Good morning, Chicago.
On June 10, 1847, from a third-floor loft at the corner of Lake and LaSalle streets, the Chicago Tribune printed its first edition. While those first 400 copies may be lost to time, the paper’s archives run deep. Now, as we begin to celebrate the anniversary of that day, we invite you to join us on a look back at 175 years of Chicago stories.
Over the next six weeks, we will revisit Tribune’s coverage of watershed moments in the city’s history, the politics and innovations that, for better or worse, shape its reputation, and the people and communities that give it soul.
Beginning today, longtime reporter Rick Kogan offers readers a weekly series examining the paper’s role documenting life in Chicago over six distinct eras. It is a tale filled with triumphs and tragedies, oddities and oddballs, events and people both wonderful and wild, Kogan writes.
We’re devoting our Flashback section of the Sunday paper, renamed Vintage Chicago Tribune, to deep dives on some of those events and personalities, and publishing a selection of past columns and reviews, plus a page devoted to advice columnist Ann Landers and another to film critic Gene Siskel. You can find Mike Royko’s columns here.
While we cannot retell every tale, we hope you will learn something new about your city, and the paper that has strived for 175 years to bring you the news. Because our history is your history.
– Jocelyn Allison, Marianne Mather and Kori Rumore
Imagine yourself walking the muddy streets of Chicago in June of 1847. If you had three cents in your pocket, you might have spent it to buy the first edition of the Chicago Tribune, writes Rick Kogan. The streets are no longer muddy: The city would later raise them in a herculean effort to make Chicago the first American city with a comprehensive sewer system (and save its residents from cholera). But 175 years later, the Chicago Tribune is still selling newspapers.
Operating from above a post office on a stretch of Clark Street known as “Newspaper Row,” the Tribune covered some of the most important stories of the century: Abraham Lincoln’s presidential nomination, a great and devastating fire, construction of the world’s first skyscraper, and the World’s Columbian Exposition.
At century’s end, Chicago was a city of 1.7 million people, second only to New York City. And the battle for readers’ attention was fierce.
Chicago, now making a bid to hold the 2024 Democratic Convention, has played host to about two dozen Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions (including, memorably, during the tumultuous year of 1968). But never were the stakes as high as in 1860, writes Ron Grossman.
Abraham Lincoln was getting cold feet, but Joseph Medill, the newspaper’s editor and a prominent anti-slavery voice, would have none of it. He’d worked too hard to get the convention to Chicago, and it was “president or nothing,” he said. “We’re not playing second in this dance to any musician.”
The Tribune claimed its four-story building constructed of stone, brick and iron at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Madison streets was incombustible. But it was wrong. Far from fireproof, the building was among 17,450 destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which claimed the lives of roughly 300 people and left 90,000 homeless.
There were 600 fires in the year before the great one, and after a hot, dry summer in 1871, the first week of October brought more than 30 more. Early that month, the paper declared, “We will continue to print these stories on conflagrations until the common council acts.” But it was too late. Eventually word spread that it was a cow in the barn of Irish immigrant Catherine O’Leary that had started the Oct. 8 blaze, a myth that continues to this day.
The next year, the city created its first Black fire company, Engine 21, credited with inventing the “sliding pole,” now a fixture in firehouses the world over. Today, just 15% of Chicago firefighters are Black.
As Chicago rebuilt from the Great Fire, the Tribune pushed for the city to host the World’s Columbian Exposition, a massive fair marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ sail across the Atlantic. On opening day in 1893, nearly 129,000 people converged on the 600-acre fairgrounds, an area now home to Jackson Park and the modern-day neighborhoods of Woodlawn, South Shore and Hyde Park.
Fair coverage was a boon for the paper, prompting newsboys to jack up prices of the Sunday edition to $3.50 as copies quickly became scarce: “The person that has one can count himself among the favored inhabitants of the earth,” the paper declared on May 1, 1893.
On display were such marvels as a moving sidewalk (5 cents to ride), a replica of a Viking ship, the world’s first Ferris wheel, and Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper machine, an innovation in grain harvesting that would make the McCormicks one of Chicago’s wealthiest families, and eventual owners of the Chicago Tribune.
The innovations unveiled in 1893 Chicago were not limited to the Columbian Exposition. That same year, a surgeon at Provident Hospital performed a medical marvel, becoming the first to successfully suture the wall surrounding the human heart.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was among the nation’s best-known Black physicians, operating at a hospital that had opened two years before to give Black nurses and doctors — often shut out of white-run institutions — an opportunity to practice, and Black patients a place to receive care.
In 1855, Chicago’s foreign-born residents were approaching half of its total population, and 625 of the city’s 675 taverns were owned by Irish or German immigrants. When Mayor Levi Boone, elected on the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform of the Know-Nothing Party, attempted to jack up licensing fees and close the pubs on Sundays, an angry crowd descended on City Hall. One person was killed and 60 were arrested.
The Tribune had backed Boone for mayor and referred to Irish Catholics as “the most depraved, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community.” But the public had other ideas. That summer, a statewide referendum on prohibition was voted down, the anti-immigrant slate was defeated in the next year’s mayoral election, and the pubs opened again on Sundays.