history

Episode 16: The Second Star – The Fire

There is one story well-known throughout the world about the Windy City and a cow kicking over a lantern that set the Great Chicago Fire in motion.  The fact that the story of Catherine O’Leary’s cow is totally false seems not to matter, as this wrong-headed legend continues to perpetuate itself with the general public.  As the newspaper editor Dutton Peabody says in the 1952 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” 
And so it is, a hundred and fifty years later, Mrs. O’Leary and her cow live on in popular culture. 

The events of the evening of October 8th, 1871 would be the culmination of a prolonged hot, dry summer in the Midwest, and when Chicago began to burn, there were fires burning in several other places as well.  However. Chicago and the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow eclipsed the reporting of the other fires, and stuck in the popular imagination. 

The Great Chicago Fire became the second star on the flag of Chicago, a marked tragedy, as approximately one-third of the residents lost their homes and the more than 300 who lost their lives.  But the fire was also considered a beginning for Chicago, a reset, a blank slate — that would allow the city’s business leaders and architects to imagine a new and better Chicago to rise from the ashes like a great phoenix.

In this episode, the Windy City Historians interview William Pack, a historian and author of “The Essential Great Chicago Fire” (2015) to recount the events of that faithful Sunday night when smoke was spotted southwest of the city center, near the intersection of Jefferson and DeKoven Streets.  It is an illuminating story of mistakes, delays, human error, and heroism, and a transformative event for the young city on the prairie that became the “City on the Make” as later chronicled by Nelson Algren.  Two days after the fire co-owner and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune Joseph Medill wrote, “We have lost money, but we have saved life, health, vigor and industry.  Let the watchword henceforth be Chicago shall rise again!” In December of that year Medill would be elected mayor of the City of Chicago as a candidate of the “fireproof” party serving two terms from 1871 to 1873.

Links to Research and Historic Sources:

Episode 15: The Stockyards

In the Spring of 2020, one of the first cracks in the American economy with Covid-19 was the closing of several meatpacking plants in the United States.  The nature of the process with workers stationed in close proximity to one another, poorly ventilated spaces, and often arduous work conditions and practices became a breeding ground for the virus and created Covid hot-spots around the country.  Meanwhile, the White House exercising its executive authority via the Defense Production Act ordered slaughterhouses to remain open for fear of disrupting of the nation’s meat supply. 

This underbelly of the food chain is often overlooked, yet for more than a century Chicago was largely identified with wholesale slaughter and meat processing thanks to the Union Stock Yard & Transit Company, which opened on Christmas Day 1865.  Stockyards and the downstream processing operations would soon become a ubiquitous presence in the economy of the growing metropolis of Chicago, the commerce of the United States, and the world. 

The Union Stock Yard & Transit Company led Carl Sandburg to coin the dubious moniker for Chicago, “Hog Butcher to the World.”  Yet these operations provided an important testing ground for great ideas and smart solutions employing many great minds, including civil engineer Octave Chanute (1832-1910) and the architect Daniel Burnham (1846-1912).  The Stockyards were a prime tourist attraction in Chicago for the general public and people of note such as authors Rudyard Kipling, who was shocked by it, or Upton Sinclair, who based his novel “The Jungle” on the conditions and worker experiences there.  The Yards as locals referred to it spurred additional innovations — for instance the butchering disassembly line inspired Henry Ford to reverse the process to build automobiles which ultimately made them affordable to average Americans. 

The Union Stock Yard created huge fortunes and dynasties with names like Armour and Swift, often on the back of worker exploitation, which prompted strife and conflict and influenced the development of labor unions.  Great gusts blowing across the prairie turned small fires into great conflagrations on several occasions, and yet the Yards survived for more than a century before meeting its demise to the gradual shift of economic winds.  However in its heyday, the Yards was the place to be.  Join us in this episode to hear some more great Chicago history as we interview historian Dominic A. Pacyga, author of Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made

Links to Research and Historic Documents

Episode 13: Early Chicago

In this episode of our “Laying the Foundation” series of the Windy City Historians we explore an often ignored and long forgotten era and complete our interview with Dr. Ann Durkin Keating. We tap into the history of Juliette Kinzie and the city’s early wheelers and dealers as it rises up out of the swampy prairie landscape along the Y-shaped Chicago River on far southwestern shore of Lake Michigan.

Episode 12: The First Star – part two

Fort Dearborn at the beginning of the War of 1812 . . . is it a Battle or a Massacre? How should we, in the twenty-first century, talk about the events that occurred on Chicago’s lakefront on August 15, 1812 — a month-and-a-half after the declaration of war? How do we describe what happened to the column of approximately 100 soldiers, farmers, women and children in Indian Country that abandoned Fort Dearborn, mostly on foot, for Fort Wayne when they are attacked by approximately 500 Native Americans?

Join us in this episode of the Windy City Historians Podcast for the second half of our interview with history professor Ann Durkin Keating, Ph.D. and The First Star — a reference to the first star on the Flag of Chicago. Does William Wells actually get his heart carved out to be eaten by the victors? Find out about this and much more as we discuss the final events, implications, art and language surrounding Chicago and aftermath of this infamous attack in Chicago in 1812. We hope you will enjoy it as much as we have putting it together!

Links to Research and History Documents

Episode 10: The First Murder

Founded in 1803, Chicago’s Fort Dearborn is the western most outpost on the frontier, and by 1812 still the most isolated fort in Indian Country. The garrison and few settlers are outnumbered five-to-one by the neighboring tribes within a day’s ride. A pivotal year in Chicago history the corner of today’s Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue is the site of Chicago’s first murder on June 17. At that point tensions are already high and this killing comes one day before Congress declares war on Great Britain. Although, the approximately 100 residents of Chicago will have no idea war is declared until mid- to late-July.

Just why trader John Kinzie stabbed fort interpreter Jean Lalime to death is a two-centuries’ old Chicago mystery. Was it jealousy, a trade dispute, bad blood? Listen in as we set the scene of Chicago on the cusp of the War of 1812, weight the accounts, motivations, and events surrounding this gruesome murder on the banks of the Chicago River. We hope you enjoy this fascinating slice of Chicago history and interview with writer Paul Dailing who authored the Chicago Reader article “The long death of Jean Lalime“.

Links to Research and History Documents

Episode 9: The First Scandal

Early settlement of Chicago begins, Fort Dearborn is established at this outpost in Indian Country and it gets entangled in Chicago’s first scandal.

Episode 8 : The First Settler

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines settler as, “a person who goes to live in a new place where usually there are few or no people”. Native Americans have lived in the greater Chicago area for approximately 10,000 years dating back to the last ice age. Dependent on long lost oral histories we have no clear records of the future city’s earliest peoples, though archeological efforts and early French documents seem to indicate no native villages existed within today’s Chicago city limits. There have been significant native villages in the suburbs surrounding Chicago, but no evidence of native settlement on the Chicago River has ever come to light.

The last seven episodes of the Windy City Historians Podcast has attempted to relate the first hundred plus years of Chicago’s earliest recorded history from the first westerners to pass through the area; be it Nicolet somewhere between 1628 and 1634 or Jolliet and Marquette in 1673. We now unveil this story of Chicago’s very first settler connecting us to the permanent and continuous settlement of the City of Chicago.

This man, a man of color, and his family has long been swept under the rug while the trader and opportunist John Kinzie was held up as the town’s founder, a man we can best describe as Chicago’s first scoundrel. We hope you will enjoy this in depth conversation with historians John Swenson and professor Courtney Pierre Joseph Ph.D. relating the life, times, and impact the very first settler made on the site and city that would follow in his footsteps. This is the story of the trader, gentleman farmer, and Chicago’s founder — Jean Baptiste Point de Sable. Mr. Point de Sable, and yes, that is the proper French spelling of his full surname, is a fascinating character we hope you will enjoy learning about as much as we have.

Links to Research and History Documents

Episode 7: Jolliet & Marquette by Reenactment

Perhaps nothing in Chicago history is as fundamental as Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette’s expedition of 1673. Their voyage by canoe from St. Anglace down Lake Michigan to the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers and the mighty Mississippi was of epic scale. On the way back north they paddled up the Illinois River passing through the place the Indians called “Chicagoua.” If the City of Chicago had a Mount Rushmore, Jolliet and Marquette would be on it. For Father Marquette the trip was to evangelize the Native Americans, while Jolliet’s focus was exploration, potential trade, as was the first to suggest a short canal to connect the waterway between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River.

With the tricentennial of this historic feat approaching it appeared nothing was planned to commemorate it. For Ralph Frese, Chicago’s “Mr. Canoe” this was unconscionable. So he set out the idea of reenacting the Jolliet & Marquette Expedition, picked the crew to paddle it, and built the canoes, while remaining entirely behind the scenes to receive little or no credit.

For this podcast, Chris and Patrick were thrilled to sit down with three key crew members of this 1973 re-enactment, Chuck McEnery and brothers Ken & Reid Lewis. Listen as this lively discussion unfolds commemorating the early origins of Chicago history. Filled with laughter and travails they persevered to set the stage for later historical reenactments, like the La Salle II expedition of 1976-77 recounted in Episodes 4 & 5. The re-telling 46-years later still feels fresh as the splash of paddles and songs of the Voyageurs wash across the waters of time.

Links to Research and History Documents

Episode 6: Mississippi by Canoe

“Unquestionably the discovery of the Mississippi is a datable fact which considerably mellows and modifies the shiny newness of our country, and gives her a most respectable outside-aspect of rustiness and antiquity.” — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

For the new country of the United States, the river that bisected it was old. This mighty river shaped the destiny of the towns and cities along its many miles of shoreline. Chicago was just a backwater to St. Louis, Missouri and Galena, Illinois before the railroads began to dominate transportation and Chicago’s rapid rise to prominence.

Our esteemed guest Paul Meincke took full measure of this river on an epic 70-day journey and joins the Windy City Historians in a special episode of our “Canoe Chronicles” to share some history and present reality of the “Mighty” Mississippi. In 2017, Paul, with friends Bill Baar, Tim Clark, and Tom Lobacz, started this adventure at the river’s headwaters in Minnesota and canoed some 2,320 miles to Gulf of Mexico. Captured in the documentary ”Mississippi by Canoe” on YouTube, Paul will tells of the trip’s challenges, triumphs, and insights and offers some behind the scenes in the making of the documentary. We hope you will enjoy this lively tale of paddling, politics, and history sprinkled with legends, mosquitoes, alligators, and how life is better when experienced by canoe, even 950,000 paddle strokes later.

Paul Meincke is “mostly” retired after 30-years of general assignment reporting for ABC7 Eyewitness News in Chicago, and ironically Paul’s celebrated 45-year broadcast career began on the banks of the Mississippi River in his hometown, Rock Island, Illinois. It was a real pleasure to met and talk with him.

Links to Research and History Documents

Episode 5: Missing at Death’s Door

Our examination of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle continues in this episode, as we follow the progress of the 1976-77 La Salle II Expedition, which ran into rough weather in Door County, Wisconsin and plot their progress as winter forces the crew out of their canoes to walk or portage the frozen rivers and roads, as they try to make it to the Mississippi. Author Lorraine Boissoneault shares her insights from her book The Last Voyageurs and we interview Reid & Ken Lewis who organized this epic reenactment and and Rich Gross who was part of the crew on this trek seeking the Gulf of Mexico.

We also gained fascinating insights from our interview with veteran broadcaster Paul Meincke recounting his 2017 trip canoeing the Mississippi from its headwaters to the Gulf and the ever present dangers of paddling this river of commerce of America’s heartland.

Links to Research and History Documents