Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

The Day the Smiles Ended (12-4-1921)

Today the United States government ordered Chicagoans to stop smiling.  It said so on the front page of the morning paper.

12-4--Smiles headline.jpg

The saga begins in late October, when the Chicago Herald-Examiner published an article about eccentric millionaire Harry Phillips.  He was passing out money to complete strangers, just to see them smile.

The Herald-Examiner was the Hearst-owned morning daily.  The paper was trying to overtake the Tribune, and the Phillips story was just the sort of bogus stunt that Hearst often used.

Then the H-E reported that Phillips had left town.  But never fear—Hearst’s paper would carry on the philanthropy.  Each weekday copy of the H-E would now contain a Smile Coupon with a different serial number.  On Sunday there would be a raffle, with a $1,000 grand prize.  That would keep Chicago smiling!

The drawing took place on November 13.  The $1,000 winner was a Sears clerk—and sure enough, she smiled.  So the H-E announced it was putting $25,000 into a pot, to be paid out in $1,000 daily raffles.

At first, the Tribune took no notice of its rival’s stunt.  But during the first weeks of the Smile campaign, the Hearst paper’s circulation jumped 25% to 500,000, about the same as the Trib.  And on Thanksgiving Day, the H-E increased its pot to $100,000, with $3,000 in daily prizes.

So now the Trib launched its own giveaway.  With Christmas approaching, the paper would start printing Cheer Checks.  And the Trib‘s program would be bigger and better.  The World’s Greatest Newspaper would be distributing $200,000—-$5,000 each day.

Now the whole city was caught up in the frenzy.  News dealers reported people buying armloads of papers, ripping out the coupons, and tossing the rest into the street.  Fights broke out among customers trying to purchase papers.  The daily prizes went to $6,000, then $7,000.  The special Sunday drawing reached $20,000.

By December 4, the circulation of each paper was over 1,000,000.  On that day, both the H-E and the Trib received telegrams from the Postmaster General, asking them to end their Smile raffles.  The explanation given was vague.

Both papers used the government message as an excuse to end their competition.  From now on, Chicagoans would have to find their own reasons to crack a smile.



Chicago’s Original Walking Man (11-28-1867)

Most Chicagoans know about the Walking Man, the tall dude with the long hair and mustache who silently stalks the downtown streets. His reappearance each spring is usually good for a few lines in the papers or a few thousand tweets on the net.

One hundred fifty years ago the city greeted another walking man. His arrival made national news.  His name was Edward Payson Weston.

Born in Rhode Island in 1839, Payson spent his teens bouncing around the country. He worked as a reporter and as a circus roustabout, traveled with a singing troupe, and failed at a number of other jobs. Politics finally found him his life’s work, though not in the customary manner.

Edward Payson Weston (1867)

Over dinner one night in 1860, Weston and a friend were talking about the upcoming presidential election. Weston was sure Abraham Lincoln had no chance of being elected, and said that he would walk from Boston to Washington to attend the inauguration if Lincoln won.  When Lincoln did win, Weston did walk the 500 miles in 10 days.  It was a charming story for a country about to be split by civil war, and Weston got his first taste of fame.

Weston’s war service as a Union dispatch runner was short and unremarkable. By 1867 he was deeply in debt when he met a promoter named George Goodwin.  Remembering Weston’s inauguration trek, Goodwin bet fellow businessman T.F. Wilcox $10,000 that Weston could walk the 1,226 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in thirty days.

Weston eagerly agreed to the plan. His share of the possible winnings would be $4,000.  He’d also receive a $6,000 bonus if he walked 100 miles in a single day.

Weston stepped off from Portland at noon on October 29, 1867. He covered the first 105 miles to Boston in two days without incident.  Then, as he moved through New England, crowds began to gather.  In anticipation of the turn-out, Weston carried with him a supply of studio portraits, which he sold for 25 cents each.

The press picked up the story and ran with it. Harper’s Weekly magazine and most of the newspapers were supportive, considering Weston’s “pedestrianism” as an athletic endeavor.  Still, some thought him nothing more than a publicity-seeker.  There were also reports of “counterfeit Westons” strolling through towns to grab a share of his glory.

Weston walked on. In Providence three young women rushed out of the crowd to give him a wreath and kiss him.  In Buffalo he had dinner with ex-President Fillmore.  In Fremont, Ohio, local police saved him from thugs who’d been hired to delay his progress.  In South Bend enthusiastic crowds pushed into his hotel to get a look at him while he tried to sleep.

During his journey, Weston made several attempts to win the bonus for walking 100 miles in a day. Each time he came up short.  One newspaper noted that many of Weston’s friends had been betting against this, and suggested Weston was in on the fix.  Nothing was ever proven.

Weston Tobacco Card (1909)

Fearing last minute sabotage, Weston arranged for an armed escort on the final leg of his journey. He arrived at the Village of Hyde Park on the evening of his twenty-ninth day.  The next morning he began his final walk into Chicago.

Thousands of spectators lined Wabash Avenue as Weston made his victory lap on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. They waved American flags and cheered themselves hoarse.  As the conquering hero approached the Sherman House hotel, the crush was so thick that police had to clear the way.  At the hotel he gave a short speech to his admirers before retiring.  The next few days saw a series of public exhibitions and testimonial dinners before “Weston Fever” gradually subsided.

Edward Payson Weston parlayed his 1867 Chicago trek into a fifty-year career as a professional “pedestrian.” He performed all over America and Europe, and was respected enough to be featured in a tobacco card series of famous athletes.  In 1927 the man who’d walked from New York to San Francisco in 100 days suffered the indignity of being hit by a taxi while crossing the street.  He never fully recovered, and died in 1929.


Getting You Home Faster (11-24-1958)

We take it for granted.  We’re in our cars and things are moving slowly.  So we fiddle around with the radio until we find a traffic report.  Damn—should’ve gotten off at the last exit!

On this date in Chicago history, the Tribune ran a small piece headed “Cop in Copter to Help Untie Traffic Knot.”  The city would now be getting traffic reports on WGN radio, from a policeman in a helicopter.


Earlier generations relied on public transit.  Those commuters didn’t worry about traffic conditions because there wasn’t much they could do about it.  They got on the streetcar and hoped for the best.

But that was changing in the 1950s.  More people were buying cars.  The city was also building a network of expressways.  The commuter could now choose the best route to take.

The new traffic-copter service was planned as a regular part of WGN’s weekday schedule.  Reports would be broadcast beginning at 4:15 PM, and continue at 15-minute intervals until 5:45.  The focus would be on major arteries such as Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue, and the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway.

(Notice how much lighter traffic was in 1958.  The evening rush started after 4 o’clock and was over before 6.  And that same issue of the Tribune also reported on a 17-block-long traffic snarl near the Hillside tollway junction—that was so rare it was considered a news story!)

The reporter in the copter was Leonard Baldy, a 31-year-old Chicago police officer.  Baldy was already known for his work presenting traffic safety programs to civic groups and at schools.  He was also a pioneer in the use of radar speed-detection devices.

The WGN traffic copter was an immediate success.  Then, one week after its launch, a major fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels School on the West Side.  Officer Baldy was soon in the air, and his reports helped emergency vehicles find the quickest routes to the scene.

During the next year, WGN expanded its traffic reports to include the morning rush hour.  Other stations took up the idea.  Today we can’t do without them.

Officer Leonard Baldy was killed on May 2, 1960, when his copter malfunctioned and crashed.  Chicago’s Finest, a biography by his son Tim, was published in 2006.


Galloping Ghost Snagged by Bears! (11-22-1925)

Harold Grange—Red Grange, Old #77, the Wheaton Iceman, the Galloping Ghost—signed a contract to play pro football for the Chicago Bears today.  And that was front page news.

Grange at work

Grange at work

In 1925 college football was the only football that mattered.  The play-for-pay version was casually referred to as “post-graduate” football.  The NFL was struggling through its sixth season.  Though a big college game could attract 70,000 spectators, the pros usually played before a few hundred.

Grange was the most famous football player in the land.  He had rewritten the record book during his three years as a University of Illinois halfback.  In one game against a tough Michigan squad, he’d scored four touchdowns in the first twelve minutes.

Normally, after the football schedule was over, Grange would have returned to campus, gone back to class, and finished up his undergrad studies.  Then he might use his fame to get started in business.  Or if he wanted to stay in touch with football, he could look for a coaching job.

Grange at rest

Grange at rest

Most pro football players earned less than $100 a game.  A promoter named C.C. Pyle convinced Grange he could do much better.  Grange played his final college game against Ohio State on November 21, 1925.  The next day he came to Chicago and signed with the Bears.

George Halas, coach and part-owner of the Bears, immediately arranged a 19-game, coast-to-coast barnstorming tour.  Grange was paid a guarantee plus a percentage of the gate.  Newspapers speculated he might earn as much as $60,000—about what Babe Ruth got from the Yankees.

That figure was too low.  The tour drew so many people Grange pocketed over $100,000.  And the NFL had gained $100,000,000 worth of publicity.

In 1926 Grange and Pyle tried to start their own league.  When that venture failed, the Galloping Ghost returned to the Bears.  He retired from active play in 1934.

Even a half-century later, George Halas always declared that Red Grange was the greatest football player he’d ever seen.  In 1975 an interviewer asked Halas how many yards Grange might run up in an NFL season today. “Oh, about 750 or 800,” Halas replied.

“That’s not so much,” the interviewer interrupted.

“Well, you’ve got to remember one thing,” Halas said.  “Today, Red Grange is over 70 years old!”


Return of That Great Street (11-15-1996)

This was one of those rare days.  Our rulers admitted they’d been wrong.  State Street was re-opened to traffic.

In the 1970s the center of Chicago was dying.  The crowds had gone.  A few more years of this, and it might be too late to turn things around.  Urban experts were called in.  They said that the problem was the automobile.

Look at Europe.  The great cities there had flourished for centuries without cars!  Yes, those places were pedestrian friendly.  We in America could learn something from the greater wisdom of those more civilized cultures.

State Street Mall under construction

It seemed to make sense.  Besides, with OPEC boosting the price of oil every six months, the automobile was on the way out.  Desperate to bring people back downtown, many American cities began converting their main streets into pedestrian malls.

In 1979 Chicago joined the movement.  Mayor Jane Byrne oversaw the closing of State Street between Wacker and Congress.  The Loop’s main thoroughfare became a lovely, linear park.

Well, sort of.

The mall wasn’t continuous—it was broken every block by the east-west cross streets.  CTA busses still rumbled and belched down the middle of everything—plans to return electric streetcars were dropped as too expensive.  To top it all off, the landscaping and street furniture were sterile.

This was the State Street Mall.  It was a hundred-foot-wide hybrid of highway and plaza, which combined the worst features of each.

October 29, 1979–State Street Mall Dedication

When the project was finished, most of the public had doubts about the new State Street.  But the Powerful People backed the project.  Therefore, the mall was going to stay—we’d have to get used to it.  Though Chicago went through some pretty contentious politics in the 1980s, the State Street Mall never became an issue.

During the 1990s, a new demographic emerged.  People were coming back to the center of Chicago.  They were working, shopping, being entertained, and even settling down in apartments and condos.  The streets were coming alive again.

It was clear that making State Street a mall had nothing to do with this trend.  And with auto traffic getting heavy, closing off a major street didn’t make sense.

Early in 1996, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that State Street would be restored to its original state (pun intended).  The work was completed on November 15, just in time for the Christmas shopping season.  The public applauded.  And the mall was now just a bad memory.


Gypsy Smith’s March (10-18-1909)

On this date 108 years ago, Chicago saw one of its strangest events.  English evangelist Gypsy Smith led a march through the city’s notorious Levee.

Rodney Smith really was a Romany—a gypsy.  By 1909 he’d become a famous and respected preacher on three continents.  Now he was conducting a revival at the Armory at Wentworth and 34th Street.

The Levee was Chicago’s red-light district, centered around 22nd and State.  Prostitution was supposed to be illegal in the city.  But officials had always allowed the brothels to operate, as long as they remained clustered in one area.

A few days before, Smith had announced he would lead a march through the Levee.  So on this evening, when he finished his sermon at the Armory, he quietly walked out the front door, and started heading north on Wentworth.  The 3,000 people in his congregation followed.

They walked silently, earnestly.  Men and women, young and old, all races, all levels of society.  Every so often, Smith would turn to face the group and walk backward while preaching to them.  Other joined the march along the way, until about 20,000 people were moving up Wentworth.

10-18--Gipsy Smith cartoon.jpg

By the time they reached 22nd, the sidewalks were jammed with spectators from all over the city.  They stood in horse-drawn wagons, or in open cars, or on the roofs of buildings.  Police estimated the crowd at over 50,000—bigger than any sporting event or election night rally.  One cop shook his head, saying “This could only happen in Chicago.”

Meanwhile, all the brothels had shut down.  The lights were off, the curtains shut, the doors locked.  Many of the prostitutes had changed to street clothes and were among the throng watching the marchers.

In many ways, it was a more civilized time.  The spectators did not heckle the marchers or throw things at them.  They merely watched—respectful or cynical or amused, but always orderly.

10-18--Gipsy Smith marchers.jpg

Now that the marchers had entered the belly of the beast, they began singing hymns.  Periodically they’d pause in front of a “resort.”  Then Smith would lead them in a short prayer before moving on.

The march ended, and Gypsy Smith left.  According to legend, some of his followers stayed behind to sample the delights of the Levee for the first time.  But the evangelist was not disappointed.  “Time will show that great good has been done,” he said.

Two years later, Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. shut down the Levee.


Papal Visit (10-4-1979)

In 1976 a cardinal of the Catholic Church named Karol Wojtyla visited Chicago.  That was minor news.  But when he returned three years later, on this date, the whole city knew he was in town.

By 1979 Wojtyla had become John Paul II, the first Polish pope.  At age 59 he was young for a pope—a dynamic, charismatic figure, a one-time actor who still did downhill skiing.  Now he was making his first papal visit to the United States.

Waiting for the Pope along Milwaukee Abenue

John Paul arrived at O’Hare on the evening of October 4.  Thousands of spectators lined the motorcade route, waiting hours to catch a glimpse of the smiling, waving figure standing in the open-top limo.  He settled in for the night at Cardinal Cody’s residence on State Parkway.

The next day, the pope was up early for a visit to Providence of God church, a mostly-Mexican parish in Pilsen.  From there he moved on to Five Holy Martyrs church in Polish Brighton Park.  That was followed by a meeting with seminarians at Quigley South.

The climax of day was an open-air afternoon Mass in Grant Park.  The Chicago Public Schools had closed for the day to give students and teachers a chance to attend the service.  When some citizens raised concerns about the separation of church and state, the school superintendent deftly sidestepped the issue by declaring the pope’s visit a “historic event.”

There he goes—under the “D” in “DISCOUNT!”

An estimated 1.2 million people gathered in the park for the two-hour-long Mass. The weather remained sunny and seasonable.  Afterward many in the crowd chanted “John Paul Two, We Love You!” The pope responded with “John Paul Two, He Loves You!”

That evening, John Paul attended a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance at Holy Name Cathedral.  The next day he was gone, after 40 busy hours.

John Paul II was pope for nearly 27 years, until his death in 2005.  Nine years later, he was officially canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  Though rumors persisted that he would again visit heavily-Polish Chicago, he never returned.  Today the most visible reminder of his whirlwind tour is a section of what used to be 43rd Street, between Western and Kedzie Avenues.

Here all the street signs read “Pope John Paul II Drive.