Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
Chicago: City of the Century
The Film and More
Film Description
Transcript
Primary Sources
Further Reading
Acknowledgements

Special Features
Timeline
maps
People and Events
Teacher's Guide

spacer above content
Transcript

  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Narrator: In 1893 the Chicago Limited Express left New York for the metropolis of the West. A writer for Harper's Weekly was aboard one of George Pullman's luxurious sleeping cars -- made in Chicago. The Belgian linen and fine English China came from Chicago's merchant prince, Marshall Field. The menu featured beef and pork from Swift and Armour, Chicago's famous meat packers. The writer enjoyed the best the miraculous city could offer. The city that had opened the prairies and transformed the continent. The city that seemed to portend the future -- for better or worse.

William Cronon, Historian: Chicago was the shock city of America. And some reacted to that vision of the future with horror: "This is not the place we want to go. This is not what we want to be." And others with great excitement: This is what the world was becoming. It was a world of endless opportunity.

Narrator: He was headed for this city of opportunity that lured people from the East.

Tim Samuelson, Chicago Historical Society: The architect Louie Sullivan thrust his hand up in the air and said, "This is the place for me."

Narrator: The city of opportunity that lured people from 14 nations.

Ann Keating, Historian: They were pulled out to Chicago to do the dirtiest, hardest work imaginable. And they were despised for it.

Narrator: He was headed for the lawless city where politics was more than ballots.

Paul Green, Political Scientist:The term "right hand man" I really believe started in Chicago because you wanted someone who had a good right. It was a tough business, politics.

Narrator: The explosive city of the new industrial age where there were no rules in the battle between capital and labor.

Richard Schneirov, Historian: They were revolutionaries. They felt that perhaps with a single act of violence capital would just crumble and a new society would take shape.

Narrator: The city where people, driven by profit, were blind to nature.

Donald L. Miller, Author: Chicago is situated magnificently for trade, but it's a pestilential swamp. It is a horrible place for a city. It's an absolute hellhole.

Victoria Brown, Historian: Children were playing with maggots as if they were little pets.

Narrator: The Harper's writer was bound for the World's Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage of discovery. It would be the grandest world's fair ever. No matter what the "wonders" of the fair, he alerted his readers, Chicago itself will be the "most surprising."

Nancy Koehn, Historian: Chicago is a crucible for the larger transformations that the country was undergoing from agriculture to industry, rural isolation to the crowding of urban life. From the seasons and the movements of the sun dictating our rhythms to the movements of the punch clock. All of those will come to define America. And all of those are on display in the city of the century that was Chicago.

City of the Century
Part I: Mud Hole to Metropolis

Narrator: In 1673, French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet paddled 40 days up the Mississippi River to the Illinois. They were returning to Quebec from a voyage of discovery: the first white men to descend and map the Mississippi. The French hoped to wrest the continent from the British before they pushed West from their colonies in the East. "We have seen nothing like this river," Marquette wrote of the earthly paradise they encountered west of the Illinois. Marquette was a Catholic missionary. His converts would also make good allies. "There are great prairies," noted Joliet, a geographer, "with grass five or six feet high." They had discovered the tall grass prairies, an ocean of grass that flowed for a thousand miles to the Rocky Mountains. They had paddled from the St. Lawrence River, over the Great Lakes to what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin. They made an arduous portage up rapids and waterfalls to a continental divide, then descended to the Mississippi. Now the Indians showed them an easier route back. Up the Illinois River, then the Des Plaines to where it ended in a marshy height of land.

William Cronon, Historian: You would never imagine that it was a continental divide of any kind. And yet the marsh was sitting right on the line that flowed both to the Mississippi and into the St. Lawrence. At high water times, in fact, that marsh emptied into both So that at the highest of waters, you could probably canoe directly from Lake Michigan on into the Mississippi watershed -- which is amazing.

Narrator: Marquette and Joliet reached the divide in September at low water, and they portaged for a few miles but only a few feet above the marsh. Joliet would recommend to the French in Quebec a canal for canoes that would avoid the portage, a canal that would link the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi. East of the portage was a sluggish river which flowed through a swamp. The Indians called it Chicagoua, the place of the wild onion or skunkweed.

Miller: It stunk. It had a foul odor. The river is almost motionless. And this stinking weed gave off this odor that drove even the Indians away. And they're not going to live on a bog. You know, there's plenty of open prairie there and grassland and things like that, and little prairie woodlands. Only the white man's crazy enough to live there.

Narrator: When the voyageurs reached the lake, they began the 1500 mile trek back to Quebec. Joliet was the first to see the potential of the stinking river at the portage. He would urge the French to return and create a colony. In their war with the British, he knew it could command the continent. The French lost their battle for North America, and for a century, Chicago remained unsettled. A black man arrived around 1780 to farm and trade with the Indians at the mouth of the river. Son of a French father and a Haitian mother, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable prospered for 20 years. His house had a piano. No one knows why he headed west in 1800. Some say he was disappointed the Indians did not make him a chief. Chicago was a fur trading post out on the rim until the 1830s. It had no church or schoolhouse. It did have a fort, Fort Dearborn, and three taverns. The Sauganash Hotel was the most raucous. It was run by Mark Beaubien, part French, part Indian. "I play de fiddle like de debble," he would say, "an I keeps hotel like hell."It was good enough for Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, a transplanted Vermonter and one of the first Yankee settlers. The Indians called him Swift Walker. Hubbard and his Indian wife bounded 125 miles from the Wabash Valley with pelts -- destined for New York. When the fur trade dried up, he drove pigs.

Miller: Everybody mixed together at the Sauganash Inn. Beaubien would get the music going. Officers from the fort would come down by ferryboat or by canoe to the Sauganash, and they'd be swinging around the floor with Indian maidens and things. Tight-buttoned people from the East would come occasionally, roll through Chicago, and they'd be scandalized by this: women drinking applejack straight out of the bottle; copulating out in the back yard, squaws and the soldiers; people sleeping on the porch. Beaubien said in his old age, he said, "They were great times. They were great times. No more of that sort of stuff anymore." He'd hold wrestling matches on the lawn.

Christopher Reed, Historian:Entertainment would have consisted of hunting or maybe foot racing or horse racing, drinking, gambling, and listening to wolves and bears at night, because the city was ringed with small forests, as well as marshland. But this was life on the rim, this was the frontier, during the period of fur trading.

Narrator: The days of this way of life were numbered. America was pushing west. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, opened an easy route from New York to the center of the country. The new state of Illinois already envisioned, as Joliet had, a canal that would link the Mississippi to the Great Lakes at Chicago.

Cronon: This location on Lake Michigan would be one of the endpoints of that canal, thereby linking New Orleans and the Mississippi River with the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal, the Hudson, and New York. So that there would now be a way of delivering all the produce of the interior of North America right into the waiting hands of New York. And Chicago, this location, would be the partner of that New York growth.

Narrator: The Indians had to go. The Potawatomis were forced to give up five million acres they had occupied a century before Marquette and Joliet reached Chicago.US Indian Agents plied the Chiefs with liquor so they would sign. Traders plied them with liquor to swindle them of their new bounty. On a September evening in 1833, the Indian Agents faced west toward the land they would acquire. The chiefs, at least two staggering drunk, drew their marks on the treaty papers. The "dusky nuisances," as the new landowners considered them, were banished west of the Mississippi. The French and half-breeds followed. "The history of Chicago can be written from 1833 forward," an historian would write, "as if they had never lived there." US surveyors imposed a grid on the town and the surrounding grasslands. Canal commissioners, Gurdon Hubbard among them, sold lots to finance the canal. They preserved a narrow stretch along the lake for public enjoyment, "a common to remain forever open...free of any buildings or obstruction." The prospect of the canal enticed the first wave of Easterners who would dominate Chicago for decades - Yankee speculators from New York and New England.

Green: Most of them started off as hustlers. Nothing wrong with that. Speculative hustlers. Those were the people who built Chicago. It wasn't coming in with moneyed wealth. These were people who made their money here. They came perhaps from the East to make it here, and that's where they made it. But they were working the street. No doubt about it.

Narrator: Men bought land for one or two hundred dollars in the morning and sold it for several thousand in the afternoon.

Miller: They're Yankees. They're Protestants. They're interested in one thing: in making money. And they're risk takers. Hardly any of them expected to stay. It'd be the type of town, they thought, where they could come in, make a killing, and get out. But they did stay, and they built a city.

Narrator: William Butler Ogden was first among them. When his father had a stroke, Ogden, age 16, took over his lumber and real estate business in the mountains of southern New York. His struggle to survive, he later recalled, prepared him for life on the frontier. Ogden came to Chicago to oversee land purchased by his brother-in-law and other Wall Street investors.

Douglas Bukowski, Writer: He goes out, checks the property, finds himself ankle deep in mud, and writes back to his brother-in-law, "You've been victim of the worst kind of folly." Lo and behold, Ogden gets to work, is able to sell or to recoup his brother-in-law's investment by just selling off one-third of the land. And he went, "Hmm, maybe it's worth staying."

Narrator: In 1837, Chicago was incorporated as a city . Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, who had abandoned his Indian wife and married a white woman, traded his moccasins for a topcoat, and joined the newcomers. The newcomers were a majority, and William Butler Ogden, just six months in town, became Chicago's first mayor. To overcome its isolation, Chicago had to reach out -- East and West. The mouth of the river was dredged to create a harbor. Hubbard joined a shipping company to establish regular service to Buffalo. His lake schooners brought more speculators, who stayed in town. And farmers -- who passed through it -- to plow the tall grass prairies. Plank roads were built over the mud so they could bring their hams and apples to town and return with a potbelly stove. In 1840 the lawyer from Vermont spoke of "magical changes." In seven years a French and Indian trading post of 300 had become an Anglo-American town of 4,000. Irish immigrants who had dug the Erie Canal came to Chicago in 1836 to dig the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

Ann Keating, Historian: The Irish who came to Chicago were in large measure very poor. They had few skills, little that would have allowed them to negotiate an urban setting easily. And they were pulled out to Chicago to do the dirtiest, hardest work that was imaginable. And they were despised for it.

Narrator: One reporter called the Irish "not merely ignorant and poor...but... drunken, dirty, indolent, and riotous so as to be the object of dislike and fear to all."They often did demand whiskey on the job. They also dug a canal almost 100 miles long plagued by malaria, rattlesnakes, mosquitoes, and leeches. That was the easy part.In 1838 alone up to 1,000 canal workers died. Their graves are few. Their stories unrecorded. The Canal was financed with land sales in communities planned along its route. The sudden growth of Bridgeport, where the canal joins the South Branch of the Chicago River, was unplanned.

Thomas J. O'Gorman, Writer: Sometimes when the project ran out of money, they paid people in land skrit, and many of the Irish took the money they were owed in land, and settled at the area where the bridge went across, at the port of the canal, which has become modern-day Bridgeport. If the project itself had been more successful financially and-- better organized, there's no telling where the Irish would have moved after this. They probably - they could have gone out to Utah and dug ditches for the Mormons.

Mayor Daley: You'll get your point of order.

Narrator: Bridgeport remains the spiritual center of Irish Chicago.

Mayor Daley: ...As long as I'm mayor no one will be stepped on..

Narrator: It was home to five 20th Century mayors.

Daley: ...And that goes for you too.

Narrator: In April, 1848 the General Thornton, a canal boat from New Orleans, arrived in Chicago with a cargo of sugar and produce headed for Buffalo. Its arrival there was heralded in Washington by a young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. Joliet had dreamed of a water route from the Gulf of Mexico to Montreal. It ended instead in New York. The Illinois and Michigan Canal spared migrants the bumpy trip by horse and wagon west to the prairies and brought their produce back to Chicago. The prospect of the canal had created Chicago, luring investors like William Butler Ogden. But by the time the canal opened in 1848, Ogden had switched his bet and built a railroad to the prairies.

Perry Duis, Historian: Ogden found that Eastern financiers were not interested in his railroad. It seemed to have relatively limited prospects. And so he went out in his buggy along the prospective route and talked farmers into buying stock.

Keating: And they're knocking on farmers' doors and the doors of businessmen who own land on the route and saying, look, we're going to run a railroad through here, give us right-of-way, become an investor by giving us right-of-way, give us money, and we'll give you shares in our company.

Narrator: Ogden raised $350,000 and bought a rickety locomotive, the Pioneer, which would run on wooden tracks with metal caps. On November 20, 1848 the Pioneer chugged west for eight miles to the end of the line. Along the way, it met a farmer with a wagonload of wheat. It became the first wheat brought by train to Chicago. On the next trip farmers overwhelmed the train with 30 carloads. It was men like Ogden, who became the city's leading citizen, as much as Chicago's location, that would make it the great city of the mid-West.

Miller: Any one of those small towns surrounding Chicago out there on the rim of civilization have equally propitious locations. But there's something about Chicago that triggers an economic revolution, where an economic revolution isn't triggered in a place like Kenosha. And-and it -- And it's hard to say exactly why. But there is this wonderful synergy, this combination of people of energy, risk takers, who come to that place. They see city building as a supremely human art. And -- they see that they have a chance here to turn this prairie bog into a great city.

Narrator: To make Chicago attractive to new comers like himself, Ogden and the Eastern elite supported civic and cultural institutions among them hospitals, orphanages and the Chicago Historical Society -- all on the North side of the river where they lived, not in Bridgeport, where the Irish lived. Odgen raised money for new streets and wooden plank sidewalks. To accommodate canal traffic, he pushed for bridges -- swing bridges -- anchored in the middle of the river. The motivation was selfish as well as civic. Ogden "could not forget," a friend remembered, "that everything which benefited Chicago...benefited him." The location of his city was suited for commerce -- not for habitation. It was so wet in the spring that horses had to be dug out of mud pits. Signs read: "No Bottom Here" and "Shortest Road to China." Scavenging pigs were the frontier city's answer to the garbage problem. This was 1848. The year of the canal and Odgen's railroad. The year that Chicago began to use its strategic location to build a commercial empire that would change America. The Year the young city opened its first important factory on the north side of the river. In 1831 Cyrus Hall McCormick, son of a Virginia farmer, had built a primitive reaper overcoming problems that hadplagued farmers for centuries - cutting grain by hand - one hand with a sickle, two with a scythe. He sensed the best market for his reaper would be farther west -- on the vast wheat fields of Illinois.

Miller: Farmers would set in a wheat crop. That's no problem, the planting. It's the harvesting that's the problem. They're out there with their boys and their cousins and a couple of their neighbors, cutting wheat, with the sickle and the scythe. And they can't cut the wheat fast enough. And a lot of the wheat simply dies in the field. And McCormick, when he toured on foot the Midwest, saw this happening; saw farmers losing because they couldn't bring in the wheat fast enough. And here he sees a great chance.

Narrator: The first year McCormick made 450 reapers - none the same, each blade forged by hand. With 120 employees, he was Chicago's largest employer. But no one worked harder. "There by the furnace fire, begrimed with coal and dust, decorated with an apron of leather," wrote the Chicago Daily Journal, stood the one in charge of it all, Cyrus Hall McCormick. The paper called the reaper a "mechanical man." It freed farmers worldwide from their bondage to the sickle and scythe and helped open the Mid-West. Chicago revolutionized not only the production of grain but how it was transported and traded. Farmers who cut grain with McCormick's first reapers loaded their sacks onto wagons and headed off to a stream. There the grain would be reloaded onto rafts and floated down river until it reached the Mississippi.

Cronon: Once these rafts have reached the Mississippi, all the grain is taken off and the sacks loaded onto the shore of the river, and then they're carried once again into the holds of small boats that are on the upper Mississippi River. And there, they are carried on down to St. Louis, where they're unloaded yet again, put out onto the levee in St. Louis, and then loaded yet again by hand, on somebody's back, carried onto a larger steamship, which will carry it on down to New Orleans, where it's unloaded yet again. And put onto an oceangoing vessel to New York or to the North Atlantic economy and on to Europe. There's a huge amount of labor cost. And so this is a very expensive way to move grain.

Narrator: The railroad overcame the constraints of geography. As plank roads had reached out to farmers a few miles, railroads from Chicago reached out hundreds of miles cutting into the hinterland of St. Louis. In the decade after Ogden's Chicago and Galena Union headed out toward the Mississippi, New York investors financed railroads that spread out from Chicago like tentacles. By 1856 Chicago had become the railroad hub of America.

Cronon: What made Chicago so special was that the web of railroads that were being projected west dumped everything into Chicago's lap. It became the funnel that delivered an entire ecosystem, the entire Western landscape, into the waiting markets of-of the eastern seaboard of the United States and of Europe.

Narrator: They seem so commonplace today, the picturesque hallmark of every rural town. But in the 19th century the grain elevator was a revolutionary technology that transformed the handling of grain around the world and doomed the sack. Grain elevators were developed in Buffalo. Chicago built its first in 1848. By 1858 twelve mammoth grain houses dominated its skyline. When poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago a "stacker of wheat," he was referring to grain elevators, the city's first skyscrapers. Grain flowed from the elevators into the holds of lakeboats to be shipped East where it was refined. What became a golden stream in Chicago still moved by sack on the backs of laborers in St. Louis. In the 1840s it had taken an Irish crew all day to load a boat with 7,000 bushels of wheat. A decade later, the same amount could be loaded in an hour by one man. Six years after its canal, first railroad and grain elevator, Chicago surpassed St. Louis in the grain trade. Ten years after McCormick built his factory, the Mississippi valley was the world's largest food producing region. Chicago became known as the Great Reaper City. Its port replaced Archangel and Odessa in Russia as the greatest grain port in the world. The Chicago River became a mammoth exchange-engine. Ships heading East with grain from the West passed fleets carrying lumber from the North. Its location on the southern tip of Lake Michigan made a lumber market possible. Farmers in the fertile but treeless prairies hungered for lumber for fences and barns. It came from the north end of the lake where the white pine forests of Michigan and Wisconsin seemed endless. By the time of the Civil War, Chicago had become the largest lumber market in the world.

Cronon: The scene on the South Branch of the Chicago River you cannot witness anymore. It does not exist in Chicago. It doesn't exist actually, I think, anywhere in the world. Stack after stack after stack of lumber, all waiting to be shipped on down-state, down-state in Illinois, out to Iowa, on to Nebraska, Kansas. A whole district just devoted to stacked lumber.

Miller: There are cases where entire prairie families are standing out there on this windswept prairie bog, waiting for their town to arrive - bar, chapel, houses. It's all ready-made in Chicago. Stamped on it: made in Chicago -- along with the reapers and everything else. They're just standing there with their kids, you know, waiting for that train. Here comes the town!

Narrator: Within a single generation Chicago had turned the tall grass prairies, the earthly paradise Joliet and Marquette had admired, into the American Mid-West. The city that was transforming America became a hell hole. By the late 1850s 104 trains a day steamed everywhere turning Chicago into a smoky and dangerous wasteland.

Miller: Now in New York City, you had to stop at 42ndSt. Vanderbilt, a powerhouse, has to build a train station there, and if he wants to take cars further south, he's got to pull them by mule down to Wall St., but in Chicago, the trains kept roaring right into town, smoke blowing all over the place. They're killing two to three people a day there. It's like an Australian said, human life is secondary to making money in Chicago. So they run over a couple people.

Narrator: When the Illinois Central wanted tracks along the lakefront, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard was one of a few who fought to keep it as a park -- "forever free". The railroad was forced to build a trestle. The lakeside remained bucolic, but the docking area by the railroad's riverside terminal became filled with industrial debris and bloated corpses of horses and cattle. In the 1850s railroads brought immigrants in overwhelming numbers. Many were Germans who arrived with industrial skills and money. They found jobs as butchers, furniture makers, and metal workers and became by 1870 the largest immigrant group. Despite the language barrier Germans fit more easily into urban life than the impoverished Irish. When the canal was complete, the Irish built the railroads. They also worked as unskilled laborers in factories like McCormick's Reaper works. They spread out from Bridgeport but always to slums along the South Branch of the stinking river where the factories were. The Germans lived north of the river. When the Irish moved to the North Side, the Germans moved farther north. A small number of black Americans settled near a vice district on the North Side. The city refused to enforce the law to return fugitive slaves. At the close of 1857 Chicago was the largest city in what was then called the "northwest". It had grown from 4,000 to 93,000 in 20 years, the result of unbridled capitalism. A visiting Swedish novelist called Chicago "one of the most miserable and ugly cities which I have yet seen in America." A woman writing for Boston's Atlantic Monthly was shocked that it had "no public park, no gallery of art, no establishment of music, no social institution whatever, except the church." She noticed "an appearance of extreme hurry," on the streets, but the scarcity of women made them seem, she wrote, "forlorn." In this scarcity, another saw opportunity. Potter Palmer had fled a Quaker village in Albany County before finishing school because it was dull. In 1852 he left a dry goods store in Lockport, New York, headed west and observed the scene on Lake Street. Palmer was impressed by the bustle of the mud splattered farm carts, overburdened prairie freighters, salesmen lugging carpetbags stuffed with samples. Most of all by the few women shoppers lifting their calico skirts above the mud.He signed a lease. Where they had been few women, Palmer hoped to lure more.

Koehn: As men and women poured into the city to take advantage of commercial opportunities, Potter Palmer understood that many of those women had not only the time but also the income to shop, to do what today we think of as recreational consumption. And he created the department store, in which that happened.

Narrator: At a time when women would never enter a restaurant alone, they did shop unescorted. Palmer greeted them at the door, ushered them around the store, remembering their tastes and the names of their pets. He tantalized them with upscale merchandise he purchased in Europe. He was the first city storekeeper to advertise extensively, to run "sales" or "bargain days." He guaranteed a full cash refund, a practice that other merchants were forced to copy if they hoped to compete with "the intruder," as Palmer had come to be known. There was one problem. The store on Lake Street was one block from the river.

Miller: One block from the river. And you could catch the smell of the river. And women, when they shopped at his shop, would put handkerchiefs over their nose.

Narrator: By 1867 Palmer was Chicago's first "merchant prince." He secretly bought all the property along a squalid street which ran away from the river, parallel to the lake. State Street was the trail along which Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard had driven his hogs from the Wabash Valley. Then he convinced the City Council to widen it. Palmer wanted to reorient the city's business district and create a "Broadway for Chicago." He built "Palmer's Palace," a marble faced emporium with Corinthian columns, rented it to his new partners and left retailing for real estate. Many considered the 50 thousand dollars a year rent exorbitant. His young partners Levi Leiter and Marshall Field did not. Marshall Field would build on Palmer's methods to become Chicago's commercial giant. A power that even the elite -- and especially immigrant workers -- would cross at their peril. For much of the 19th Century Americans knew where their bacon came from. They saw the pigs in local pastures, knew the farmer who fed them and the butcher who killed them. It was a familiar world, rooted in nature. Even when a pork industry developed in the 1850s, it was dependent on nature and the seasons. As grain was shipped to St. Louis, pigs were shipped to Cincinnati by river. Plants were busy in the winter, idle in the summer when meat was likely to spoil. Chicago turned this world on its head. Railroads bypassed the rivers to divert hogs to Chicago. Packers, like Gurdon Hubbard found a way to bypass the seasons, to turn summer into winter.

Cronon: They begin cutting ice on the streams, rivers, ponds around Chicago, and eventually in Indiana and Illinois and Wisconsin, and bringing that ice down to Chicago so that the pork packing factories can be kept open all year long.

Narrator: Boosted by pork sales to the Union army in the Civil War, Chicago surpassed Cincinnati as Porkopolis by 1862. Hogs from the Mid-West funneled into its Union Stockyards which opened Christmas Day 1865 and soon had 2,300 pens for 75,000 hogs. What they faced next was a process that would change American industry.And it smelled.

Dominic Pacyga, Historian: The smell in the holding pens of course was incredible. But the smell of the processing is what most people really remember. Because that processing smell is what permeated everything. My mother used to say that she'd never die of pneumonia because no germs could live in your lungs if you grew up in back of the yards I grew up in the back of the yards and the smell never really bothered me because it was always there. The first time I went out as a young boy, they took us out on a picnic to the country I got sick because I smelled fresh air. It was so strange.

Narrator: The Hereford wheel was invented in Cincinnati. Chicago packers perfected it. Shackled by a hind leg, the hogs were lifted into the air. A sticker would then slit their throats . "They were so excessively alive, these pigs," poet Rudyard Kipling would write. "And then they were so excessively dead, and the man in the dripping, clammy, hot, passage did not seem to care, and ere the blood of...one had ceased to foam on the floor, another, and four friends with him, had shrieked and died."

Pacyga: When the Hereford wheel is introduced, the hog kill becomes the loudest kill in the packinghouses. Pigs are very intelligent. When that Hereford wheel grabbed them, they know something's going on. And they let out a blood curdling, incredible scream.

Narrator: From the kill to the cutlets, pork packing developed into a labor intensive, lightning fast disassembly line.

Pacyga: In about 15 minutes, the hog goes through this process of passing about 125 or 150 people, depending on the packing house. And you've got, by the turn of the century, meatpacking houses in Chicago that are killing five, six thousand hogs a day. Uh, which would be the whole week's kill in a previous generation. The largest run of hogs at the Union Stockyards was about 190,000 hogs in one day.

Narrator: The largest of the pork packers was Armour and Co., which shipped all over the world. "I give more people food than any other man alive," Philip Armour told his sons.

Miller: He has a pork-packing empire of global scope. And he can keep in communication with it through the trans-Atlantic cable, which is laid in the 1860, telegraph line, and the telephone. So you can now run a globe -- a global industry. And we always think of the great global industries as oil and steel, but the first of these great global industries is pork packing.

Narrator: Son of a farmer from Stockbridge, New York, Philip Armour was tossed out of school for taking a buggy ride with a girl. He joined the gold rush in California and made enough to enter the grain and pork business in Milwaukee. He poured his profits into a packing plant along side the Union Stock Yards. And undermined packers like Gurdon Hubbard, who could not compete. Phillip Armour was all business.

Miller: He'd get up in the morning, eat a simple breakfast, read all the reports, be in the office at 6:30 in the morning. If you came in after 9 o'clock, he'd greet you with a booming "Good afternoon!" And he said, "Get there before 9 o'clock," he said, "before the guys with the polished nails get there." He said, "That's when the work gets done." And he was bouncing around from desk to desk, and he had his finger in every aspect of the business. And this was the business that made Chicago. This was what it was known for: "hog butcher of the world." And Armour was the epitomization of that sort of thing.

Narrator: In Phillip Armour's Chicago "they did it straight," Norman Mailer would write. "They cut the animals right out of their hearts -- which is why it was the last of the great American cities, and people had great faces, carnal as blood, greedy, direct, too impatient for hypocrisy, in love with honest plunder." The Chicago packing houses became the largest killing fields in the world. And Chicago's foremost tourist attraction. A person could visit the grain elevators or lumberyards without pondering their meaning. Not the stockyards. Here they realized the familiar world of the pig, the pasture and the butcher they knew was gone. Replaced by the cold-hearted mechanization of slaughter. Dissection so complete that as Phillip Armour said "nothing was left but the squeal."

Cronon: And you wonder what it was that would make that an attractive thing for a tourist to see. And yet this was new. This was the modern. This was the Industrial Revolution at its most dramatic, its starkest. And I think people went there both to be repelled by it, both to be horrified, on the one hand, but also to wonder at what this age had accomplished, and what was happening to the world as a result.

Narrator: The disassembly line repelled novelist Upton Sinclair. "One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical," he wrote in The Jungle, "without beginning ...to hear the hog-squeal of the universe." It intrigued Henry Ford. In the disassembly line of the Chicago packers, he wrote in his autobiography, he found the inspiration for the assembly line for his Model T. Chicago developed as a trading center, a cross roads between producers and buyers. At first they traded what was present in the city. Hogs were bought and sold at the Union Stock Yards. Grain traders developed a Board of Trade where they bought and sold receipts for grain deposited in the elevators by the river. A telegraph in the trading room gave New York buyers instant market reports. They bought grain in the elevators for future delivery. Speculators then developed a future's market. A buyer in New York could buy for future delivery Chicago hogs or grain that did not yet exist. It was a market not in hogs but in the future price of hogs. One bought or sold not wheat or corn but gambled on their prices at a future date. As one historian explained, the futures market was a place where "men who don't own something are selling that something to men who don't really want it."

Cronon: Go to the Chicago Board of Trade today, and you will see one of the most extraordinary monuments to world capitalism that you can see anywhere on earth. It's an amazing scene. What'll be happening down on that floor are people buying and selling commodities and products from ecosystems and economies all over the world, setting prices that determine the future for people all over the world, and yet you look at it and you don't have a clue, all the elements that are coming together there. It is where the world connects in the modern age, and it is where that connection is rendered invisible in the modern age.

Narrator: Cholera came into the United States in 1849 through the port of New Orleans and crept up the Mississippi, the Illinois River, and the canal -- toward Chicago.

Keating: It's a devastating disease. And it's very difficult to watch someone with cholera because they become violently ill and often die within hours.

Miller: Someone described the first attack as like getting hit in the back with a pick-axe. Boom and you're down.

Narrator: Businessmen faced pressure to close the canal.

Duis: The argument held that the economic consequences that would result if the canal shut down would be really terrible. And so cholera arrived with a canal boat in 1849.

Narrator: For the next six years cholera came on lake schooners bringing immigrants from the East. And on trains. A German wrote of his train being stoned. Cholera, it was believed, was spread by filthy water and noxious fumes -- "death fogs" -- produced by exposed sewage. Gutters ran with filth, an editor thundered, "at which the very swine turn up their noses in supreme disgust."

Cronon: Chicago started in a swamp. It started in the most unlikely of locations, where you never would have chosen to build a city if you had any choice about it at all. But once this growth happens, once all these railroad lines are pointed toward this location, once all this capital has rearranged geography in the way that it does, there is such an enormous incentive to make this site work, come hell or high water.

Narrator: The city hired Ellis Chesbrough from Boston, one of the best sanitary engineers in the country. He built sewers above the swampy ground so waste could flow by gravity into the river. Chesbrough then dredged the river and used the fill to raise the ground level 10 feet. The challenge then was to raise the buildings. For that he turned to George Mortimer Pullman. Son of a carpenter, Pullman dropped out of school after the fourth grade and apprenticed as a cabinetmaker. In the early 1850s he moved to Rochester and perfected a system of moving buildings when the Erie Canal was widened by jacking them up. George Pullman would jack up Chicago.

Louis Cain, Historian: The Pullman method was to put the foundation of the building on jacks that could be turned. Each individual would be responsible for, let's say, four jacks, and would give each one a quarter turn at a time. You might have 1000 jacks around the base of a big building, and 250 men, blow a whistle and they'd all turn one of those a quarter turn or an eighth of a turn or something. And little by little they would jack up the building. And other people would be putting bricks in around, to shore up the foundation.

Narrator: As hotels were raised, diners enjoyed without interruption -- broiled Lake Michigan white fish a la Maitre d'Hotel Chateau Lafitte with their Mutton au Jus was $5 a quart.

Studs Terkel, Writer: Chicago, the city, was mud. It was mud. But they did it, they hoisted it, and they moved houses. It was mud. I remember interviewing some old woman, she was about 98 when I interviewed her, about 35 years ago, so she remembers the mud and walking on the wooden walks and the junk and the effluvium and everything that was there on the ground.

Narrator: The sewers worked as planned - draining waste from the city into the river. There it mixed with waste from the stockyards which flowed into a tributary of the South Branch known as Bubbly Creek from the carbolic acid which rose from discarded, decaying animal parts.

Mililer: One of the McCormicks writes to the old man, who's in Paris trying to sell his reapers. "Pop," he said, "I was up at Clark Street Bridge, and I'm looking, and the river's scarlet." [laughs] Imagine that. There's heads of pigs in the river, and things like that. And--and this is what's flowing out into the lake.

Narrator: The lake was Chicago's water supply, and it already had problems.

Cain: The intake was not well-filtered at the time, minnows would get into the water system, and you could turn on the tap and have a fish fall out. There is a line, in one of the books at the time, describing bathing as a piscatorial pastime. There is a conviction of one Chicago liquor dealer for watering his booze when a pickled minnow was found in the whiskey.

Narrator: Chesbrough was hired to develop a new water system. Clean water from the lake bottom would pour into intakes under a crib two miles into Lake Michigan. It would flow by gravity through a tunnel 30 feet below the lake to a pumping station. Then up the 138 foot pipe of a new water tower from which it would flow into the city's water mains. Immigrants were hoisted down shafts to work 16 hour shifts under Lake Michigan. It was at the time the longest tunnel excavation in history. A contemporary wrote: "To the timid the situation would be a horrible one. The thought that Lake Michigan had broken in ... and would bury them in the deep grave dug by their own hands...would drive them mad. They would imagine the earth caving in on them and engulfing them in a living tomb. They would conjure up demons in the darkness and see horrible shapes in the smoke of the lamps....If all the people of Chicago had been of this sort," he wrote, "we should have drank foul water all our days. "Chicago's mayor called the tunnel "the wonder of America and the world." When the floodgates of the crib were opened in 1867, a reporter for Harper's Weekly wrote, "the water went down with a roar of an infant Niagara." The water project never worked. Spring rains washed sewage two miles out into the lake -- right into the water intakes. Chesbrough would have another chance.

Miller: Chesbrough says, "The way we're going to solve this thing is to do something nobody's ever done in the history of the world. We're going to tell a river to go where God didn't want it to go. We're going to send it another way. We're going to reverse the damn thing." And everyone thought, "Ah, little cuckoo here." But he did it.

Narrator: To reverse the river's flow, the canal was deepened to eliminate locks that raised boats to the height of land. The river would no longer flow east into Lake Michigan but west from the lake into the canal and down to the Illinois River. When the project was completed, straw was thrown on the river. At first it appeared to head east toward the lake. Slowly it began to head west toward the canal and the Illinois River and the Mississippi. Businessmen honored Chesbrough for "purifying the river without interfering" with the city's business or its "unparalleled growth."

Miller: And that's the beauty of Chesbrough to the city fathers. He comes in. Technology will solve it. Technology will solve it. He's feted at banquets because he allows Chicago to grow without changing anybody's behavior, without controlling any of the economic interests who are dumping in the river. And they can continue to use that river as a sewer, and send that garbage down-river toward less powerful and complaining canal towns.

Narrator: "The stench has been almost unendurable," wrote a downstream resident. "What right has Chicago to...reduce the value of property and bring sickness and death to the citizens?" Chicago's elite cared just as little about its own population.The half that were immigrants, Germans who came to Chicago beginning in the 1850s, brought their old world traditions with them. They enjoyed lager beer at Sunday picnics after church.

Miller: They'd bring their kids. They had the oompah bands, their picnics, their athletic contests, Sunday out in Ogden Park on the north side of Chicago. They did everything together. None of these standup Irish saloons. Typical way for an Irishman to drink is to go to the saloon, order a whiskey, and stand there till he's perpendicularly drunk. And then he falls on the ground. And then you go home. It's an escape, the whole idea of a bracer after work. What are you bracing for? Face the family. This is a different tradition, the German tradition. This is the America of the 6-day work week. And this is their only chance for leisure. On the other hand, they drink on Sunday, okay, the Sabbath.

Narrator: In 1855 Chicagoans elected Dr. Levi Boone mayor on an anti-immigrant ticket. A descendant of Daniel Boone, Dr. Boone had been a city physician during the cholera epidemic -- which he blamed on immigrants. As mayor he banned drinking on Sundays -- a slap at the Germans. To curb Irish drinking, he raised the license fee on saloons from 50 to 300 dollars. He allowed the native born to enjoy their whiskey in private clubs.

William Adelman, Historian: Mayor Boone was afraid, with the Irish saloons and the German beer gardens, that these would be, and they were, meeting places for the workers. This was the time they talked politics, where they talked over their grievances against the city and what was going on. And so, it wasn't just the outlawing of the beer, it was the outlawing of freedom of speech, their chances to get together.

Narrator: On the day that violators of Mayor Boone's law were being tried, hundreds of Germans, joined by some Irish, ran across the bridges from their neighborhood north of the river and charged City Hall. The Mayor ordered the swing bridges opened to keep a second wave from crossing the river. Germans caught on the bridges became sitting ducks for the police. The Lager Beer riot of 1855 was short lived. So was the term of Mayor Levi Boone. For the rest of the 19th Century, the Protestant elite would be hostile to the customs of immigrants. But no mayor ever succeeded in closing the saloons. The native born suffered the Germans. The Irish fared worse.In the election of 1860 anti-Irish sentiments reached a peak. Gurdon Hubbard ran for Alderman in the Seventh Ward, "Vote for Hubbard and the whole Republican ticket," a handbill reminded voters. "One more victory in the noble Seventh and the Celts will never peep again." A newspaper taunted, "Scratch a convict or a pauper and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic.

Studs: The Irish were the blacks of the time. The Irish were considered less than others. Irish were known as lazy, as drunk, as promiscuous, same thing said about African Americans was said about the Irish. And so, the phrase, very often, in newspapers: No Irish need apply.

Green: No one wanted to live in an Irish neighborhood. Free blacks would move out of the neighborhood if the Irish moved in. I mean, it was they were the discriminated group in the city of Chicago, without any question.

Narrator: The most strident anti-Irish newspaper in Chicago was the Tribune. Joseph Medill, a publisher from Cleveland, bought the Tribune in 1855, at the height of Irish immigration. He would become the city's most influential editor, the voice for the Protestant elite against the immigrants.

Miller: Later on he says, "You know what we ought to do with a lot of these immigrants, especially the ones who are impoverished and walking around the streets? Put strychnine in their food. He said, "dress every pole in Chicago with an Irishman." He said, "Hang them from them." He said, "That's what we ought to do." And he's saying this stuff in public.

Narrator: In 1870 Potter Palmer at age 44 married the 21 year-old daughter of a real estate magnate from Louisville, Kentucky, Bertha Honore. He first noticed her shopping with her mother in his Lake Street store when she was 13. She now said she would be satisfied to be the wife of an innkeeper. The "inn" was the Palmer House, an eight-story hotel nearing completion on State St., the tallest building in the city, and with 225 rooms, one of the largest hotels in the country. Palmer billed it as the only fireproof hotel in America. He imported chandeliers and candelabra from France and staffed the hotel, he announced with pride, with several hundred smartly uniformed Negroes. The Palmer House was Potter Palmer's wedding gift to Bertha. They would make it their in-town residence.

Neil Harris, Historian: Hotels were a symbol of urbanity in late 19th-century America. And I think the Palmer House is one of a whole series of Chicago hotels that brought the city reputation. Reputation is spread by travelers quite a lot, and it's the public facilities of the city, the railroad stations, the hotels, that would supply a lot of the reputation that they spread.

Narrator: The years after the Civil War were boom years. In 1871, more vessels arrived in Chicago than any other city in America. More than 270 lumber boats every 12 hours. Ships heading for Bridgeport passed thirteen miles of docks and 24 swing bridges."As soon as the bridge closes, the impatient crowd rushes madly on," wrote journalist Noah Brooks, "giving a stranger the impression they are an active race, given to gymnastics and slightly crazed." In less than forty years Chicago had grown from a fur trading post to a metropolis of 300,000. In 1871, a popular writer called this growth "one of the most amazing things in the history of civilization." The colony Joliet had foreseen had come to command the continent. By October of that year Chicago had suffered one of the worst droughts in memory -- only an inch of rain since July 4th. Every day for a week the fire bell rang from the Court House. The fire department was exhausted.On the evening of October 8th, a strong wind from the prairies blew across the forest of shanties and mills at the southwest corner of the city. Bertha Palmer looked out the window of her country estate and saw a lurid orange and yellow curtain hanging in the night sky. The fire started around 9 at night in the barn of Mrs. Catherine O'Leary, a 38 year old woman who ran a dairy business. Within hours a rumor spread that Mrs. O'Leary brought a lantern to the barn, and a cow kicked it over. The fire tore through a block of shanties on the West Side. Flaming timbers were blown toward the South Branch of the river. At furniture factories. And grain elevators. People began to panic. "Wretched females implored spectators to help them with their burden of bed quilts, cane-bottomed chairs and iron kettles," a reporter observed. "All was confusion." Before midnight the fire leaped over the South Branch of the river and hit the gasworks. The greasy river itself went up in flames.

O'Gorman: If you examine the waterfront along the river, you had things like, you know, five wooden buildings, a paint factory, a turpentine making plant, you know, dry goods, throw in like four or five lumber yards. It was an accident waiting to happen.

Cronon: This is a city that had been made out of the pine trees that had been cut in the north woods. And so those trees now turned into buildings, sitting there in an arid landscape in a period of drought, with high winds moving across the prairies. Yeah, there's something inevitable about a fire like that burning, and totally predictable.

Narrator: The fire raced for the heart of the city. For the courthouse where cascading sparks made it seem as if the city were hit by an "illuminated snowstorm". A bell tolling to the end crashed through the ruins. It struck the Briggs Hotel which George Pullman had jacked out of the mud; Marshall Field's sparkling marble store; Joseph Medill's Tribune Building; even the fireproof Palmer House. Within minutes most of Chicago's landmark buildings were gone. The janitor at the Board of Trade saw it coming.

Christopher Reed, Historian: He took care of his family first and then he rushed to the Board of Trade, to the vault, pulled out as many records as he could, to save them, and he became one of the saviors of the Board of Trade.

Narrator: A portrait of Frank Hudlin, the janitor, later adorned the Board's Hall of Fame. Terrified crowds fled north toward the river.

Cain: There's a lot of curious things about the fire. You have these old wooden sidewalks. They're there to protect people from the mud. The leaves are underneath and you have this wooden cover over there, and you have a wind coming underneath, which whipped the fire up very quickly. And so when the fire picks up, you have essentially an oven that's in the wooden sidewalks.

Narrator: Bridges to the North Side, cluttered by horses and wagons, became impassable. Burning wood was blown across the river and landed in a railroad car carrying kerosene.

Miller: The scariest thing about the fire was the wind that the fire created. Convection whirls they were called. They spin and spin and spin, and-and-and you get this-this rising hot air, and cool air going in there and...creating a tornado effect. And then these tornadoes would come and they'd hit a building, and it would give them this spin, and they could take the roof off a building and deposit it a quarter of a mile away. And that's how the fire spread.

Narrator: A burning timber tore through the pump house roof. The fire spread in all directions devouring 11 blocks in an hour. The McCormick mansion was destroyed along with the more modest homes of the Germans. The McCormicks camped on the prairie, a contemporary noted, next to the "lowliest vagabond and the meanest harlot.""The wind was like a tornado, and I held fast to my little ones, " one woman remembered...I thought the day of judgment had come." She huddled in the emptied graves of a cemetery being converted to Lincoln Park. Throughout the night thousands remained trapped by the lake north of the river near William Ogden's lumberyards. At dawn the lumberyard burst into flames. Then Ogden's railroad. McCormick's Reaper Works. South of the river, the Illinois Central terminals. The sun disappeared. "Such a scene of horror and terror ...I cannot make you imagine," one woman trapped by the lake would write. "The wind increased, straw blew, feather beds and blankets blazed and even the people were on fire." She told her husband she would rather he drown her than let her burn to death. The Chicago fire of 1871 was one of the great urban catastrophes of modern times. More than 73 miles of streets and 17,000 buildings were destroyed.100,000 people, one third of the population, were homeless. 125 bodies were recovered. Many others were vaporized or drowned and never found. The investments of two founding fathers, William Butler Odgen and Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, were in ruins.Tribune editor Joseph Medill was undaunted.

Keating: It's saying to people outside of Chicago, keep sending your money, don't call in your debts right now, you'll get your money back. And it's also saying to the people who live in Chicago, stay. Don't go to Iowa, don't go to St. Louis, don't go to Milwaukee. There'll be jobs here soon. There are already a lot of jobs.

Pacyga: Chicago boomers and boosters are on trains the next day going out to the East coast saying, "Hey, this is a great place to invest. We're not broke; we just had a little fire.

Narrator: In New York to buy new presses, the Tribune's publisher William Bross exhorted investors. "Help establish Chicago on a scale more gigantic and more profitable than ever before," he bellowed. "You will never again have such a chance to make money." The optimism didn't last. A month later the editor of The Nation asked Frederick Law Olmsted, in Chicago to build a park, to report on the devastation. "For a time men were unreasonably cheerful and hopeful," Olmsted wrote. "Now this stage appears to have passed." No one could yet see, he added, "how the city is to recover from this blow."



Site Navigation

The Film & More: Film Description | Transcript | Primary Sources | Further Reading | Acknowledgements

Chicago: City of the Century Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline
Maps | People and Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2003 PBS Online / WGBH



Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: