This is a young city. When you stand today at the corner of Wacker Drive and State Street and look westward down the river, with the gleaming Wrigley Building, the twin towers of Marina City, and the wide facade of the Merchandise Mart to your right, and to your left the lofty forest of skyscrapers, it is hard to believe that only two centuries ago, all this was a lonely marshland of trees and tall grass, a place with an abundance of wild onions, from which the Iroquois gave it its name, Chicagou.
It has always been a crossroads. Long before the white man came, the Indians knew this place as the portage between two great water routes — eastward through the Great Lakes, then down the Saint Lawrence to the Atlantic; and southward down the Des Plaines River, into the Illinois, and then down the Father of Waters to the Gulf of Mexico.
It was uninhabited then, a dreary no-man’s land disputed by the Indians, the Iroquois who lived to the east, the Foxes who lived to the north, and the Illinois to the south.
Visited by explorers
The first white men to visit this place were two Frenchmen, the Jesuit Jacques Marquette and the explorer Louis Jolliet. They used the portage in 1673 on their way back to Canada from exploring the Mississippi.
Eight years later, another explorer, La Salle, who claimed Louisiana for Louis XIV, visited the spot, and saw that it was the best and shortest route southward from Canada to the Mississippi. He predicted that one day a great city would rise here, but the place remained a marshy wilderness when France lost her American empire to the British in 1763, and there were only a few traders’ huts here twenty years later when the British in turn lost it to their rebellious colonists on the eastern seaboard.
By 1787, when it became part of the Northwest Territory, the place was still a sleepy trading post. The first permanent settler was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who ran a profitable fur trading business and lived in a large log house, filled with art and fine furniture, on the north bank of the Chicago River.
Fort Dearborn [shown below] was erected here in 1803 to protect the trading interests. An imposing structure surrounded by a twelve-foot stockade dominated by two blockhouses, it was burned in 1812 by Indian allies of the British, who slaughtered all but one of the inhabitants.
The city begins to flourish
At a time when almost all commerce in North America was by water, the portage between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines flourished. In 1825, the Erie Canal was completed, and the principal water route to the west shifted northward from the Ohio River to the Great Lakes, and Chicago began to grow.
The town had 4,200 inhabitants when it was incorporated in 1837. In 1848, the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal established the city as the hub of the nation’s transportation, a role it has retained as the railroads replaced the water routes in the 1870s, and as airplanes have replaced the railroads in the twentieth century.
By 1880, the town had a population of 500,000, making it larger than Saint Louis for the first time. Ten years later, it surpassed Philadelphia with 1,100,000, and became the nation’s second-largest city.
No other city in the world of its size is as young as Chicago, and the town has the qualities of youth: friendliness, impatience, exuberance, idealism, energy, optimism, and, yes, awkwardness and immaturity. It is a place that is being forever rebuilt. Landmarks that are world famous are demolished overnight in a mindless rush for something better, something different, or at least something new.