Fun Facts About Illinois and Chicago

April 3, 2019

Paul Kay

Is it time to plan a vacation? How about Chicago – that toddling town? We have fun facts about Chicago and Illinois in this post. We have another post about Chicago fun facts here which includes some more history about the two of us. Many tourists come to Chicago so we thought you should have some fun facts about Chicago. The city is known as the "Windy City," but it's not because of the weather. The nickname actually originated in the late 1800s as a term used by politicians to describe the city's long-winded or "windbag" politicians. The first Ferris Wheel was introduced at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was designed and built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. Chicago is home to the largest public library in the world, the Harold Washington Library Center. The city is also known for its distinctive style of pizza, known as Chicago-style deep dish pizza. It is characterized by its thick crust, layers of cheese, and toppings piled high. Hungry yet? Maybe it is time to start planning your vacation. As a traveler, here are some fun facts to consider about Chicago.

Illinois and Chicago have a long and storied history. Here are some highlights of my home state.

Illinois History

Like so much of the United States, American Indians were the first settlers of Illinois, long before the arrival of Europeans. The state’s name came from the French, who were interpreting and attempting to spell the native Illiniwek people. The name translates to ordinary speaker. American Indians lived along the waterways of the Illinois area for thousands of years before the Europeans came.

The first Europeans to visit Illinois were French explorers, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, in 1673. Illinois was part of New France until 1763, when France lost the Seven Years’ War to the British. Under the British, it became part of the Province of Quebec. After the American Revolution, Illinois became a territory of the United States. It achieved statehood in 1818.

Chicago History

The name Chicago was first recorded in 1688 in a French document, where it appears as Chigagou, which was an Algonquian word meaning onion field. Apparently, wild onion or garlic grew profusely in the area. Perhaps it was its proximity to fresh water.

Chicago quickly became a major city for several reasons. One was Chicago connected waterway shipping routes to the East Coast of the United States via the Erie Canal. Another was that it was roughly in the center of the United States, so Chicago served as a major rail hub. Chicago built its first rail connection in 1848 to connect Chicago with the lead mines of Galena, Illinois. Later lines connected the city with St. Paul, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Omaha.

Freight from other cities funneled through the central yards of Chicago. It was classified, and then transferred to massive outlying sorting yards. Recognizing both its importance and centralized location, most of the railroad companies building lines west of Chicago chose the city for their corporate headquarters.

Photo of Carl Sandburg and his Guitar and his Wife, Chicago, 1952

Before the popularity of air travel, Chicago was the undisputed railroad center of the United States. It contained no less than six city-to-city train terminals. In his 1914 poem, “Chicago,” published in Poetry Magazine, Carl Sandburg referred to the city as the “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” With more lines of track radiating in more directions from Chicago than any other North American city, the description was apt. The city was a vital gateway and distribution center for the United States and the world.

The Great Chicago Fire

Postcard of 1871 Image of Randolph and State looking NE after the Chicago Fire, 1912

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire killed 300 people and left 100,000 homeless. The three-day inferno erased 2,100 acres of the city. The center of Chicago and the heart of the business district were wiped out. Yet 20 years after the fire, the city’s population had grown from 300,000 to one million people. At the time of the fire, most of the city was comprised of wooden houses. One water station served the entire city. Chicago had averaged about two fires a day over the past year and 20 the previous week; the fire department was woefully understaffed.

Postcard of the Interior of the Victorian Room Restaurant at the Palmer House Hotel, Chicago, 1938

The fire was devastating but quickly turned into a call for action. The people of Chicago were determined to rebuild. Joseph Medill, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, put out a special edition with the headline: “Chicago will rise from the ashes!” Potter Palmer, whose new Palmer House hotel and 32 other holdings were destroyed in the fire, immediately set out to raise capital for reconstruction.

City officials quickly set the price on bread, forbade wagon drivers from charging more than what was normal, and limited saloon hours to keep price-gouging and looting to a minimum. Business traffic began to move again. Six weeks later, more than 200 stone and brick buildings had been built. By 1872, $50 million had been spent on construction. In 1873, amid a national recession, Chicago proudly hosted the Inter-State Industrial Exposition showing off its growth and capabilities. In 1885, Chicago built its first skyscraper, the nine-story Home Insurance Building.

World’s Columbian Exposition

Grand Basin at Night, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

Chicago wanted to make it clear to everyone they were back. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the most famous world’s fair ever held on American soil, did just that. The fair was a celebration by the nation—and the world—of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. There was a fierce competition between Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and St. Louis. Chicago not only won the fight but gained its famous nickname in the process.

The New York Sun editor, Charles A. Dana, wrote: “Don’t pay attention to the nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not build a world’s fair even if they won it.” But the Windy City did win it. The World’s Columbian Exposition, or the Chicago World’s Fair, spanned 600 acres. It introduced people to many new wonders, including the Ferris Wheel, electricity, elevators, the zipper, the first electric chair, Cracker Jack, Cream of Wheat, Edison’s kinetoscope and the first voice recording. The Midway Plaisance boasted all kinds of side shows and amusements. We use the term midway today at fairs and carnivals across the United States.

Over its 179-day run, attendance at the fair totaled 27,529,400, or more than 150,000 people a day. Most visitors went more than once. Even after accounting for multiple visits, about 12 million people attended—in a nation of 63 million people. Nearly 129,000 people, including President Grover Cleveland, came on opening day. The largest crowd—more than 700,000—came on Chicago Day, which commemorated the Great Chicago Fire.

Ferris Wheel, Midway Plaisance, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893

The exposition was really two fairs in one: the official White City, with its grand Neoclassical buildings filled with exhibits; and the unofficial Midway outside the gates, where visitors could ride the world’s first Ferris Wheel, towering 264 feet in the air. Chicago’s White City was a showcase for both the buildings and the use of electricity. The buildings of white stucco seemed illuminated compared to the tenements of Chicago. The name White City also came from the extensive use of street lights, which made the boulevards and buildings usable and safe at night.

Century of Progress Exposition

In the early 20th century, the population of Chicago continued to boom. By 1920, it had reached 2.7 million. In 1927, Chicago Municipal Airport (Midway) ushered in air travel to the Windy City. The Shedd Aquarium and Alder Planetarium opened in 1930, when the population of Chicago was 3.4 million.

Postcard of an Aerial View of the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1933

In 1933, Chicago hosted the Century of Progress Exposition. City officials designated three and a half miles of newly reclaimed land on the Near South Side, along the shore of Lake Michigan between 12th and 39th streets, for the fairgrounds. The fair’s opening night began with a nod to the heavens: Lights automatically activated when the rays of the star, Arcturus, were detected.

Postcard of the Fountain at Night at the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1933

The Century of Progress’ buildings were multi-colored, to create a Rainbow City, and electric lights danced on them in the evening. Instead of the Neoclassical style of the Columbian Exposition, the buildings of the Century of Progress were primarily modern and forward-thinking.

One famous feature of the fair were the performances of fan dancer Sally Rand. The Old Morocco nightclub entertained nightly with stars including Judy Garland, The Cook Family Singers, and The Andrews Sisters.

Rosenwald Museum now the Museum of Science and Industry Museum, Chicago, Illinois, 1933

I remember my Grandmother talking about the Rosenwald Museum. The original building started as the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Julius Rosenwald, the Sears, Roebuck and Company president and philanthropist, provided a major endowment for the museum and refurbished and updated it with electricity. It later opened in 1933 during the Century of Progress Exposition. It’s now known as the Museum of Science and Industry.

Postcard of the Hall of Science, Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1933

Madeline and I both had relatives that worked at the Century of Progress, since it employed many people for a wide variety of jobs during The Great Depression. Our relatives were grateful for the employment—even if it was limited to the exposition period.

Prohibition and The Great Depression

The Roaring Twenties was a time for optimism in Chicago. Skyscrapers soared upward all over the Loop, and Chicago was growing in population. Prohibition had just begun and created big business for Chicago gangsters, notably Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Liquor might have been illegal, but it was readily available thanks to gangsters. An underground of speakeasies fueled drinking and illegal gambling—and grew the wealth of famous Chicago gangsters.

Al Capone, 1930

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 brought Al Capone to national notoriety. Seven people were machine gunned to death. 1929 also brought the beginning of the Great Depression.

Bootlegging During Great Depression, 1930s

The Great Depression was particularly severe in Chicago because of the city’s reliance on manufacturing, the hardest hit sector nationally. Only 50 percent of the Chicagoans who had worked in the manufacturing sector in 1927 were still working there in 1933.

The Great Depression, Chicago, Illinois, 1930s

By 1930, bootlegging was efficiently organized, with more than 10,000 speakeasies operating in Chicago. Capone was thriving but had brought too much attention on himself. Ironically, it wasn’t bootlegging, gambling or murder that brought down Capone. In 1931, the government convicted him on tax evasion.

My grandfather had a shoe store in Chicago’s Loop at this time. When Al Capone came to the store, his men stood guard in front to prevent any other customers from entering. Those already in the store were all too happy to leave. Capone would buy spats and shoes in many different styles and colors. It was a good day for my grandfather. Besides, nobody said no to Al Capone.

The Great Depression hit the city hard. Many of the politicians were crooked, regularly taking money from organized crime. The city government badly managed its finances. In 1932, Chicago could not meet its payroll. Union organization and strikes were common. The newly organized Congress of Industrial Organizations often supported local unions. By 1940, one-third of workers in Chicago’s manufacturing sector had unionized.

The Second World War

The War took almost all the working men. Both my father and Madeline’s served in the Army during the War. My dad fought in North Africa and Europe. Madeline’s dad was a staff sergeant, protecting the strategic Panama Canal.

Our parents grew up in Chicago, quite close to each other. They lived on Ohio and Huron streets. Hugh Hefner was in the neighborhood, even then drinking lots of Pepsi. My mom went on a date with Hef, but nothing came of it. Mom went to Wright Junior College after high school. Madeline’s grandfather taught at Wright Junior College. My mother was homecoming queen at Wright Junior College, now called Wilbur Wright College.

Postcard, Edgewater Beach Hotel, Chicago, Illinois, c1950

My parents married after the War. They honeymooned at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. When I was growing up, I wondered where that was. I didn’t know of any beach hotels in Chicago. The Edgewater Beach Hotel was a big deal during my parent’s time. Over the years, its guests included Babe Ruth, Nat King Cole, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe. It opened in 1916 and it was extremely popular until the 1950s.

In the early 1950s, the city extended Lake Shore Drive north from Foster Avenue to Hollywood Avenue. Road engineers hastened the demise of the hotel when they separated the hotel from its namesake beach. By 1967, the hotel was bankrupt. Demolition came four years later. That explains why I didn’t know about it.

Postcard, Infantry Barracks, Fort Sheridan, Highwood, Illinois, c1910

Madeline’s parents were married in Chicago on D-Day, June 6, 1944, while her dad was on leave. The wedding was supposed to be in the morning in the Loop. The chaplain was coming from Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago. He was delayed because of the commotion surrounding D-Day. As a result, they were married that the evening.

Richard J. Daley served as mayor from 1955 to 1976. He was well known for the city’s machine politics. He took credit for building four major expressways, which fed the Loop from all directions, and created city-owned O’Hare Airport, which displaced Midway and became the world’s busiest airport.

Postcard, Roof Observation, Ohare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, c1960

Chicago clearly is the largest city in the state with nearly three million people in the city proper. But more than nine million live in the Chicago metro area, known as Chicagoland. Compare that with the state capital of Springfield, which has a population of a little more than 100,000. I still remember going to the airport to see my dad board a plane. They had an observation deck from which you could see people board airplanes. No TSA back then.

Postcard, Aerial View of Midway Airport, Chicago, Illinois, 1955

Chicago already had Midway Airport when O’Hare opened in 1955. In fact, the airlines were reluctant to move from Midway to O’Hare to Midway until the city completed highway access and other improvements. In 1957, O’Hare only offered 36 weekday departures, compared to 414 for Midway.

Postcard, Restaurant Rotunda, Ohare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, 1972

But O’Hare was built with growth in mind. It had longer runways for the new jets. City neighborhoods surrounded Midway, and it was out of room. As a result, airlines gradually moved to O’Hare. But it took a while before O’Hare overtook Midway in traffic. O’Hare was the busiest airport in the world for many years. O’Hare is still in the top 10 worldwide but is behind Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Illinois is known as the Land of Lincoln because of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. In 1830, when he was 21 years old, Lincoln moved to Illinois from Indiana and lived there until he became president in 1861. Lincoln was a member of the Illinois Legislature for four terms (1834 to 1841) and represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives for one term (1847-1849). Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, is a national historic site administered by the National Park Service. The Lincoln Tomb in Springfield is a state historic site.

Our Life in Chicago

I was born in Chicago. We lived in the city until I was almost ready for school, and then moved to Deerfield, a northern suburb. At the time, Deerfield was a small township. Our house backed up to forest.


Postcard, Henricis, Chicago, Illinois, 1954


Postcard, Interior, Henricis Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois, 1940s

While I grew up in Deerfield, Deerfield grew up. My parents still went to Chicago for dinner at Jacques or Henrici’s.

Postcard, Diners at Jacques French Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois, 1950s

I remember going to Jacques, a famous French restaurant, to celebrate both my grandmothers 65th birthdays. It was a fun dinner, seeing how pretty my grandmothers were and how happy my parents were to celebrate their birthdays. I remember having cherries jubilee for dessert when the maître d’ made the flaming dessert come to life. It was fun. If a celebration was in order, you still went to Chicago.

Deerfield High School, Deerfield, Illinois

By the time I was in second grade, all the woods behind our house were gone, and lots of families had moved in. My wife moved to Deerfield as a 15-year-old during our junior year at Deerfield High School; we were inseparable.

Dates to Chicago

Pual and Madeline, Spring Prom, Deerfield High School, 1968

For prom, we’d go to the dance in Deerfield, and then have dinner in Chicago. It was a big adventure to drive to the city as a young adult.

Postcard, Ninety-fifth Restaurant, John Hancock Center, Chicago, Illinois, c1970s

We loved going to the John Hancock Tower, where we could go to what is now the Signature Lounge at the 96th and have a very expensive coke. The view from the bar was fabulous and you could see all over the city in every direction.

Postcard, Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois, c1963

We have very fond memories of Chicago.

Postcard, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois, c1950

On dates, we’d go to the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, Art Institute of Chicago and many of the famous movie theatres downtown. Many of the museums didn’t charge admission, which certainly helped a cash-starved 16-year-old.

Grant Park Underground Parking, Chicago, Illinois, 1954

We always parked at the Grant Park Underground. My parents said it was the only safe place for us to park. In 1954, the Grant Park North Garage opened. The garage had 1,850 parking spaces, on three underground levels. The Grant Park South Garage opened in 1965. It had another 1,350 spaces.

Highland Park Theatre Formerly Alcyon, Highland Park, Illinois

We also went to movies. There was no movie theatre in Deerfield. The closest theatre to us was the Alcyon Theatre in Highland Park. It was renamed the Highland Park Theatre while we were in high school.

State Lake Theater, Chicago, Illinois, 1963

We liked going to Chicago for movies more. It was the big city, and Highland Park was too close to Deerfield for a date.

McVickers Theater, Chicago, Illinois, 1923

Chicago Theater, Chicago, Illinois, 1964

Oriental Theater, 1957

We went to the State and Lake Theatre, the McVickers, the Chicago Theatre, and the Oriental Theatre.

Plato's Place, Chicago, Illinois, 1960s

Our special place was Plato’s Place in the Loop for a hamburger. I didn’t have a lot of money as a teenager, but I did work so I could afford a movie and a hamburger. Plato’s Place had great hamburgers, and we loved going there.

Menu, Trader Vics Restaurant, Palmer House, Chicago, Illinois, 1964

We also went to Trader Vic’s for dinner in the Palmer House. It was quite exotic for teenagers, and they made special nonalcoholic drinks for us. Madeline loved that place.

Berghoff Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois

We also tried the Berghoff Restaurant, since it was also pretty famous back then. Madeline wasn’t terribly fond of German food, and we couldn’t order beer. We have gone back since, and it’s still pretty famous in the city.

Postcard, Crowd Watching Polar Bears, Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, Illinois, c1950

We also went to Brookfield Zoo. I can’t remember if there was an admittance fee or not, but it was a nice outing.

McDonalds, Chicago, Illinois, 1969

Deerfield didn’t have a movie theatre, but we did have a McDonald’s which was a very big deal. A hamburger was very inexpensive—not like Plato’s Place. It was a great meal for an impoverished teenager.

Kitchens, Sara Lee, Deerfield, Illinois, 1962

 Sara Lee to move its headquarters to Deerfield. On certain days, you could smell the bakery wafting over Waukegan Road. They had a company store where our moms would buy a second, which was the same product but usually with a label that didn’t look right or some other production defect. The cake was always good. We were loyal Sara Lee customers from that time forward! 

The Cubbies

Street View with Crowd, Wrigley Field, Chicago, Illinois, 1945

Deerfield was a north suburb, so we rooted for the Cubbies. But we also were quite happy when the White Sox did well. Who cared; they were from Chicago! Madeline wasn’t terribly interested in Chicago sports, so we never went to any Cubs games.

My father had a dear friend, Wally, who became sort of an uncle to me as I grew up. As he got older, I helped him out whenever I could. He was very lucky to live in a garden apartment on the West Side that had generations of family in the neighborhood. As he got older, the family always looked out for him as if he was their great uncle. He was a baseball genius, a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and loved the Cubs. I’m so glad he lived long enough to see the Cubs win the World Series! He never considered leaving Chicago. He lived there all his life.

Pual and Madeline, Senior Prom, Deerfield High School, 1969

Madeline and I regularly go back to Chicago to reminisce and see people we still know. We love the city. Chicago continues to change but still retains its vibrant culture and people. The two of us try to go back every year—even if it’s just for a weekend.

We love Illinois and have great memories of Chicago. Hopefully, you too can create some great memories in Illinois and especially Chicago.

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