Chicago at a Glance

The third largest city in the US is world famous for magnificent and innovative architecture, its colorful and turbulent political history and significance as a national transportation hub, the now-vanished stockyards, as well as its educational institutes and vibrant cultural venues.

The French missionary Jacques Marquette and French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet were the first Europeans to record a visit to this spot at the foot of Lake Michigan, in 1673. The peaceful, friendly local Potawatomi Indians called the low-lying swampy area "Checaugou," which likely means "wild onion" or "skunk cabbage." Jolliet and Marquette used this Indian name on the maps they drew, which were then used by later explorers.

More than 100 years passed before the first permanent settlement was established in 1779 by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, an African-American trader from the Caribbean. Du Sable and his Indian wife built a house on the north bank near the mouth of the Chicago River.

A treaty negotiated with local Indian tribes in 1795 gave US citizens access to most of Ohio and a 6-sq-mile (15.5-sq-km) area of land where the Chicago River emptied into Lake Michigan - now the heart of Chicago's downtown. In 1803, the US Army built Fort Dearborn along the river to protect settlers from the Indians, the British, and the French. Fort Dearborn was destroyed during the War of 1812 between the US and Britain; soldiers and their families were slaughtered by the Indians, allies of the British, as they fled the fort. Although the fort was rebuilt in 1816 and Illinois became a state in 1818, the area remained Indian territory until it was ceded in 1833 and the Indians were relocated to reservations by the federal government.

That year, Chicago became a town.

With the land open for development, the rivers gained importance as shipping routes. In 1837, Chicago, its population now over 4,000, received city status. The expansion of the lake ports, completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River, and arrival of the railroads spurred rapid growth. Public schools were established in 1840, and by 1847 the new city had two daily newspapers. From 1855 to 1858, Chicago literally pulled itself out of the mud, jacking up the downtown buildings and filling in the swamp muck with soil.

Chicago's proximity to both the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes confirmed it as the nation's transportation hub. By 1860, 15 railroad companies had terminals here.

Christmas Day 1865 saw the opening of the gigantic Union Stock Yards, the city's largest employer for decades. (It eventually closed in 1971.) Meatpacking laws, along with the Food and Drug Administration, were created after Upton Sinclair's stirring 1906 book, The Jungle, revealed the poor conditions of such stockyards. Although meat processing remained Chicago's major industry, positioning the city as the US's primary supplier, the grain-handling and manufacturing industries were also strong in 19th-century Chicago.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned for 36 hours, October 8 to 10, destroying most of the buildings in downtown Chicago, all of which were made of wood. At least 300 people died, and about 100,000 - onethird of the population - were left homeless. A cow, belonging to a certain Mrs. O'Leary, was blamed for kicking over a lantern and starting the fire. Although an inquiry confirmed that the blaze started in the O'Leary shed, the cause of the fire was not determined. An 1874 bylaw prohibited the building of wooden structures downtown. Consequently, Chicago architect William Le Baron Jenney designed the Home Insurance Building (1884), a ninestory structure supported by a steel skeleton, regarded by many to be the first skyscraper. Jenney's design paved the way for the canyons of tall buildings found in city centers today.