Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

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.



Chicago’s First Trolley (10-2-1890)

This was the date “modern” mass transit came to Chicago.  The first electric streetcar line began operating on the South Side.

In 1859 the city got its first street railway.  Rails were sunk in the middle of State Street, between Randolph and 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road), and horses pulled the iron-wheel carriages along the track at 3 miles-per-hour.  The service was popular, and soon extended.  Other lines sprang up on other major streets.

One of Chicago’s early electric streetcars

Cable cars came to Chicago in 1882.  First developed in San Francisco, the idea involved having a continuously-moving cable sunk below track level, running in the direction of travel.  Within a few years, Chicago had the largest cable car system in the country.

The later 19th Century was the age of electricity.  Cities were beginning to string overhead wire for street lights and telephones.  Naturally there was talk of running street railway cars using electric power.  After a few false starts, a successful electric line was launched in Richmond in 1888.

A live electric wire was strung over each set of tracks.  A pole on top of the car connected to the wire, gathering power to run the car’s electric motor.  The pole was called a “trolley,” so the new vehicles were often known as trolley cars.

Like most big cities, Chicago had many competing local transit companies in 1890.  The city’s initial electric line ran on 93rd Street, between Stony Island and South Chicago Avenues.  Rival railways tried to sabotage the effort, spreading dark rumors about passengers being accidentally electrocuted while riding the “death cars.”

1940—The pioneer 93rd Street line (at Jeffery Avenue)

But the trolley cars were triumphant.  They were cleaner, faster, and cheaper to run.  By 1906 both horse cars and cable cars were gone from the city’s streets.

The various local street railway companies were eventually unified.  During the 1920s Chicago operated a fleet of over 3,000 cars on 172 routes over 1,060 miles of track.  With 3.6 million fares each day, it was the largest city transit system on earth.

After World War II, in the name of progress, Chicago replaced its streetcars with buses.  The pioneer 93rd Street line was abandoned in 1951.  Seven years later, the last trolley ran on Wentworth Avenue.

Today many cities have recognized that electric transit is green, and rebuilt their streetcar lines.  Chicago has no plans to do this.


Deadly Medicine (9-29-1982)

It was a Wednesday.  In Elk Grove Village, a 12-year-old schoolgirl awoke with a sore throat.  She went to the medicine cabinet and took the appropriate pills.  A few minutes later, she collapsed.

The paramedics were called.  They came quickly, but could not save her.  The cause of death seemed to be a heart attack or a stroke.

An isolated tragedy.  And yet . . .

poison skull.jpg

In Arlington Heights that same morning, a 27-year-old postal worker died suddenly in his home.  Later in the day, family members gathered at the house to plan his funeral.  Within a short time, both the man’s brother and sister-in-law collapsed.  They also died.

Local authorities thought these deaths might have been caused by a gas leak.  Then it was discovered that all three people had taken Tylenol from the same bottle.  That morning, the Elk Grove Village girl had taken Tylenol for her sore throat.

The remaining Tylenol capsules in the Arlington Heights bottle were examined.  They contained cyanide.


Over the next few days, three other Tylenol deaths were reported, in Elmhurst, in Winfield, and in Old Town Chicago.  The tainted capsules had been manufactured in different places.  That could only mean that someone was going from store to store, sabotaging the medicine.

The public was warned not to use any Tylenol products.  Johnson & Johnson, the maker, halted production and issued a nationwide recall of 30 million bottles.  Since only capsules had been tainted, the company offered to replace them with solid tablets.

Meanwhile, federal and state law enforcement officials converged on Chicago.  Three more contaminated bottles turned up.  People were getting scared now.  Though only Tylenol had been tainted, sales of any kind of medicine plummeted.


On October 6, Johnson & Johnson received an unsigned letter claiming responsibility for the Tylenol murders.  The letter demanded that $1 million be deposited in a particular account at Continental Illinois Bank in Chicago.  Otherwise, the killing would resume.

James W. Lewis of New York City was soon arrested.  Federal authorities claimed he had written the letter to Johnson & Johnson.  Lewis said he was innocent.Lewis was convicted of attempted extortion on October 27, 1983.  He received a 20-year prison sentence for his crime.  After serving 13 years, he was paroled.

The seven Chicago Tylenol deaths led to stronger safety standards in drug production and packaging.  But thirty-five years later, the murders remain officially unsolved.


Pierre’s Key Club (9-12-1967)

What was the news in Chicago, fifty years ago today?

Like any city, Chicago liked to have visitors who came to town and spent some money.   But the Convention and Tourism Office was probably not happy with today’s story.  A new scam was giving the city a bad name.

It worked like this.  A businessman would check into a downtown hotel, then decide to see the sights they didn’t have in Tulsa or Terre Haute—like one of those famous Chicago key clubs.  So, in the time-honored fashion, the visitor would call a cab and tell the driver to take him to “where the action is.”

The driver would tell the man that the best place was Pierre’s Key Club, at 4200 North Clybourn Avenue.  So off they’d go.

Except there was no Pierre’s Key Club.  For that matter, Clybourn Avenue didn’t go as far north as 4200.  Instead, the visitor would be treated to an expensive ride to suburban Cicero.  There he would be deposited at the door of one of several mob joints.

The venue would not have a name or address on the front.  Once inside, the visitor would be expected to fork over $10 for a key club membership.  If the man made friends with one of the women working in the club, she might agree to join him back at his hotel.  In that case, he would have to pay $25—to cover her absence from the club, of course.

The whole operation came to light because a conventioneer filed a formal complaint with the Chicago police.  He had paid his $25, and the woman from the club had never shown up at his hotel!

No doubt stifling a few grins, investigators finally traced the conventioneer’s tale of woe to a tavern on Cermak Road in Cicero.  That was outside the jurisdiction of Chicago police.  But with all the publicity swirling around, the case could not be ignored.

Now the Illinois Liquor Control Commission took over.  The owner of the Cicero tavern was called in, for a hearing on license revocation.  He said he was just as confused as the investigators.  Pierre’s Key Club?  Never heard of it!

When all was over, a few Cicero bars were shut down, for awhile.  And city cab drivers no longer touted the pleasures of Pierre’s Key Club.


The Wreck of the Lady Elgin (9-8-1860)

Much of the time Lake Michigan looks like a big, peaceful pond.  We forget how dangerous it can be.  That was the lesson nature taught 157 years ago today.

The Lady Elgin was a wooden-hull, sidewheel steamship–the kind you’ve seen in all the old movies about riverboat gamblers.  The ship operated on Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee.  Late on the evening of September 6, 1860, the Lady Elgin left Milwaukee for the last time.

The 'Lady Elgin' in port

The ‘Lady Elgin’ in port

The ship had been chartered by the Irish Union Guard, a Milwaukee paramilitary club.  The group was going to Chicago either to buy weapons, or to hear a speech by presidential candidate Stephen Douglas–accounts vary.  About 350 people were making the trip.

The voyage south passed without incident.  The Irish Union Guard had their day in Chicago, then boarded ship to return home.  The Lady Elgin left port in heavy weather late on September 7.

About 2 the next morning, as the passengers slept, the ship was off Winnetka.  The storm had become a full-blown gale.  Suddenly the schooner Augusta appeared among the waves.  Before either ship could maneuver, the Augusta smashed into the Lady Elgin‘s side.

Captain Jack

Captain Jack

At first the damage to both ships seemed minor, and the Augusta proceeded on its way.  Then Captain Jack Wilson of the Lady Elgin discovered a large hole on the port side of his vessel.

Wilson tried to plug the hole with mattresses from the beds.  When the ship continued to sink, he ordered the 200 head of cattle in the hold driven overboard, to lighten the load.  Nothing worked.  Within twenty minutes of being rammed, the Lady Elgin broke apart and sank.

A few fortunate people managed to get into lifeboats.  A drummer from a brass band floated to safety on his bass drum.  Most of the others clung desperately to wreckage as the gale raged on.

On shore, word of the disaster spread.  Dozens of Good Samaritans roused themselves from bed, and came out in the storm to the lake.  There were many heroic rescues.  But the fierce weather hampered most efforts.

By morning it was over.  Thirty people survived.  No one knows how many had been lost, though estimates range as high as 400.  The wreck of the Lady Elgin remains Lake Michigan’s most deadly maritime disaster.



Million-Dollar Horse Race (8-30-1981)

The sporting world had never seen anything like it.  Arlington Park was holding the first thoroughbred horse race with a million-dollar purse.  The race was called—what else?—the Arlington Million.


The idea originated with Joe Joyce, who’d headed the track since 1976.  The inaugural Million was scheduled over a distance of one-and-one-quarter miles, and was open to three-year-olds and up.  The winner was to receive 60% of that $1 million purse—nearly double the prize of the Kentucky Derby.

Joyce wanted international attention, and he got it.  The final field of fourteen horses included entries from England, Ireland, and France.  Interest in Europe was so great that NBC added special satellite TV coverage of the race.  One writer said that the first Million would be “the race people may be telling their grandchildren about, fifty years from now.”

Million Day was a Sunday.  The weather was pleasant, and 30,637 people came out to Arlington.  As the horses readied for the 3:40 post, the favorite was 6-year-old gelding John Henry, with legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker up.

Racing fans call a thoroughbred race “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”  The first Arlington Million took slightly longer than that, 2:07:06.  Most of the excitement was provided by The Bart, a 40-1 shot who led most of the way.  Charging furiously at the end, John Henry finally came through and won by a nose.


Watching the replay in the paddock, jockey Shoemaker could only shake his head and say, “That was even closer than the real thing!”  He predicted the Arlington Million would have a splendid future because it had such an international flavor.  And he added, “This might be the greatest race I was ever in.”

Dave Condon of the Tribune had a humorous take on the day’s events.  Because Illinois didn’t have (legal) off-track betting in 1981, Condon tried to place a wager on the Million with a London gambling house.  And since this was 1981, there wasn’t any internet.  So Condon had to make a long-distance phone call to London at 3 a.m. Chicago-time.

When he finally got through, after various adventures, he was told that American Express wouldn’t allow him to charge a wager on his credit card.

Today the Arlington Million is a major event on the racing calendar.  At the track itself, a sculpture titled “Against All Odds” commemorates the 1981 battle between John Henry and The Bart.


A Star Is Born (8-21-1914)

Okay–this is three days late.  I was busy with the eclipse!

In August 1914 golf’s United States Open championship was being staged at the south suburban Midlothian Country Club. Among the entrants was a 21-year-old pro from upstate New York named Walter Hagen.

Hagen had finished fourth in the previous Open. But he’d been ready to abandon golf in favor of a baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was back at the Open only because a wealthy friend had bankrolled the trip.

Hagen at Midlothian, 1914

Hagen at Midlothian, 1914

This was Hagen’s first visit to Chicago. The night before the tournament, Hagen and a buddy had dinner at a Loop restaurant. Within a few hours, the young golfer was throwing up.

Hagen wanted to withdraw from the tournament. His buddy convinced him to at least give it a try. Popping pills and stumbling around in a daze, Hagen shot 68, a course record. He was leading the Open.

By now, Hagen was feeling better. His scoring fell off the next two rounds. Still, he held the lead going into the final eighteen holes.

On his way to the most important round of golf in his life, Hagen stopped to watch a 7-year-old boy knocking a golf ball around the practice green. Hagen asked what he was doing. “Playing golf,” was the answer. As Hagen listened intently, the kid proceeded to give him a lesson.

Fourth round. Hagen’s play was raggedy now. Yet he managed to drain a long putt on the last green and post a final total of 292. When local amateur Chick Evans just missed holing out a chip on that same green, Hagen became the 1914 U.S. Open champion.

Afterward, at the ceremony where officials presented Hagen with the trophy, nobody was prouder that a certain 7-year-old boy. He went around telling everyone that he’d taught the new champ to play golf only a few hours earlier.

For his part, Hagen didn’t stick around the clubhouse too long after his victory. During his final round, he’d become acquainted with a young lady in the gallery, and they’d made a date. Now he hurried off to meet her.

Walter Hagen went on to become one of history’s greatest golfers.  He was the winner of eleven major championships—or sixteen, if you count his five Western Open titles, a big event in those times.  He summed up his philosophy of life memorably: “You’re only here for a short time. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”