The fire. The fair. Capone. Thanks to films like The Untouchables and books like The Devil in the White City, some events in Chicago’s past have been immortalized through pop culture. But what about the rest?
A new book from Agate Publishing, Chicago Flashback, is a fascinating look at 100 landmark moments in Chicago history, including some influential people and events you’ve probably never heard of. It’s a coffee-table volume with big, detailed photographs that collects the best columns from the Chicago Tribune’s weekly “Chicago Flashback” series over the past five years.
All of Chicago’s “greatest hits” are included, from the turn-of-the-century reversal of the Chicago River to Obama’s 2008 victory speech in Grant Park. Since we already know those by heart, here is the b-side of Chicago history, the important stuff many of us forgot.
Building the L
When Chicago won the rights to host the 1893 World’s Fair, city planners saw a huge problem: How would they get visitors from downtown hotels to the fairgrounds, a full seven miles south in Jackson Park? The streets were so clogged with carriages, streetcars, and horse manure, they built a train line above the street based on recent innovations in London and New York.
This photo—taken in 1896, looking west from Lake and Wabash as workers extend the Lake Street Elevated Railroad—shows the monumental engineering required to support a coal-powered steam locomotive in mid-air. Initial reactions were mixed. “It is only a question of time,” a Tribune reporter wrote in 1893, “as to when every man and woman in Chicago who travels that way will become dyspeptic, and the peace and quiet of many a home will be threatened with destruction.”
The Race Riots of 1919
Beginning in 1916, thousands of African Americans moved to Chicago from former slave states in the South. They were drawn to the city by Robert S. Abbott’s editorials in the Chicago Defender, which promised good jobs and cheap housing. When they arrived, Chicago’s institutionalized segregation forced them to settle in overcrowded neighborhoods on the South Side, right next to a predominantly Irish community of meatpackers.
On July 27, 1919, white citizens stoned and drowned a black teenager, Eugene Williams, for crossing what they perceived as a racial “border” at the 29th Street beach. To make matters worse, a white policeman arrested a black man for the murder. Over the next eight days, the ensuing violence led to the deaths of 38 people, both white and black. More than 500 others were injured in fights and widespread arson. In the photo above, a white member of the Illinois Reserve Militia (right) speaks with a black soldier in a US army uniform (left). According to Bill Savage, a history professor at Northwestern, the man on the left could be a World War I veteran who kept his uniform.
The Original Sears Tower
Sears, Roebuck & Company went from humble beginnings—a Minnesota railroad station agent selling watches at Randolph and Dearborn in 1887—to one of Chicago’s most influential innovations. “Like Facebook, Apple or Amazon, it wasn’t just a corporation—it was a revolution,” Trib reporter Matthew Nickerson writes in the book. According to University of Chicago professor James Schrager, the mail-order catalog “was the Internet of its day.”
In 1905, Sears built a massive corporate headquarters on the West Side in North Lawndale, often described as a “city within a city,” complete with its own cafeteria, tennis courts, fire department, and YMCA. Pictured above in 1930, the main tower still stands at the intersection of Homan and Arthington.
The Republic Steel Massacre
In the spring of 1937, steelworkers in the Hegewisch neighborhood went on strike after their parent company, Cleveland-based Republic Steel, refused to sign a union contract. On Memorial Day, their march to the mill was blocked by Chicago police at 118th Street and Burley Avenue, who then shot and killed 10 unarmed strikers. “Violence was endemic to labor disputes of the time,” Ron Grossman, a Tribune reporter, writes in the book, “but on this occasion a film crew from Paramount News was on the scene, transforming this tragic encounter into the Depression Era’s equivalent of earlier labor struggles in Chicago, like the Haymarket riot and Pullman strike.”
City of Smoke
Today, tourists often comment on the cleanliness of downtown Chicago compared to places like New York and Philadelphia. Between the 1870s and the 1960s, we had a very different reputation. This photo of State and Lake was taken at 10:15 in the morning in 1957, when the city was still covered in soot and smoke from industrial pollution. It didn’t just make the sky darker—it stained buildings, clogged gutters, ruined laundry, and darkened books.
The Tribune labeled it “the smoke nuisance,” or when it was feeling particularly dramatic, “the smoke horror.” In 1900, it ran a half-page story called “How Chicago Men’s Lungs Are Blackened by Soot,” along with illustrations from an autopsy. 1892 seems to have been the worst year of all: “If this thing keeps on, pedestrians will be obliged to carry a lantern,” a resident told the Tribune.
“Hobo College” on Skid Row
“Chicago once was celebrated in hobo camps coast to coast as a good place to hole up for the winter,” writes Grossman, “especially along a strip of West Madison Street called Skid Row, a 12-block stretch of flophouses, gin joints and battered dreams.”
Pictured above in 1937, Chicago’s “Hobo College” was founded by a local physician and anarchist Ben Reitman to provide the city’s homeless population with food, shelter, and education. Their headquarters moved around a lot, but in the late 1930s when this photo was taken, it was at 1118 West Madison Street.
The Jane Collective
Before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, abortions were incredibly dangerous. To help Chicago women, a group of feminists in Hyde Park founded the Jane Collective in 1969, a sort of “underground railroad” for safe abortions. “A West Coast man who had learned to perform abortions befriended the women of Jane,” writes Grossman, “and soon the Jane Collective became an abortion provider for as many as 60 women a week.” In the photo above, women march on State Street in 1971 to demand equal rights, health care, and child care.
The Firefighters Strike
In the 184-year history of Chicago, there has been only one firefighters strike—a 23-day walkout in the winter of 1980. “During the strike, 24 people died in fires in Chicago,” writes Grossman. “How many of them died because of the walkout will never be known.”
It happened because mayor Jane Byrne promised the city’s firefighters with a written contract during her election campaign, then changed her mind upon taking office. More than 4,000 firefighters walked off the job around 2 a.m. on Valentine’s Day. In the photo above, 500 of them gather at Daley Plaza to protest in front of the mayor’s office on February 17, 1980.