Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

The Great Loop Flood (4-13-1992)

Today Chicagoans got an unexpected history lesson.  Today was the day of the flood.

Early in the 20th Century, a network of tunnels was built 40 feet below the streets of downtown Chicago.  The tunnels were used mostly for hauling freight between Loop buildings.  They were abandoned during the 1950s.


By 1991 most Chicagoans knew nothing about the freight tunnels.  That December, a contractor happened to be sinking wooden pilings into the river at the Kinzie Street Bridge.  The work caused a crack in one of the tunnel walls.  The city was notified about the accident.

Months passed.  There was no water leak, so there didn’t seem to be any hurry about fixing the crack.  Then, shortly before 6 on the morning of April 13, the Fire Department received a call about flooding in the basement of the Merchandise Mart.

Had a water main broken?  That explanation was soon discarded, as the real problem became evident–the river had pushed through the crack in the wall of the freight tunnel, and was pouring in.

The flood spread southward, into the Loop.  Electric and gas lines were knocked out.  More basements were flooded.  The waters eventually reach as far south as the Hilton.

4-13--flood at Kinzie.jpg

Trading was suspended at the exchanges.  Government offices shut down.  Businesses closed early and sent their employees home—but not on the subway, because the power was out there, too.  Thousands of people milled aimlessly around downtown, trading rumors.

It was an odd disaster.  At street level, everything looked as it always had.  Officials assured the public that the situation was under control.  Governor Jim Edgar met with Mayor Richard M. Daley at City Hall.  Afterward the governor told reporters there was no need to call out the National Guard.

About 11 a.m. the river locks were opened.  That let the Chicago River resume its natural course into Lake Michigan.  The water in the tunnels continued to rise, but more slowly.

By evening the water level had finally stabilized.  Now the cleaning up and pumping out began.  It would take weeks.  A private contractor finally had to be brought in to seal the original leak at Kinzie Street.

The water emergency was expensive.  Some estimates place the price tag for damaged goods, repair costs, and lost business at over $100,000,000.  For insurance reasons, the event is officially classified as a “leak.”  But no matter what name is used, those who experienced it firsthand often echo the reaction of their mayor—“What a day!”


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History

Saving More Daylight (4-9-1941)

Chicagoans were talking about Daylight Saving Time.  The discussion was more heated than enlightening.

Benjamin Franklin had suggested Daylight Saving Time (DST) as long ago as 1784.  But America did not take up the idea until 1918.  With the country fighting World War I, Congress adopted year-round DST as an emergency measure.  When the war ended, the law was repealed.

In 1941 there was no national standard for DST.  Local communities made their own decision.  Chicago observed DST from the last Sunday in April through the last Sunday in September.  Now some Chicagoans wanted to extend that a month, to the last Sunday in October.


Opposition came mainly from farmers.  In Springfield, the Illinois Agricultural Association was backing a bill to prevent cities from extending DST.  They argued that any changes should be implemented statewide.  The CIO, a major labor group, was supporting the farmers.

However, most Chicagoans seemed to favor the extension.  DST was hailed as an economic boon, encouraging people to stay out later and spend more money.  With DST, there were fewer traffic accidents.  There was less crime, too.

Today Chicagoland sports leaders were speaking out in favor of longer DST.  According to the Tribune, their support was “as convincing as the Chicago Bears’ 73-0 rout of Washington” in the NFL championship.


At Northwestern University, the football coach said the change would allow his team to practice in natural sunlight, rather than under electric lights.  In the Loop, employees of banks and department stores were eager to have the extra hour of softball time in Grant Park.  Tennis players wanted more DST.  So did local soccer teams.

Greatest enthusiasm came from golfers.  “It would be a definite benefit to the thousands in the Chicago district if they were able to take advantage of October, one of our finest months,” a golf official said.  “That added 60 minutes would allow most of them to get in another nine.”  (Nine holes in an hour? They sure played faster in those days!)

The debate continued.  In May the Chicago City Council voted to extend DST the extra month.  The next year, with World War II under way, the whole country again went on temporary, year-round DST.  A national DST law–allowing for a few exceptions–finally went into effect in 1967.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History

Big Bill’s Rat Show (4-6-1926)

Political campaigns aren’t what they used to be.  Consider what happened in Chicago on this April 6th in 1926.

The Republican U.S. Senate primary was a week away.  Incumbent W.B. McKinley was being challenged by Frank L. Smith.  McKinley was supported by most of the party elite, including Fred Lundin.  Lundin was a backroom campaign strategist known as The Poor Swede.  He was sort of the 1920s combination of Karl Rove and David Axelrod.

The Poor Swede

Smith was backed by former Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson—Big Bill.  Thompson was looking forward to 1927, when he could try to get his old job back.  But Lundin was grooming another candidate for mayor, Dr. John Dill Robertson.  That was more important to Big Bill than any Senate race.

The Smith campaign held a rally at the Cort Theatre.  When it was Big Bill’s turn to speak, he walked on stage carrying a cage, and set the cage on a table.  In the cage were two rats.

Thompson pointed at one of the rats.  “This one is Doc,” he told the packed house.  “I can tell him because he hasn’t had a bath in twenty years.  But we did wash him, and he doesn’t smell like a billy goat any longer.”

The crowd gasped—then laughed, then cheered.  “Go on! Go on!” they shouted.

Thompson pointed to the other rat.  “Don’t hang your head, Fred,” he said.  “Wasn’t I the best friend you ever had?  Isn’t it true I came home from Honolulu to save you from the penitentiary?”

Big Bill

He went on this way for a half hour.  The audience loved it.  Big Bill told them he’d always lived up to the cowboy code, but that Lundin had double-crossed him.  Lundin had a Jekyll and Hyde personality.  “When he was associated with me, the best in him came to the surface,” Thompson said.  “Since then he has been only evil.”

Big Bill concluded his performance by telling the crowd that he’d planned to bring six rats—“but Fred and Doc ate up the other four.”  That brought down the house.

Big Bill’s Rat Show became national news.  Smith upset McKinley in the primary, and later won the general election.  But because of various irregularities, the U.S. Senate refused to seat Smith.

That didn’t seem to bother Big Bill Thompson too much.  In 1927 he completed his comeback, and was again elected Mayor of Chicago.

No, political campaigns aren’t what they used to be.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History

Professor Moriarty Comes to Chicago (3-28-1901)

Adam Worth ran a criminal ring in England during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. A London detective once called him “The Napoleon of the Criminal World,” and Worth is thought to be the model for Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty. And though Holmes never had any dealings in Chicago, the real-life Moriarty did.

Adam Worth

Adam Worth

Born in Germany in 1841, Worth grew up in Massachusetts. He eventually settled in London, posing as an American financier with social connections.  During the 1870s he put together an elaborate underworld organization, specializing in high-end burglaries of his unsuspecting society friends. Scotland Yard suspected him, but could prove nothing.

Then, in 1876, Worth’s brother was arrested on forgery charges and needed bail. At the time a famous Gainsborough painting, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was about to be offered at a London auction. So one night Worth simply got a ladder, climbed through a window at the auction house, cut the painting from its frame, and made off with it.

As it turned out, the charges against little brother were dropped. Rather than fence the stolen painting, Worth decided to keep it.

Georgiana became Worth’s constant companion. He usually kept it in the false bottom of a suitcase as he traveled. At some point he smuggled the painting out of England and put it in storage in the United States. That’s where Georgiana was in 1893, when Belgian authorities convicted Worth of a string of robberies and sent him to prison.

By 1899 Worth was out of prison. His crime ring was in shambles and his fortune was gone. Using the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a go-between, he began negotiating a “no-questions-asked” return of Georgiana to the auction house. After nearly two years haggling, a price of $25,000 was agreed upon. The transfer was to be made in Pinkerton’s headquarters city, Chicago.

"Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire"

“Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire”

Morland Agnew of the auction house came over from London, arriving in Chicago on March 27, 1901. As instructed, he checked into the Auditorium Hotel. The next morning, accompanied by William Pinkerton of the detective agency, Agnew cashed a bank draft for the ransom. The money was put in the safe at the Pinkerton office. Then the two men went to the hotel to wait.

At 1 p.m. a messenger arrived at Agnew’s hotel room, carrying a parcel wrapped in brown paper. After Agnew identified himself, the messenger handed him the parcel and left. Inside the parcel was the long-lost Georgiana.

Within hours Agnew was on the train to New York, and from there the ship to England. Not until the painting was safely back in London was the news released to the world. Then the Chicago papers ran the story on the front page for a week.

Adam Worth in disguise had been the messenger returning the painting. Less than a year after collecting the ransom, he was dead of natural causes. But in a twist worthy of Conan Doyle himself, the real-life Moriarty’s son refused to take over the family business.  Instead, he found a new career—as a Pinkerton detective.


Irritable Teachers (3-22-1933)

Chicago’s public school teachers had not been regularly paid in two years.  Today they decided to do something about it.

The Chicago school system had been a financial mess since the late 1920s.  The Depression hit, and the Board of Education ran out of money.  In 1931 the Board started paying teachers in scrip—which was basically an IOU.

3-22--class photo.jpg

When the teachers tried to pay their own bills, many businesses refused to accept the scrip.  Other places were glad to take the Board’s paper, but only at a discount.  The teachers’ union got a court injunction to halt the scrip.  The Board responded with the occasional payless payday.

So today over 200 teachers descended on the regular Board meeting at the Builders Building on La Salle Street.  The teachers carried signs with slogans like “Irritable Teachers Are Not Fair To Children.”  A bill was pending in Springfield that would allow teachers to strike if their pay was more than six months in arrears.  The Board was discussing that bill.

One Board member spoke out against it.  He painted a doomsday picture.  If the bill became law, the schools would have to shut down.  Then the public would question the whole value of a formal education.  There would be demands to end schooling at the 8th grade.


The teachers in the audience thought this was pure bullsh—er, balderdash.  They hooted and booed.  The presiding officer was not pleased.  “If you have no more control over your pupils than you have over yourselves, I question whether you are worthy of your calling,” he snapped.

The teachers next marched to City Hall, where the City Council was in session.  They filled the gallery and started chanting “We want our pay!”  Acting Mayor Corr gaveled for order.  He decided to let three teachers address the Council.

One by one, the teachers stated their case.  The Council listened.  The aldermen agreed to move forward with a plan to raise cash by selling tax anticipation warrants.  That ended the day’s protest.

But that was not the end of the trouble.  There were more missed paydays and more demonstrations.  The Board of Education’s financial problems were finally resolved in 1934 by a $22 million loan from the federal government.


The Big St. Patrick’s Day Parade (3-17-1956)

Richard J. Daley became Mayor of Chicago in April 1955. The very next year, the city’s newspapers announced he was planning “a parade” for March 17—St. Patrick’s Day.

Other American cities had a history of grand St. Patrick’s Day parades. Chicago’s Irish had staged a few parades on-and-off since the 1840s, and there was a long-running event on 79th Street. But holding a major, city-wide parade for the  feast day was not a Chicago tradition.

South Side Irish Parade, 1953

South Side Irish Parade, 1953

March 17 fell on a Saturday in 1956. Led by the mayor, the City of Chicago’s first official St. Patrick’s Day parade stepped off from State and Kinzie at noon. The route went south on State to Adams, then continued west on Adams to Des Plaines Street and Old St. Patrick Church.

About 10,000 Irish and honorary-Irish marched. “There were Irish pipe-and-drum units, and floats bearing Irish colleens, Irish dancers, and Gaelic football players,” the Tribune reported. “Marchers [were] carrying blackthorn sticks and shillelaghs and wearings hats festooned with shamrocks.” They marched for over an hour.

The weather was cold, with temperatures hovering around 30 degrees and a brisk wind blowing down from the north. Yet over a quarter-million spectators lined the parade route. An untold number more watched the proceedings over WGN-TV.

Richard J. Daley's parade, 1967

Richard J. Daley’s parade, 1967

Many politicians marched down State. Some of them joined Daley on the reviewing stand near Madison Street. The newspapers listed them by name, for a good reason.

During each year’s May Day Parade in Moscow, the Russian public would scan the reviewing stand atop Lenin’s Tomb, and be able to figure out who ranked where in their government. Now Chicago began a similar exercise. On St. Patrick’s Day you’d check out who the mayor had invited to stand with him, and determine who had the most clout.

The day’s festivities concluded with a special Mass at Old St. Pat’s. Cardinal Stritch gave the homily. He predicted that Chicago would become the leading city of the world, with a population of 7 million. He urged his listeners to seek spiritual wealth as well as material wealth.

"How Green Was My River"

“How Green Was My River”

By the way, the city did not dye the river green for this first parade. That custom began in 1961.


Cook County Hospital Makes History (3-15-1937)

In the minds of some people, Cook County Hospital (aka Stroger) has a low-grade reputation.  It’s often forgotten that the hospital has a distinguished history.  One important event took place on this date.  The subject was blood.


By the turn of the 20th Century, medical science had learned much about working with blood.  Transfusions were becoming common.  But blood will go stale after awhile.  If a patient needed blood, a live donor had to give it, directly and immediately.

Could blood be stored for longer than a few hours?  Researchers worked on that problem for decades.  During the early 1930s, Russia was able to set up a network of blood depots, where patients could have access to preserved blood.  This interested Dr. Bernard Fantus.

Fantus was a Hungarian-born physician who had earned his M.D. at the University of Illinois.  He became director of therapeutics at Cook County Hospital in 1934.  In his new role he began a series of experiments on how to increase the storage time for blood.

Dr. Bernard Fantus

Dr. Bernard Fantus

Using refrigeration and various additives, Fantus was able to preserve blood for up to ten days.  Early in 1937 he made plans to open the Blood Preservation Laboratory at County.

But he didn’t like that name!  Sure, it described the work that was going on at the new facility.  Trouble was, calling it the “Preservation Laboratory” made it sound like something out of a Dracula movie.

America was in the middle of the Depression.  Saving was on everyone’s mind.  After some rough times, banks were starting to rebound.  Fantus decided to call his facility the Cook County Hospital Blood Bank.  It opened on this date eighty years ago—March 15, 1937.

A few months later, Fantus published an article on the blood bank in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Other hospitals adopted the idea, and it spread world-wide.

Bernard Fantus died in 1940.  Today the out-patient clinic at his hospital is named the Fantus Health Center.