Chicago: Fast Facts, Football, and Fire

By: Stuart J. Fischer, MD

Stuart J. Fischer, MD

Chicago is home to many unique structures, named for the famous and the infamous, and for legendary figures ranging from Mrs. O’Leary’s cow to Marshall Field. It inspired Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poems and a school of poetry, as well as a building style known as the Chicago School of

Names and nicknames
It is said that the name “Chicago” comes from a Native American word that the tribes in the area gave to a wild leek or onion that grew on the banks of the river and had a distinctive odor. The first modern use of the name was by French

The nickname “Windy City” was coined elsewhere. When Chicago was competing with New York to have the World’s Columbian Exposition, a New York Times reporter, Charles Dana, wrote, “Don’t pay any attention to the nonsensical claims of that Windy City.” Surprisingly, Chicago with an average wind speed of 10.4 mph doesn’t even make the National Climate Data Center’s list of America’s top ten windiest cities!

History bits
Much of the early history of Chicago centers around the Chicago River. The first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, arrived in the 1790s. Chicago became a trading hub because its location on Lake Michigan was close to a canoe portage that led to the Mississippi River system and provided a short overland trading route. The city was incorporated in 1833 with a population of 350.

In the late 1840s railroads made the passage much easier and Chicago became a national railway hub. In fact, the standardization of North American Time Zones was done by railroad managers in Chicago in 1883.

Does the Chicago River really run backwards? Its normal course is to run east from the Mississippi basin into Lake Michigan. The problem was that sewage would flow eastward along with the river into the lake, one of the city’s main sources of drinking water. In 1900, city engineers created a system of canal locks that would reverse the flow of the river and send the water west to the Mississippi. This year, however, engineers were concerned that, after a summer drought, the water level in Lake Michigan would go lower than the Chicago River and the water would flow eastward once more.

The Chicago River is a major connector between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
Courtesy of Cesar Russ Photography/

The Chicago Water Tower, a castle-like structure on Michigan Avenue, is the second oldest water tower in the United States. It was built in 1869 to pump water from Lake Michigan. Two years later, in 1871, it was one of the few downtown buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire. Its unique structure now serves as a landmark and tourist attraction.

At one point, Chicago was home to the largest building in the world, the Merchandise Mart. The building had its own zip code and was once owned by Kennedy family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy.

The downtown business district is known as the Loop. Even though an elevated train circles the area, the name actually comes from the route of two cable cars that ran around the district back in 1882.

Who were the “Monsters of the Midway”? The name refers to the original University of Chicago Maroons Football Team in the 1930s. The Maroons stopped playing football in 1939, but the name was picked up by the Chicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL) in the 1940s and later the Super Bowl-winning Bears team of 1985.

Even Chicago’s football fields have their quirks of history. The Maroons’ stadium—Stagg Field, named for Amos Alonzo Stagg, a pioneering head coach who led the team from 1892 to 1932—contributed to one of the major scientific developments of the 20th century. In 1942, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Enrico Fermi, working as part of the Manhattan Project, built the first nuclear reactor and created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. His laboratory was located under the stands beneath Stagg Field where the Maroons had played just a few years before. Fermi’s work was the first step toward developing an atomic weapon.

In 1924, Soldier Field opened just across from the Field Museum in Grant Park. The name honors American soldiers who died in wars. The largest crowd ever to watch a college football game—123,000 people—saw Notre Dame beat the University of Southern California at Soldier Field on Nov. 26, 1927.

Located along the shores of Lake Michigan, Soldier Field is the iconic home of the Chicago Bears.
Courtesy of City of Chicago

A stadium reconstruction in 2003 preserved the exterior facade and columns, but redid the interior. As a result, Soldier Field was delisted as a national historic landmark. It now has the smallest capacity of any NFL stadium.

The Chicago Fire
The story of the Great Chicago Fire is legend. Most agree that the fire started on October 8, 1871, near the O’Leary barn. A Chicago Tribune reporter printed a story that a woman (presumably Ms. O’Leary) was milking a cow in her barn, and the cow kicked over a lantern causing the barn to ignite. The fire quickly spread and burned for 2 days, eventually destroying an area 3 to 4 miles long and a mile wide; 100,000 people were left homeless and 300 people lost their lives.

The O’Learys claimed they were in bed when the fire started and years later the Tribune reporter admitted making up the story.

After the fire, the city began to rebuild with new building codes and fire standards. In 1884, Chicago became home to the first “skyscraper.” Architect William LeBaron Jenney was the first to construct a building with a steel frame or skeleton that allowed for thinner walls and taller buildings. Even though the Home Insurance Company building was only 10 stories high, it was the first of its type in America. Other skyscrapers in the downtown area became part of the Chicago School of Architecture. Today, Chicago has the two tallest buildings in North America—the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and the Trump International Hotel and Towers.

Stuart J. Fischer, MD, is a member of the AAOS Now editorial board.