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The Balbo Column

In 1933 Chicago staged a World’s Fair in Burnham Park. July 15 marked one of the Fair’s highlights. Shortly after 6 p.m., the Balbo Air Squadron arrived in the waters of Lake Michigan.

Aviation was still exciting and dangerous in 1933—only six years had passed since Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. Now General Italo Balbo, head of the Italian Air Force, had brought his fleet of twenty-four seaplanes on a goodwill trip from Rome to Chicago. Because of bad weather and an accident along the way, the journey had taken two weeks.

But now they were here, safely moored off Navy Pier. A few minutes after the landing, Balbo himself strolled onto the deck of his seaplane, coolly surveying the cheering thousands who had gathered on shore—he looked as if he were “going to afternoon tea,” one reporter wrote. He lit a cigarette and smiled.

General Italo Balbo

For the next three days, the city went Balbo-crazy. The General and his fliers were feted with a rally in Soldier Field, speeches, parades, banquets, and official proclamations. Seventh Street was renamed Balbo Drive. The hoopla was later spoofed by the Marx Brothers in their movie A Night at the Opera. Then, at the end of the three days, the intrepid crew flew back to Rome.

That’s the way it looked in 1933. But as Paul Harvey used to say, now for the rest of the story.

The Italian government that sponsored the Balbo Air Squadron was the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Balbo himself was a true believer, often referred to as the Duce’s “right-hand man.” The brutality of the Fascist regime was already well-known. Yet many apologists accepted such “difficulties” as the price of progress. One bit of wisdom declared: “Mussolini may be bad, but he makes the trains run on time.”

Mussolini also knew something about public relations. On the first anniversary of the flight, he sent Chicago an ancient temple column as a gift—though he sent it by ship, and not by plane. Balbo himself spoke from Rome via radio-phone at the dedication ceremony. “Let this column stand as a symbol of increasing friendship between the people of Italy and the people of the United States,” the General said. The Balbo Column, as it became known, was erected in the park east of Soldier Field.

General Italo Balbo was killed in 1940, his plane hit by friendly fire. There was suspicion that Mussolini ordered an assassination to remove a popular rival.

Following fascist Italy’s defeat in World War II, the new government’s ambassador to the United States suggested that marks of respect to the Mussolini regime be removed. Shortly afterward, a Chicago alderman proposed renaming Balbo Drive, though nothing was said about the Balbo Column. In any case, both the street name and the column remained.

The Balbo Column

Time appeared to heal the wounds of war. In 1973 the Museum of Science and Industry celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Balbo Air Squadron with a special exhibit. Each year there were fewer and fewer irate letters demanding that the street name be changed or the monument be removed. Most Chicagoans figured that the street was named Balboa, after the Spanish explorer who sighted the Pacific Ocean.

There was no mistaking what the Balbo Column was about. Carved into its base was a florid inscription in Italian declaring that “Fascist Italy Under the Auspices of Benito Mussolini” was presenting this monument to the City of Chicago in honor of the Balbo Squadron. Instead of 1933, the date of the historic flight is given as “The Eleventh Year of the Fascist Era.”

In 2017 the protests over Confederate statues and other dated artifacts have caused Chicagoans to revisit the Balbo question. Once again, there are calls to change the name of Balbo Drive. This time it may happen.

What to do with the Balbo Column is not so easily resolved—after all, its pedigree predates the “Fascist Era” by two millennia. The area where it stands is now known as Gold Star Families Memorial Park, in honor of police officers who have been killed in the line of duty. Why not put a new plaque on the column and re-dedicate it to them?

But please use an aluminum plaque. A copper one might be stolen.



Then and Now, Randolph-Clinton

1954–Randolph Street @ Clinton Street, view west

2017–the same location

In 1954 this area just west of the C&NW railroad terminal was mostly warehouses and factories.  Randolph Street had been converted to one-way traffic recently.  Though streetcars have ceased operating here, the old two-way tracks have not yet been covered over.

The West Loop has been revitalized over the course of six decades.  Many old buildings have been torn down and replaced.  However, this particular block remains intact—for now.




Chicago’s Mispronounced Street Names

I recently ran across a post about street names that Chicagoans typically mispronounce.  Actually, I’ve run across several posts on this subject.  Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the same nine street names are cited in just about all of them.

It’s impossible to determine who first drew up the list.  I recall reading stuff like this when I was in my teens, back in the 1960s.  Many of the same names were cited then.

I do have a few quibbles about those nine street names—are we really pronouncing some of them incorrectly?  I also have a couple more that were overlooked.

(1) Devon.  Like those posts note—and like most Chicagoans I know—I pronounce it dee-VAHN.

(2) Leavitt.  Forget the part that looks like “leave.”  It’s LEV-itt.

(3) Paulina.  Not pronounced like the girl’s name.  The street is pull-EYE-nuh.

(4) Armitage.  Locally pronounced ARM-a-tudj, slurring the last syllable.

(5) Honore.  Supposedly, most Chicagoans eschew the French pronunciation, and say HON-or-ee.

Here are a couple that are supposedly mispronounced, but might not be—

(6) Clybourn.  It’s CLY-born locally.  What else could it be?

(7) Wabansia.  We say wuh-BAN-see-uh.  How’s that a local mistake?

Now, two special cases—

(8) Throop.  Yes, my dad always said TROOP.  But I grew up pronouncing the “h” in the name, and I rarely hear it as TROOP any more. (Then again, people tell me that Saint Thecla Church is Saint TECK-la)

(9) Goethe.  The posts say Chicagoans mispronounce it as GO-ith.  I learned how to mispronounce it as GO-thee.  So which wrong way is the right wrong way?

Finally, I have two additions to the list—

(10) Des Plaines.  Like Honore, we forget the French and say des-PLAINS.

(11) Laramie.  I grew up near this street, and we all said LAR-mee.

Anybody else have more additions to the list?


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.



Then and Now, Wentworth-Root

1950--Wentworth Avenue @ Root Street, view north

1950–Wentworth Avenue @ Root Street, view north

2017--the same location

2017–the same location

In 1950 the Fuller Park community was thickly-settled.  Wentworth Avenue was a major traffic artery, and the #22 streetcar line was one of the city’s most-heavily patronized.  To the north, two viaducts can be seen crossing Wentworth—the taller one carrying the Stock Yards ‘L’ line, and the other a belt railroad line.

Today the Dan Ryan Expressway cuts a wide swath thru Fuller Park, shrinking the community’s population to less than one-fifth of its 1950 peak.  Here Wentworth has been reduced to a mere frontage road.  Most transit customers now ride the Red Line on the expressway median.  The Stock Yards ‘L’ and its viaduct are gone, but that railroad viaduct remains.



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.