Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

“Hidden Chicago Landmarks”

This is not a quiz, so there’s no need to send in any answers.  Rather, this is a selection of photos from my new book Hidden Chicago Landmarks.

These are the places that aren’t on the usual tour.  You might recognize some of them.  Now you can learn the fascinating history behind them.

The book has 60 stories.  Besides 42 current landmarks, there are 10 lost landmarks that are now gone.  The final section visits 8 interesting neighborhoods that most people simply drive by.

Hidden Chicago Landmarks is now available on Amazon.  Buy several and stock up!  Or wait until it comes to your library.  But whatever you do, I hope you have as much fun reading the book as I did writing it.

Here is the Amazon link—



Big Wheel (6-21-1893)

The directors of the Columbian Exposition wanted to outdo the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.  The big hit of that fair had been Gustave Eiffel’s soaring iron tower.

On this date, the world saw Chicago’s answer to the challenge—George Washington Ferris’s giant wheel.


Ferris was a young Pittsburgh engineer.  He’d gotten his idea from that new fad, the bicycle.  With boyish enthusiasm, he convinced investors to spend $400,000 so he could build a 300-foot-high, spinning bicycle wheel.

So now, a month into the Exposition, it was ready.  At 4 in the afternoon, a crowd of 2,000 people gathered at the base of the wheel.  Overhead, in one of the 36 cars–which were more like sheds, and could each hold 60 passengers–a brass band pumped out patriotic tunes.  Red, white, and blue bunting were everywhere.

George Washington Ferris

The speeches began.  They followed the theme that American ingenuity had once again triumphed.  One of the speakers, General Nelson Miles, said that Mr. Ferris’s wheel had surpassed the Seven Wonders of the World.

Finally, the man of the hour spoke.  He thanked all those who’d been involved in the project.  He especially thanked his wife Margaret for her unwavering support.

Then Mrs. Ferris stepped forward and handed her husband a golden whistle.  He blew it once.  On that signal, the giant wheel began to slowly turn.

The crowd applauded.  Then, in good order, they lined up for a ride.

A trip on the 1893 wheel consisted of two revolutions.  The first time around, six stops were made to load the cars.  After that, the riders got a second, non-stop spin.  The whole ride lasted about twenty minutes.  The cost was fifty cents.

The public loved the big wheel.  On a clear day, you could see Wisconsin, or all the way across the lake to the Michigan shore.  By the time the Exposition closed in October, neary 1.5 paid admissions had been rung up.  There was not a single accident or injury.

George Washington Ferris was hailed as a modern Da Vinci, but he did not enjoy his fame for long.  He died of typhoid in 1896, only 37 years old.

The original Ferris Wheel played a number of engagements in later years.  The novelty gradually wore off, and it was blown up in St. Louis in 1906.



Chicago’s First ‘L’ (6-7-1892)

On this date the Chicago ‘L’ began service. Operated by a private company named the Chicago & South Side Rapid Transit, the trains ran from Congress south to 39th Street.  Unlike New York—where the elevated trains ran over public streets—the Chicago ‘L’ right-of-way was in the alley between State and Wabash, earning it the nickname the Alley ‘L’.

 South Side ‘L’ car at Congress terminal in 1898, after the line was electrified

The coaches were pulled by steam locomotives. Patrons bought a five-cent ticket from an agent in the ground-floor station, climbed up the stairs to the platform, and gave the ticket to another agent.

Today’s revenue service began at 7 a.m, when a northbound train left 39th Street. On board the four coaches were 30 passengers. After stopping at eight intermediate stations, Chicago’s first Monday rush hour train pulled into Congress terminal at 7:14, right on time. The new service was a success, and construction was soon underway to extend the line to Jackson Park for the upcoming Columbian Exposition.


The Bowling Ball That Went Around the World (5-28-1914)

Guest Post from The Oldest Chicagoan

Brunswick is a famous Chicago company.  They make bowling and billiards equipment.  In 1914 they came up with a new advertising stunt.  They were going to send a bowling ball around the world.

People didn’t travel much then—not even 50 miles, never mind around the world.  But there were YMCAs in all the British colonies.  So Brunswick planned to ship one of their Mineralite model balls from one YMCA to another, and the ball would get around the world that way.

Simple—and great publicity!  People would read about the ball as it moved from one place to the next.  When it got back to America, Brunswick would put it on display at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.


So Brunswick Mineralite #391914 leaves Chicago for San Francisco on May 28, 1914, and gets to ‘Frisco two days later.  They bowl a match at the YMCA, then the ball goes back across the U.S. to New York.

At New York they put the ball on a ship and it goes to London.  There’s another ceremony there.  Next the ball is off to Berlin, for the big international bowling tournament.

Now things get complicated.

While the ball is on its way to Berlin, war breaks out between Britain and Germany—a little scrap called World War One.  The Brunswick ball arrives, and the Germans are suspicious.  Most of them have never seen a big, American-style bowling ball.  They think it’s a bomb.  They send it back.

Somehow, the ball winds up in Paris.  It sits around for a few months, then back it goes to London.  This time the Brits put it on a boat for India, and it gets to Bombay in November.

In Bombay, the ball is put on another boat heading for Sidney, Australia.  And that boat sinks.  It’s all over.

But no!  It turns out that the ball missed the boat that sank.  It’s still safe in India!

Anyway, the ball eventually gets to Australia, and from there it goes across the Pacific to San Francisco.  And in May 1915, the world-traveling bowling ball is proudly displayed at the Brunswick booth at the fair.

Then the fair closes, and after all that trouble, they lose the ball!  It’s missing for 19 years.  But in 1934, somebody finds #391914 in a warehouse.  And it finally returns to Chicago, just in time for our Century of Progress fair.

Where’s this famous bowling ball now?  Beats me!  Maybe it’s in that warehouse in the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  So I suppose we’ll have to have another world’s fair for it to show up again.


Chicago’s First Mother’s Day (5-9-1909)

Chicago first celebrated Mother’s Day exactly 110 years ago—May 9, 1909.

The American version of Mother’s Day was started by Anna Jarvis, after the death of her own mother in 1905.  To honor all mothers, Jarvis asked people to wear white carnations on the second Sunday in May.  The first observances were held in Grafton, West Virginia, where the late Mrs. Jarvis had been a teacher.

Anna Jarvis

By 1908 Mother’s Day was being celebrated in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and a few other places.  Meanwhile, Jarvis worked to spread the holiday.  She sent pamphlets to women’s clubs in various cities, asking for help.

In Chicago, the Mother’s Day cause was taken up by Sarah Warrell.  On May 4, 1909, the Tribune ran a short interview in which she described the holiday.

Warrell called on ministers, teachers, and charitable institutions to get out the word.  Wearing the white carnation was the first step.  Then people should use the holiday for positive action, to help the aged, the sick, and the needy.  “If everyone in the city would volunteer to do what he could to observe the spirit of Mother’s Day, much happiness would result,” Warrell said.

May 9th came.  Men, women, and children were seen sporting the white carnation.  Some groups, like the YMCA and the Grand Army of the Republic, had enlisted their entire membership.  Pastors mentioned Mother’s Day in sermons, and in Oak Park, the First Presbyterian Church was filled with the symbolic flower.  Carnations were also distributed at various hospitals and orphanages.

With less than a week’s publicity, the first Chicago Mother’s Day was a great success.  During the next few years, the local movement grew.  In 1910 Governor Charles Deneen declared Mother’s Day a state holiday.  Not to be outdone by a Republican, Chicago’s Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. issued his own proclamation in 1911.

The holiday was a likely time to remind Chicagoans of the problems faced by single mothers—“illegal mothers,” as they were then called.  On Mother’s Day 1911, the St. Margaret Relief Society held a special meeting at the La Salle Hotel.  Single moms told their stories to an audience of 200 local club women, asking for help to maintain the “maternity home for dependent women.”

1912 Chicago newspaper ad

 Chicago’s 1912 Mother’s Day was the biggest one yet.  The holiday had become so popular that local florists ran out of carnations.  The Tribune published a special section in which prominent Chicagoans wrote about their mothers.  There was some talk about changing this first Sunday in May to a Parents’ Day—or maybe even having a separate Father’s Day.

Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation officially designating Mother’s Day as a national holiday.  We’ve been celebrating it ever since.


Paderewski’s Piano (4-23-1893)

The World’s Fair was opening in a week.  Chicago and the nation were ready.  But now, there was a good chance that the musical headliner would not perform.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a Polish-born pianist.  At 32, he was already the world’s most famous musician.  He had sex appeal.  Women fainted at his concerts, and even when they saw him on the streets.  There was a popular name for the phenomenon—“Paddymania.”

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Paderewski had just finished a series of Chicago concerts, and was about to leave for Europe.  Conductor Theodore Thomas asked him to stay around for a week and play at the Fair.  Paderewski agreed to do it, without fee.  Everything was set.

Then the Fair’s bureaucrats got into the act.  Paderewski performed on Steinway pianos.  Steinway was not an exhibitor at the Fair.  Therefore, Paderewski would have to use one of the “official” pianos.

Paderewski refused.  He said a musician should be free to select his own instrument.  He had signed a contract to use only Steinway pianos.  Besides, the company had been good to him, and he was loyal.

Thirty years later, Paderewski still plays a Steinway

The dispute hit the front pages and stayed there.  Negotiations went on behind closed doors.  A compromise was suggested, where Paderewski would alternate between a Steinway and one of the other pianos.  He wouldn’t budge.

Many newspapers thought he was being a temperamental prima donna, and said so.  Theodore Thomas angrily reminded everyone that Paderewski had already delayed his departure from Chicago.  The pianist was also offering to play for free, when he might have demanded several thousand dollars.

Now the arguments became more heated.  President Grover Cleveland was arriving soon to open the Fair.  Maybe the President could settle the piano problem.

Finally, Fair officials gave in.  Paderewski performed on his Steinway—brilliantly, as usual.

Paderewski continued his concert career until his death in 1941.  Along the way, he served as the first Prime Minister of an independent Poland, and later starred in a feature film titled Moonlight Sonata.

He loved Chicago, and often returned.  He said that three things in America impressed him—Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the City of Chicago.  Today the Polish Museum of America maintains a Paderewski Room filled with memorabilia.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is the artist’s personal piano.

It’s a Steinway, of course.



Great Civil War Ended! (4-11-1865)

Peace!  Victory!  My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!  After four bloody years, the War of the Rebellion was over.

General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army in Virginia.  There were still some rebel forces fighting in other places.  But now that Lee had given up, the rest of the South would surely accept defeat.

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Chicago had been on edge for days, waiting for Lee to capitulate.  Then, early on  Sunday evening, the joyous tidings flashed over the telegraph.  And the city celebrated.

People took to the streets, shouting and firing guns into the air.  An impromptu parade started marching down Lake Street.  As night fell, bonfires were lit.  Straw-filled dummies labeled with the names of rebel leaders were tossed into the fires.  Other dummies were hung from trees, where they served as handy targets for revelers flinging horse dung.

At midnight the hundred guns of the Dearborn Light Artillery boomed.  The noise continued through the night and into the dawn.  Whether any of the city’s 200,000 residents got much sleep was doubtful.

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Monday came.  Nobody felt like going to work, and most businesses remained closed.  The Court House, the newspaper offices, and other important buildings were decorated with bunting.  Street vendors selling tiny American flags on sticks couldn’t keep up with the demand.  Another night of celebration followed.

As the sun rose on Tuesday, Chicago finally started getting back to normal.  Though the war had not always been popular in the North, the Tribune had supported it whole-heartedly.  Publisher Joseph Medill was a leader in the Republican Party and a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln.

Now the Tribune reminded readers that many Democrats had defended the evil of slavery.  Those Democrats had urged the North to make peace with the rebels.  And as long as the North had fought the war in a “Democrat” way, the South could not be conquered.

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But then the government had decided to fight in a “Republican” way—total war.  “There was no more foolery or conciliation,” the paper declared.  “The war was made on the principles of coercion and subjugation.”  Victory had followed.

The period of postwar euphoria was brief.  Before the week was over, President Lincoln was killed by an assassin.