Chicago, the vibrant metropolis nestled along the shores of Lake Michigan, has a rich and fascinating history that stretches back to the 19th century. As one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States during that era, Chicago experienced a remarkable transformation that shaped its identity and laid the foundations for its iconic landmarks.
The 19th century was a period of remarkable growth and change for Chicago. From its humble beginnings as a small trading post, it evolved into a bustling hub of commerce and industry. The city became a magnet for immigrants seeking new opportunities and attracted settlers from all walks of life.
In this article, we will delve into the captivating history of Chicago during the 19th century and explore the significant landmarks that emerged during this time. From the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which left an indelible mark on the city’s landscape, to the innovative architectural designs that shaped its skyline, we will uncover the stories behind these iconic structures.
Join us on a journey through time as we unravel the captivating history of Chicago in the 19th century and discover the enduring landmarks that continue to define this remarkable city.
We also have a continuation of this article, if you want to see the history of Chicago in the 20th century and the landmarks from that era. If you want to read about the churches to visit in Chicago, we have some article about them.
A brief history of Chicago
The Chicago area was originally inhabited by Algonquian peoples. The name “Chicago” comes from the Native American word shikaakwa, meaning wild garlic. French explorers first mentioned the site as “Checagou” in the late 1600s. The location’s strategic value as a portage between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River attracted French explorers like Jolliet and Marquette.
The Miami tribe, part of the Miami Confederacy, settled in the area in the 1670s but later sought protection from the Iroquois. French missionaries arrived in the late 1600s to Christianize the Miami and Wea peoples. The Algonquian tribes gradually reclaimed the region, and the Iroquois abandoned their claim in 1726. The Pottawatomi became the dominant force but didn’t have major settlements in Chicago.
The first non-indigenous permanent settler in Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, an African trader who established the settlement in the 1780s. He is known as the “Founder of Chicago.” In 1803, the U.S. Army built Fort Dearborn, which was destroyed during the War of 1812 but later rebuilt.
After the War of 1812, the United States gained more land from native tribes in the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis. The Potawatomi were forcibly removed from their land in 1833 as part of the government’s Indian removal policy. The Town of Chicago was organized in 1833 and quickly grew, becoming the City of Chicago in 1837. It became the world’s fastest-growing city, serving as a transportation hub between the eastern and western United States.
Chicago’s economy flourished, attracting residents from rural areas and immigrants from Europe. The city’s manufacturing, retail, and finance sectors played a dominant role in the American economy. The Chicago Board of Trade, established in 1848, introduced the first standardized exchange-traded futures contracts.
In the 1850s, Chicago gained political prominence as the home of Senator Stephen Douglas and became the stage for the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president at the 1860 Republican National Convention held in Chicago, setting the stage for the American Civil War.
To accommodate the city’s rapid growth, Chicago improved its infrastructure, including the construction of the first comprehensive sewerage system in the United States in 1856. However, the untreated sewage and industrial waste polluted the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, leading to the reversal of the river’s flow in 1900.
In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed a large section of the city. Despite the devastation, Chicago rebuilt and became a global leader in architecture and construction, constructing the world’s first skyscraper in 1885.
Chicago continued to grow through the annexation of neighboring townships, attracting a large number of immigrants. By 1900, more than 77% of the population was either foreign-born or born in the United States of foreign parentage. The city experienced labor conflicts, including the Haymarket affair in 1886 and the Pullman Strike in 1894.
In conclusion, Chicago’s history until 1900 is characterized by rapid growth, the Great Chicago Fire, architectural rebirth, economic prosperity, labor struggles, and cultural achievements. The city’s resilience and determination to rebuild after the devastating fire laid the groundwork for its future as a global metropolis.
The Site of origin of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
The Site of Origin of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, located at Dekoven and Jefferson Streets, holds significant historical importance. The fire, which started on October 8, 1871, devastated the city and left a lasting impact on its architecture and urban development. Since 1956, the Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for firefighters, has been established at this site, reflecting the city’s commitment to fire safety and prevention.
At the point where the fire originated, a striking bronze sculpture titled “Pillar of Fire” was erected in 1961. Created by sculptor Egon Weiner, the artwork features stylized flames and serves as a powerful reminder of the catastrophic event. The base of the sculpture bears an inscription that states, “Here began the Chicago Fire of 1871,” honoring the historical significance of the location.
Recognizing its historical importance, the “site of the origin of the Great Chicago Fire” was designated as a Chicago Landmark on September 15, 1971. The plaque accompanying the landmark highlights the destructive nature of the fire, which consumed the city for nearly 30 hours, spreading as far as Fullerton Avenue before eventually being extinguished by the early morning rain on October 10. The fire’s path left a trail of destruction, destroying almost everything in its wake due to the prevalence of wooden structures throughout the city.
Adjacent to the Chicago Fire Academy, visitors can see the location of Mrs. O’Leary’s Home, marked by a plaque. This place holds particular intrigue, as it is believed to be the origin of the fire. The plaque acknowledges the various accounts surrounding the fire’s cause, but the true source has never been definitively determined. Erected by Chicago’s Charter Jubilee and authenticated by the Chicago Historical Society in 1937, the plaque serves as a testament to the enduring fascination with the fire’s origins.
Visiting the Site of Origin of the Great Chicago Fire provides an opportunity to reflect on the city’s history, resilience, and commitment to fire safety. It serves as a reminder of the devastating consequences of such a catastrophic event and the need for preparedness and prevention measures in urban areas.
The Henry B. Clarke House
The Henry B. and Caroline Clarke/Bishop Louis Henry and Margaret Ford House, also known as the Clarke-Ford House, is a Greek Revival style home in Chicago, Illinois. Built around 1836, it holds the distinction of being the oldest surviving house in the city.
Henry Brown Clarke, a native of New York, came to Chicago in 1833 and played a significant role in the city’s growth through his hardware business. The house, constructed by a local contractor, was originally located near Michigan Avenue and 17th Street but has since been moved twice. Its current position in a park and gardens is part of the Prairie Avenue Historic District.
Designated as a Chicago Landmark in 1970 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the Clarke-Ford House showcases Greek Revival architecture and stands as a testament to Chicago’s early history. After experiencing financial setbacks, Henry Clarke’s widow, Caroline Palmer Clarke, made renovations to the house, adding an elaborate back portico, an Italianate cupola, and enhancing the dining room and front parlor.
In the late 19th century, the house changed ownership and was eventually acquired by the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. Bishop Louis Henry Ford played a crucial role in preserving and repairing the structure, raising awareness of its historical significance. In 1977, the City of Chicago purchased the house and undertook the remarkable feat of moving it to its present location, lifting it over the L tracks.
In recognition of Bishop Ford’s contributions and to honor the legacy of both families associated with the house, the Chicago City Council approved the renaming of the property to the Henry B. and Caroline Clarke/Bishop Louis Henry and Margaret Ford House in 2022.
Currently operated as a historic house museum by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the Clarke-Ford House offers guided tours by arrangement with the neighboring Glessner House Museum. The museum holds accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, further highlighting its significance as a historical landmark.
The Manhattan Building
The Manhattan Building, located in downtown Chicago, is a 16-story skyscraper designed by architect William Le Baron Jenney and completed in 1891. It is the oldest surviving skyscraper with a skeletal supporting structure.
Jenney faced challenges in its construction due to neighboring structures and wind loads, but he employed a cantilevered design using wrought-iron girders and double-wythe, hollow clay tile curtain walls.
The building showcases a mix of iron panels, granite, glazed Roman brick, and terra-cotta elements for its exterior. In the 1980s, the Manhattan Building was converted into condominiums, preserving its exterior while reworking the interior for residential use. The service core was redesigned, and stacked bathrooms and kitchens were added. The exterior received repairs and cleaning during the renovation.
Situated on a narrow site in downtown Chicago, the Manhattan Building rises 16 stories high and features a nine-bay layout. Its north and south bays are cantilevered, supported by wrought-iron girders and anchored into the structure.
The building’s aesthetic includes ornamental elements such as oriel windows, terra-cotta brackets, and a terra-cotta cornice. Glass storefronts dominate the ground floor, while upper stories exhibit rough-cut gray granite, terra-cotta tiles, and glazed Roman brick.
The Manhattan Building’s structural and aesthetic achievements make it a remarkable example of the early Chicago School of architecture. It represents Jenney’s vision of skyscraper development and demonstrates the innovation required for tall building construction. The building’s conversion to residential use breathed new life into the neglected south Loop district, contributing to the preservation of Chicago’s architectural heritage.
The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879, is a renowned art museum located in Chicago’s Grant Park. It is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the world, attracting approximately 1.5 million visitors annually.
With a collection of nearly 300,000 works of art, the museum is known for its diverse range of masterpieces, including Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
The museum’s collection spans over 5,000 years of human expression and is organized into 11 curatorial departments. It encompasses a wide range of art forms, from early Japanese prints to Byzantine art to contemporary American art. In addition to its permanent collection, the museum hosts more than 30 special exhibitions each year that showcase cutting-edge curatorial and scientific research.
As a research institution, the Art Institute has a conservation and conservation science department, five conservation laboratories, and one of the largest art history and architecture libraries in the country—the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.
Over the years, the museum has undergone several expansions to accommodate its growing collection. The most recent expansion, the Modern Wing designed by Renzo Piano, opened in 2009, increasing the museum’s footprint to nearly one million square feet.
It is now the second-largest art museum in the United States, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Art Institute is also affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, making it one of the few remaining unified arts institutions in the country.
The museum’s collections are organized into various departments, including African Art, Indian Art of the Americas, American Art, Ancient Art, Architecture and Design, Asian Art, European Decorative Arts, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art, Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms and Armor, Modern and Contemporary Art, Photography, Prints and Drawings, Textiles, and more.
Notable highlights of the collection include the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which are considered one of the finest collections outside of France. The museum is particularly famous for its holdings of Claude Monet’s works, including his Haystacks and Water Lilies series. Other important artists represented in the collection include Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, and many more.
The Art Institute also houses significant collections of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art, as well as medieval and Renaissance art. The Department of Architecture and Design features works by renowned architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.
The museum’s photography collection spans from its inception in 1839 to the present day, and the print and drawings collection includes works by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco Goya, and James McNeill Whistler.
The museum building itself is a notable architectural landmark. Designed in the Beaux-Arts style by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, it was originally constructed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The iconic bronze lion statues at the western entrance, created by Edward Kemeys, have become symbols of the museum. The building also incorporates salvaged portions of the old Chicago Stock Exchange designed by Louis Sullivan.
The Art Institute of Chicago is a cultural institution of great significance, serving as a hub for art, research, and education. Its extensive collections and world-class exhibitions continue to inspire and engage visitors from around the globe.
The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse
The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is an active automated lighthouse located at the south end of the northern breakwater, safeguarding the Chicago Harbor. Situated east of Navy Pier and at the mouth of the Chicago River, it was originally built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and relocated in 1919.
The lighthouse showcased advanced engineering achievements, including the Spectacle Reef Light and a 111-foot-tall cast iron tower. Among the exhibits were impressive Fresnel lenses, including a renowned Third Order Fresnel lens, which found its home in the lantern room of the new tower after the Exposition. The original lens is now displayed at Cabrillo National Monument. The lighthouse features a unique design with multiple levels, a concrete base, two red-roofed buildings, a tapered white cylinder, a parapet, and the light itself.
It shares similarities with the Rock of Ages Light near Isle Royale. Designated a Chicago Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lighthouse was transferred to the City of Chicago in 2009.
Its significant contribution to the city’s development is commemorated through a relief sculpture titled “The Spirit of the Waters” near Chicago City Hall. While the lighthouse serves as an active navigational aid, public access is prohibited. The best views of the lighthouse can be enjoyed from Navy Pier or by taking a boat tour in the area.
The Chicago Water Tower
The Chicago Water Tower, located in the Old Chicago Water Tower District, is a historic landmark in Chicago, Illinois. Built in 1869, it survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 while the surrounding area was destroyed. Situated at 806 North Michigan Avenue, the tower is now part of the Jane M. Byrne Plaza, a small park in the Near North Side community.
Originally designed to house a powerful water pump drawing water from Lake Michigan, the tower is the second-oldest water tower in the United States. Standing at 182.5 feet (55 m) tall, it was constructed with yellow Lemont limestone by architect William W. Boyington. The tower included a standpipe to hold water, which could regulate water pressure and control surges in the area. Together with the nearby Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, it provided clean water for the city.
Following the Great Chicago Fire, the tower gained prominence as the only public building in the burned zone to survive. It has since become a symbol of Chicago’s recovery from the disaster. Today, the tower serves as the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, an art gallery featuring the work of local artists, photographers, and filmmakers.
The tower underwent two renovations in 1913-1916 and 1978, replacing limestone blocks and making minor interior and exterior changes. In 2014, the park surrounding the tower was named after former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne. While not universally admired, with Oscar Wilde describing it as a “castellated monstrosity,” the tower’s unique castle-like design has influenced the architecture of some White Castle restaurant buildings.
Recognized as an American Water Landmark in 1969, the Chicago Water Tower has also appeared in the finales of The Amazing Race 6 and The Amazing Race 29 in 2004 and 2017, respectively.
The Union Stock Yard Gate
The Union Stock Yard Gate, located at the entrance of the renowned Union Stock Yards in Chicago, is a significant remnant of the stock yards’ history. Designed by Burnham and Root in 1875, this limestone gate stands as the sole surviving structural element from the stock yards.
It holds the distinction of being a National Historic Landmark since 1981. Situated on a plaza at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street on the city’s South Side, the gate is characterized by a central main arch flanked by two smaller arches. The main arch boasts a truncated hip roof, lending the structure a total height of 32 feet. The gatehouse that once accompanied the gate has unfortunately been demolished.
Established in 1865 as a centralized hub for Chicago’s burgeoning meatpacking industry, the Union Stock Yard played a vital role in the city’s economy. The gate, designed by Daniel Burnham and John W. Root, was constructed in 1879 alongside other structures in the stock yards. Despite a devastating fire in 1934 that razed much of the yards, the gate and its surrounding plaza survived. In the 1970s, the gate underwent restoration, preserving a tangible connection to Chicago’s prominent past in the meatpacking industry.
Recognized as a Chicago Landmark in 1972 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the same year, the Union Stock Yard Gate received its designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1981.
Adorning the center arch of the gate is a bust of Sherman, paying homage to John D. Sherman’s prized bull and his role as the stockyard superintendent. Adjacent to the gate, a memorial statue commemorates Chicago firefighters, with the engraved names of those who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
As a testament to Chicago’s rich heritage in the meatpacking industry, the Union Stock Yard Gate serves as a poignant reminder of the city’s past achievements and the significance of its industrial legacy.
The Page Brothers Building
The Page Brothers Building in the Loop area of Chicago is known for its cast iron front, the city’s last remaining example. Although this building was built after the Great Chicago Fire, this technique was common before the fire, when many iron facades melted due to the intense heat.
The original 5-story structure was designed by architect John Mills Van Osdel, known for prominent buildings in the Jewelers Row District and Old Main at the University of Arkansas. In 1902, the west facade was remodeled and an additional floor was added, reflecting the shift of commercial activity from Lake to State Street.
The Page Brothers Building can be considered a monument to Chicago’s pre-skyscraper era, showcasing the combination of iron and glass that emerged at the middle of the 19th century. It played a significant role in the architectural transformation that began in Chicago and spread across the nation. The cast-iron fronts, initially concentrated along Lake Street, started to shift towards State Street after the efforts of Potter Palmer and the influence of the Great Fire.
The Page Brothers Building exemplifies this transition, with its cast-iron facade facing Lake Street and brick facade facing State Street. Over the years, the building has undergone remodeling and expansion, but the cast-iron facade remains intact. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and designated as a Chicago Landmark in 1983.
The Dearborn Station
Dearborn Station, also known as Polk Street Depot, was a prominent intercity train station in downtown Chicago from the late 1800s until May 1, 1971. Designed by Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz, the Romanesque Revival structure opened in 1885 and featured a distinctive pink granite and red brick exterior with a twelve-story clock tower.
After a fire in 1922, modifications were made to the building, including the removal of the original pitched roof. Inside, the station housed ticket counters, waiting rooms, and restaurants operated by the Fred Harvey Company.
However, the rise of Amtrak led to the consolidation of operations at Union Station, and Dearborn Station’s intercity passenger service came to an end in 1971. By 1976, the train shed was demolished, and the station’s tracks were removed. The head house building, though, was preserved and repurposed as retail and office space. The former rail yards were transformed into Dearborn Park.
Dearborn Station served several well-known railroads, including the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (Santa Fe), Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad, Erie Railroad, Grand Trunk Western Railroad, and Wabash Railroad. It also accommodated commuter rail services such as the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad, Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad, Chicago and Erie Railroad, and Santa Fe Railway.
The station’s cultural significance extends to music and television. It is mentioned in blues musician Henry Thomas’ song “Railroadin’ Some” and is referenced multiple times in the “Adam’s Ribs” episode of M*A*S*H. Additionally, the rock band Fortune released a song titled “Dearborn Station” in 1985.
The Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center, a historic landmark opened in 1897, serves as Chicago’s official reception venue and a hub for arts and culture. Located in the Loop, opposite Millennium Park, it was originally the central library building but was transformed into an arts center in 1977.
Today, it hosts over 1,000 programs and exhibitions annually, showcasing a wide range of performing, visual, and literary arts. The center also houses the Chicago Children’s Choir and is managed by MB Real Estate.
Designed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the building features a neoclassical style with Italian Renaissance elements. Noteworthy architectural highlights include the impressive Randolph Street entrance with its mahogany doors and green-veined Vermont marble, as well as the Washington Street entrance and grand staircase adorned with Carrara marble, Connemara green marble, and intricate mosaics.
The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial hall showcases deep green Vermont marble, a mosaic floor, and a stunning stained-glass dome. Preston Bradley Hall is another standout space, boasting curving white Carrara marble and the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome, designed by J.A. Holzer.
The Cultural Center recently underwent a meticulous renovation to restore its original beauty. The restoration included the preservation of the art glass dome and decorative finishes in the Grand Army of the Republic rooms, made possible by a grant of services valued at over $15 million.
The project involved recreating lost light fixtures, cleaning and polishing marble, restoring doors, and removing layers of paint. The restoration team also meticulously restored the 40-foot Tiffany-designed stained glass dome, comprising over 60,000 individual glass pieces. Daprato Rigali Studios performed the stained glass dome restoration.
With its rich history and architectural grandeur, the Chicago Cultural Center remains a premier cultural destination, welcoming visitors and showcasing the vibrant arts scene of the city.