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Downtown Chicago
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Bright orange flames shot out of the O'Leary barn, licking the night sky in a fiery foreboding of the coming destruction. Dennis Sullivan ran inside and managed to save a calf before the heat and smoke drove him out, but beyond that all he or anyone else could do was stand by and watch as the wooden structure was consumed quickly.

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Bright orange flames shot out of the O'Leary barn, licking the night sky in a fiery foreboding of the coming destruction. Dennis Sullivan ran inside and managed to save a calf before the heat and smoke drove him out, but beyond that all he or anyone else could do was stand by and watch as the wooden structure was consumed quickly.

Such a blaze would normally have been harmless to all but the O'Learys and possibly their neighbors, but Oct. 8, 1871, was no ordinary night. Sparks from the burning barn rode a stiff breeze onto nearby homes and buildings that, dry as kindling after a rainless summer, were ripe for ignition. Thus began the nightmare known as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. By the time it was stopped—around 11 the following night—the disaster had claimed nearly 2,000 acres, more than 17,000 buildings and more than 250 lives.

But it would take more than a holocaust to destroy Chicago. The Gem of the Lakes rose from its ashy ruins to become the Hub of the Nation, the surprisingly swift recovery overshadowing the fire as the city's defining moment. Chicagoans responded with the same strength of character they used to build their city in the first place.

Chicago's origin may be its least glorious period. Long inhabited by various Native American tribes, the area supported a network of trade and travel routes snaking deep into the nation's interior. As European adventurers began to explore this region, they found the She-caw-gu portage a convenient shortcut between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, an enterprising trader of African and French descent, arrived in 1779 and established a substantial homestead. Within a few years the U.S. government decided to make the most of its newly acquired Northwest Territory, including the site of what is now Chicago, so Capt. John Whistler (grandfather of “Whistler's Mother” painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler) was dispatched to found a military outpost.

Fort Dearborn was completed toward the end of 1804. The fledgling fort soon attracted a small corps of settlers determined to make a new life on the lonesome prairie. And though skirmishes between settlers and Indians ensued, the influx of new pioneers continued and Illinois became a state in 1818, hastening the end of the Indian wars.

Chicago was incorporated in 1837. Despite its rough edges, the bustling burg was the jumping-off spot for many a westbound pioneer. The city's proximity to fertile farmland, the Chicago Road and other highways, the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes made it a natural shipping center for the Midwest, a position bolstered by the opening of both the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad in 1848.

In 1860 the Republican party chose Chicago as the site of its national convention. This was an honor for such a young city, given the importance of that election. Relations between North and South were strained horribly, and an abolitionist administration led by Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln was certain to spur the slave states to secede. They did, igniting the Civil War shortly after Lincoln assumed the splintering nation's highest office.

The war's end brought both sorrow and joy. While citizens mourned the assassinated Lincoln, their grief was mitigated by the preservation of the Union and an economic boom. The establishment of stockyards and manufacturing concerns begat a wealth of jobs, inviting massive immigration. The city filled with opportunities and people—and row upon row of highly flammable wooden buildings.

So when the rains failed to come in the summer of 1871, Chicago—Gem of the Prairie, Jewel of the Lakes—went up in smoke. As the flames of the Great Chicago Fire died down, stunned citizens surveyed the wreckage with heartbroken disbelief but an undaunted spirit. They proclaimed that Chicago would rise again, and then they made it happen.

A bold new breed of architects looked upward for inspiration, designing the first lofty structures to be called skyscrapers. Most of the fire victims stayed, rebuilding old neighborhoods or forming new ones. They soon were joined by large numbers of immigrants, and Chicago grew from a prairie town to a major American city practically overnight.

The process sometimes was painful. Economic ups and downs were aggravated by the labor movement, as newly formed unions led strikes and rallies to demand better working conditions. The 1886 Haymarket Riot was a peaceful protest that turned deadly when a bomb blast rocked the police force monitoring the meeting; the ensuing gunfire left eight dead and dozens injured.

In 1893 Chicago won the honor of hosting the prestigious World's Columbian Exposition, topping such rivals as New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. The massive fair was a huge success, cementing Chicago's importance nationally.

As the 20th century began, Chicago had all the elements necessary for continued prosperity. This optimism, however, was tempered by some negative publicity. “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair's scathing 1906 exposé of the stockyards and meat-processing industry, focused unwelcome attention on the city's lifeblood and main employers.

The 1920s were even more chaotic. Gangland wars rocked the city during Prohibition as crime bosses vied for control of illegal—but highly profitable—bootlegging operations. The violence reached a horrifying climax in 1929 with the St. Valentine's Day massacre—allegedly mob boss Al Capone's revenge against his main rival, George “Bugs” Moran. Prohibition's end in 1933 subdued most of the overt gang activity, and another victory for law and order was won a year later, when police shot and killed bank robber John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1, outside the Biograph Theater.

The production boom that accompanied America's entry into World War II put people to work and local businesses in the black. More than any other city, Chicago may have hastened the war's end. In December 1942 a group of University of Chicago physicists led by Enrico Fermi created a nuclear chain reaction, the breakthrough that led to the development of the atomic bombs that forced Japan's surrender in 1945.

In 1955 a political dynasty began that would come to define the “toddlin' town,” as Richard J. Daley assumed the first of his record six terms as mayor.

The 1960s rang in an era of change. Civil rights activists protested Chicago's entrenched policy of segregation, charges of corruption rattled the police force and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination sparked riots on the West Side. The end of the decade marked the setting of Daley's star, helped by rioting during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and a police raid that ended in the shooting deaths of two members of the militant civil rights group, the Black Panthers.

Machine politics held firm even after “hizzoner's” death in 1976, but by 1983 voters were ready for a change and elected their first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. Two years after his 1987 death, the populace returned to familiar ground and chose Daley's son, Richard M., as its leader.

The city's economy continues to thrive, bolstered by the financial powerhouse formed by the Chicago Board Options Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Stock Exchange. Heavyweights such as BP, Motorola, Sara Lee and the Sears Holdings Corp. maintain a strong presence, joined by companies ranging from heavy manufacturing to health care to technology.

Chicago's architectural tradition, born in the rebuilding boom following the Great Fire, remains strong. Landmarks exist throughout the city, though perhaps the most notable is the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue at the Chicago River. Others include Mies van der Rohe's Federal Center Plaza; the soaring Gothic design of the 36-story Tribune Tower; Chase Financial Center, the tallest bank in the world; the scalloped cylindrical towers of Marina City; the 110-story Sears Tower, the tallest building in North America; the John Hancock Center; and the Old Water Tower, one of only two public buildings to survive the fire.

In addition to its architecture Chicago is known for its sculpture. Imposing pieces by such greats as Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Claes Oldenburg and Pablo Picasso distinguish pedestrian plazas.

And topping off Chicago's stature as a capital of American culture, the city's most far-reaching contribution to popular culture lies under a pair of golden arches. Entrepreneur Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald's franchise in 1955, revolutionizing the fast-food industry.

In short Chicago is a fascinating city, strengthened by its turbulent history and the indomitable spirit of its people. It is the epitome of an appropriately bold nickname: The City That Works.

 

 
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