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The Chicago Theatre and its iconic marquee is located on N. State Street.
Courtesy of Stuart J. Fischer, MD, FAAOS

AAOS Now

Published 3/24/2022
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Stuart J. Fischer, MD, FAAOS

‘Chicago, Chicago: That Toddlin’ Town’

Much of the early history of Chicago centers on the Chicago River. 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.

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.

The timing of the AAOS Annual Meeting is a few days too late, but every year the Chicago River is colored green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The tradition was started in 1962 by the Chicago plumbers’ union. The dye was originally used by the plumbers as a way of finding leaks in buildings. The dye typically stays in the river for one or two days, but one year the plumbers overdid it and the river stayed green for a week.

Did you know that the Chicago River actually runs backwards? Its normal course is to run east from the Mississippi basin into Lake Michigan, which means 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. Now, it flows from east to west.

Chicago was founded in the 1790s, and no history of Chicago is complete without mention of the Great Chicago Fire. Most agree that the fire started on Oct. 8, 1871, near the O’Leary barn. A Chicago Tribune reporter printed a story that a woman (presumably Mrs. 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 two days, eventually destroying an area three to four 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 to making up the story. In a footnote to history, the Chicago Committee on Police and Fire voted in 1997 to exonerate Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.

According to legend, William Rand and Andrew McNally had a printing shop that printed railroad timetables and the Chicago Tribune. At the time of the fire, they saved two printing machines by burying them along the beach on Lake Michigan. The printing business was back up and running in a few days, and Rand McNally published its first map in 1872.

There’s much to do in Chicago, and for anyone interested in improv, the Second City is worth a trip. One of the largest comedy companies in the country, Second City has several stages in Chicago and was the starting ground for many famous comedians, including Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Joan Rivers, John Candy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. Belushi and Aykroyd went on to film The Blues Brothers in Chicago, which reflects the city’s long musical history of blues and jazz. In fact, the Chicago Tribune claims to have invented the term “jazz” in 1915.

The Great Migration of poor African American workers from the South into the industrial cities of the North in the early 1900s brought traditional jazz and blues music to Chicago. Famous Chicago musicians include Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and King Oliver. It was Oliver who invited a young cornet player, Louis Armstrong, to come up from New Orleans and join his band in 1922.

For more classical entertainment, the Chicago Symphony is led by Riccardo Muti and plays at the Chicago Symphony Center. Another theatrical landmark, the Chicago Theater, is well known for its famous six-story marquee overlooking North State Street. The theater, built in 1921, was the first large movie palace in the country and can seat 3,600 people.

Chicago may be the “Second City,” but it does have a series of firsts:

  • Baseball’s first All-Star game was played at Comiskey Park in 1933.
  • The first modern skyscraper, the Home Insurance Company building, was built by William Lebaron Jenney in 1884. It was only 10 stories!
  • The first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, took place at WBBM studios in Chicago in 1960.
  • The first car radio (Motorola) and the first TV remote control (Zenith) were made in Chicago.
  • Mail-order retailing was started in Chicago by Sears and Montgomery Ward.
  • The first nuclear reactor and self-sustaining nuclear reaction were created by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi under the stands at Stagg Field, the former home of the University of Chicago football team known as “monsters of the midway.”

Almost everyone coming to the meeting will fly into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Originally Orchard Field Airport (the source of the ORD designation on tickets and baggage tags), Chicago’s northwest-side airport was named after Eddie H. “Butch” O’Hare, a naval fighter pilot and the first naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II in 1949.

Although Butch O’Hare was a hero, his father, “Easy Eddie” O’Hare, had underworld connections. Easy Eddie was a lawyer who ran dog-racing tracks in partnership with Al Capone. When the Internal Revenue Service was going after Capone, though, O’Hare secretly provided government agents with evidence. Some speculate that he cooperated with the government to get Butch an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Easy Eddie was later assassinated in a gangland-style killing.

Other Chicago landmarks are reminders of the city’s colorful criminal history in the 1920s and 1930s. The Biograph Theater (now the Victory Gardens) is the site where FBI agents shot and killed public enemy No. 1 John Dillinger as he left the movies with “the lady in red.” It is said that the cornerstone of Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago still bears bullet holes from the 1926 shooting of Capone’s enemy Hymie Weiss.

Chicago has a rich and colorful history. Take it all in while you are in town.

As Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi, “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago—she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”

Stuart J. Fischer, MD, FAAOS, is an orthopaedic surgeon in private practice in Summit, N.J. Dr. Fischer serves on the AAOS Membership Council, Board of Councilors, and Committee on Evidence-based Quality and Value. He was the editor of OrthoInfo from 2010–2021 and served on the Editorial Board of AAOS Now from 2008–2020.