Jon Bunge: Chicago History

You could say Chicago has been an underdog over the years. The Windy City started out as a tiny trading post but is now one of the biggest cities in the United States. In addition, not only has it dominated the American stage but also is competitive on the world stage, serving as a thriving center of commerce and international trade. Many people from all over the world arrive in Chicago — a city that has proven that it is capable of reinventing itself time and time again — to pursue their American dreams.

The Early Days

The first permanent resident of Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a free Black man from Haiti who worked as a trader. Du Sable arrived in Chicago during the late 1770s. Then, in 1795, Fort Dearborn was erected by the federal government in the area now known as the intersection of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue. Native Americans ended up burning this fort to the ground, though, in 1812, before being rebuilt and finally demolished in the year 1857.


After Chicago was incorporated in 1837, it was able to take full advantage of trading opportunities made possible by settlers’ efforts to move westward. A link was created between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes in 1848 through the Illinois and Michigan Canal. However, the canal became unnecessary once railroads became more prominent. Today, half of the rail freight in the United States passes through the Windy City, and at the same time, Chicago remains the busiest center for aviation in the United States due to the presence of the Midway and O’Hare international airports there.

The Great Fire

No collection of Chicago history is complete without a reference to Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871. This great fire burned the majority of sidewalks, buildings, and streets in Chicago that year, as they were all fabricated from wood. Only a few buildings survived this grand fire, including the Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station located at Chicago and Michigan avenues.

City of Firsts

Chicago is not just the Windy City; it is also a city of many firsts. For instance, Chicago featured the first skyscraper in the United States — a 10-story building — that was erected in 1884. This building was the Home Insurance Building, which featured a steel frame.

Chicago is also the birthplace of several items used today, including the television remote control made by Zenith, as well as the car radio made by Motorola. Chicago was also a trailblazer in mail-order retailing, which Sears and Montgomery Ward spearheaded. The refrigerated rail car by Swift was also born in Chicago.

Other noteworthy Chicago firsts include the first nuclear chain reaction that was self-sustaining, which ushered in the historical period following the first nuclear bomb’s detonation — known as the Atomic Age. You also have the Sears Tower, a 1,450-foot tower that was completed back in 1974. It remains North America’s tallest building and the world’s third-tallest edifice.

You do not have to look far to see that Chicago remains a city brimming with historical and cultural treasures. These treasures keep the city on the map both domestically and globally in the eyes of visitors, politicians, laborers, professionals, students, and generally people from virtually all walks of life.