were tossed.  Pot smoke drifted through the air.

The Tigers beat the Sox, 4-1.  Dahl came onto the field dressed in an army uniform.  After leading the crowd in some lusty chants of “Disco Sucks,” he set off the explosives.  The crate of records went up with a loud boom and a puff of smoke.

As Dahl left, a few fans jumped onto the field.  Hundreds more followed.  Then thousands.

They ran around the park.  They tore up the sod, knocked over the batting cage, pulled down banners, lit small fires.  Someone stole the bases—literally.  The security guards were overwhelmed.


After awhile the crowd calmed down.  Caray and Veeck took turns on the public address system, telling the trespassers to go back to their seats.  Most of them stayed where they were.  A Chicago police riot squad finally cleared the field.

Thirty-nine people were arrested for disorderly conduct.  Six injuries were reported.  The playing field was wrecked, so the second game was cancelled.

Nearly forty years have passed.  Disco Demolition Night has become Chicago’s Woodstock.  Everyone claims to have been at Comiskey that night.  Add the numbers up, and there must have been 500,000 people on the field.

BTW—anybody want to buy a 1979-vintage second base?


“The Alewives are Coming! The Alewives are Coming!” (7-7-1967)

It’s summer.  We’re all enjoying the great outdoors, and some of us are going to the beach.  Back in the 1960s, when people around Chicago went to the beach, they had to deal with alewives.

An alewife is a kind of herring.  It’s about 7 inches long and weighs a few ounces.  You mostly find them off New England.  In the Boston suburbs, one of the major streets is even called Alewife Parkway.


Well, during the 1930s, these alewives got into Lake Michigan.  They weren’t much of a problem because the bigger fish–like the trout–would eat them.  But the sea lamprey came along and ate the trout.  Sea lampreys didn’t eat alewives, so suddenly, the lake had all these alewives and no predators.

Pretty soon there are alewives filling the lake.  That’s what today’s story is about—July 7, 1967.  There are so many alewives around Chicago that it’s become national news.  Even Time magazine is talking about it.

Each year, we’d have the annual Alewife Die-Off.  All these alewives would die in Lake Michigan, and their bodies would drift in.  They’d fill the water near the shore or wash up onto the beach.


Of course, those alewives would be decaying, and you can imagine the smell—well, you probably don’t want to.  The flies would come in, and the beaches would be a mess.  The city would have to use tractors and bulldozers to clear off the beaches.

Nobody knew how many dead alewives there were.  Experts said hundreds of millions, maybe a billion.  A guy in a plane over the lake saw a ribbon of drifting dead alewives 40 miles long.

Eventually the government started putting salmon into the lake.  The number of alewives went down, and now we can use the beaches in summer.

But lately we’ve been hearing about the Asian carp.  If that thing gets into the lake, they say it will force out the salmon.  With the salmon gone, what will happen next?

In the meantime, I’m working on a screenplay for a disaster movie.  I’m calling it “Return of the Alewives.”


Then and Now, Cicero-55th

1939--Cicero Avenue @ 55th Street, view north

1939–Cicero Avenue @ 55th Street, view north

2015--the same location

2016–the same location

In 1939 this stretch of Cicero Avenue was mostly vacant lots.  Though nearby Municipal (Midway) Airport had already been operating for over a decade, air travel was not yet big business.  To the north, freight railroad tracks crossed the road at grade.

Today the railroad has been moved onto an overpass.  Notice how the roadway begins to curve at the bottom of the contemporary photo.  Because of airport expansion just south of here, Cicero Avenue now swings around several hundred feet to the east.



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