A History of Chicago

By Tim Lambert

The Foundation of Chicago

The history of Chicago begins in the year 1673. In that year two Frenchmen, Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet arrived in the area. (The name Chicago is derived from a Native American word of uncertain meaning, checagou).

However, the French did not settle the area. The first non-indigenous person to make his home in the area was an African American from the Caribbean called Jean Baptiste Point du Sable who built a house there in 1779. Then in 1803, the American government built a fort called Fort Dearborn. The fort was destroyed during the War of 1812 but it was rebuilt in 1816. A little settlement grew up by the fort.

19th Century Chicago

In the 1830s Chicago grew rapidly. Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833 although it only had a population of a few hundred. However, Chicago mushroomed, and by 1837 it had a population of 4,000. In that year Chicago was made a city.

Chicago boomed during the 1840s and by 1850 it had a population of 30,000. In the next decade, it grew at an astonishing rate. By 1860 the population of Chicago was 109,000.

Chicago also became the transport hub of the USA. The Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848 and by 1860 15 railroad companies had a terminus in Chicago. The city became famous for meatpacking and in 1865 the Union Stock Yards opened. By 1870 the population of Chicago had risen to about 300,000.

However, Chicago was devastated by a fire in 1871. The Chicago fire began on the evening of 8 October in a barn. According to legend, it was caused by a cow knocking over a lamp. At any rate, the fire spread through Downtown Chicago where houses were made of wood and it burned until 10 October. About 100,000 people, about one-third of the population, were made homeless, and about 300 people were killed.

Fortunately, industry in Chicago survived. Chicago was soon rebuilt and in the late 19th century it continued to grow rapidly. By 1880 the population of Chicago reached 503,000. It continued to rise rapidly. By 1900 the population was almost 1.7 million.

However, in 1886 came the Haymarket Massacre. In May 1886 there was a strike in Chicago in support of an 8-hour day. On the evening of 4 May, a rally was held in Haymarket Square. The police ordered the demonstrators to leave and somebody threw a pipe bomb into their ranks. The police responded by firing into the crowd. Afterward, anarchists were rounded up, and eventually, 4 were hanged.

In July 1894 during a railroad strike, President Grover Cleveland sent troops to Chicago.

In the last years of the 19th century, Chicago continued to grow at an astonishing rate. Meanwhile the World’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building was erected in 1884. Other famous buildings of late 19th century Chicago are the Rookery, which was built in 1888 (its lobby was redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905), and the Fine Arts Building, built in 1885. The World’s Columbian Exhibition was held in Chicago in 1893. It was held in Jackson Park.

20th Century Chicago

In 1903 the city of Chicago suffered a disaster when a fire broke out in the Iroquois Theater and nearly 600 people died. The Iroquois Theater was demolished in 1925 and it was replaced by the Oriental Theater.

In the early 20th century the population of Chicago continued to boom. By 1920 it had reached 2.7 million. By 1930 the population of Chicago was 3,376,000.

In the early 20th century the city continued to develop. In 1927 Chicago Municipal Airport opened. (it is now called Midway Airport). John G Shedd Aquarium opened in 1930. Alder Planetarium also opened in 1930.

Then in 1933, Chicago hosted the Century of Progress World Fair. Chicago Museum of Science and Industry opened in that year.

In 1942, Enrico Fermi carried out the first controlled nuclear reaction at Chicago University.

Meanwhile, a notorious event in the history of Chicago was the St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Al Capone planned to kill his enemy, a man named George ‘Bugs’ Moran. So at 10.30 am on 14 February, St Valentine’s Day, a car went to a garage on North Side. The car was the type used by detectives and it had police insignia painted on it. Inside it were two men dressed as policemen. There were also two men in civilian clothes posing as plainclothes detectives in the car. Their car stopped outside the garage and the two men posing as detectives got out. At that moment Bugs Moran and his two bodyguards approached. Seeing the two fake policemen they thought it was a police raid and they walked away. So Bugs Moran survived.

However, there were seven men inside the garage and the fake policemen made them line up against a wall and face it. The two men in civilian clothes entered with machine guns and sprayed them with bullets. The fake policemen then produced shotguns and finished off any man who showed signs of life. The killers then left.

In 1950 the population of Chicago peaked at 3.6 million. However, in the late 20th century the population of the city gradually declined.

In 1955 Democrat Richard J Daley became mayor of Chicago. He remained mayor until 1976. In 1979 Jane Byrne became the first female mayor of Chicago and in 1983 Harold Washington became the first African-American mayor. However, in 1990, Chicago ceased to be the second-largest city in the USA.

Meanwhile, in 1968 the first Special Olympics were held in Chicago.

Willis Tower opened in 1973 and Navy Pier opened in 1995. The Museum of Contemporary Photography was founded in 1976. Also in 1976 Water Tower Place opened. Chicago Children’s Museum opened in 1982.

21st Century Chicago

In the 21st century, Chicago is still flourishing. Millennium Park opened in 2004. Trump International Hotel and Tower was built in 2009. Meanwhile, the sculpture Cloud Gate was created in 2006.

The American Writers Museum opened in 2017.

In 2024 the population of Chicago was 2.7 million.

A Timeline of Chicago


Two Frenchmen reach the area


Jean Baptiste Point du Sable builds a house in the area


Fort Dearborn is built


The Erie Canal opens


The population of Chicago is 4,000. Chicago is made a city.


The Illinois and Michigan Canal opens


The population of Chicago reaches 30,000


Chicago is booming and has a population of 169,000


Union Stock Yards open


The population of Chicago reaches 300,000


Chicago is devastated by a fire


The population of Chicago reaches 503,000


The Home Insurance Building is erected


The Fine Arts Building is erected


The Haymarket Massacre takes place


The World’s Columbian Exhibition was held in Chicago


The population of Chicago rises to 1.7 million


A fire in the Iroquois Theater kills many people


The population of Chicago reaches 2.7 million


Chicago Municipal Airport opens


The St Valentines Day Massacre takes place in Chicago


Chicago hosts the Century of Progress World Fair


Enrico Fermi carries out the first controlled nuclear reaction at Chicago University


The population of Chicago peaks at 3.6 million


Willis Tower opens


Jane Byrne becomes the first female mayor of Chicago


Chicago ceases to be the second-largest city in the USA


Navy Pier opens


Millennium Park opens


Spertus Museum opens


Trump International Hotel and Tower is completed


The population of Chicago is 2.7 million

Last revised 2024