Last of a Kind? 11 True Dinosaurs of Chicago

For more stories about Chicago’s fascinating history, take a look at what Chicago city tours we are currently running! L Stop Tours runs unique tours all across Chicago’s neighborhoods that are guided by lifelong Chicago residents. Discover the amazing architecture, tasty food, and interesting tidbits about the city in one of our Chicago walking tours!

As a civilization, the Roman Empire lasted for 1,000 years.  In 2022, Chicago will celebrate the 185th anniversary of its founding.

Like Rome, Chicago has created a number of important structures and monuments that not only have enjoyed tremendous success over the years but have survived and withstood the test of time.  They are stable and popular structures and institutions…none are likely to disappear any time soon.  Wrigley Field, the L, the Art Institute, O’Hare Field and McCormick Place are a few examples that come to mind.

On the other hand, Chicago also is home to a great number of municipal “dinosaurs” — well-known buildings, institutions and other local treasures that, thanks to a rapidly changing world, have suddenly become outdated, irrelevant and, possibly, unneeded in the future.  Like the dinosaurs of era past, these local treasures are endangered species and may soon become extinct.

L Stop Tours has put together a list of Chicago “dinosaurs” for your consideration:

U.S. Post Office Loop Station

211 S. Clark

In a day and age when wireless communication is omnipresent, do we really need an over-large U.S. Postal Service building to handle an ever-dwindling amount of U.S. mail?  The Old Chicago Main Post Office, a 2.5 million-foot behemoth on West Harrison Street, built in 1921 and decommissioned in the 1980s, was recently remodeled into new executive offices for such companies as Walgreens, Ferrara Candy Co., Pepsico, Cisco and Uber.  A few blocks to the east, the Loop Station Post Office, a beautiful structure designed by famed architect Mies van der Rohe and built in 1974, seems destined for a similar fate.  How long will this oversized postal snail mail facility occupy valuable Loop real estate that may be better suited for something else?  Stay tuned.

Loop Station Post Office

Chicago Board of Trade

141 W. Jackson Blvd.

Established in 1848, the Chicago Board of Trade is one of the world’s oldest, largest and most successful futures and options exchanges, dealing in a wide range of futures contracts for livestock, agricultural commodities, world currencies, energy products and much more.  For the first 150 years of its existence, the Board of Trade and its parent company, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME Group), traded futures and options via the “open outcry” system.  This methodology featured traders who stood in amphitheater-style “pits” and yelled their orders to others, thereby creating a “live” market for futures contracts.  This method required the Board to maintain huge trading floors with plenty of space for the pits, traders, runners, brokers, huge electronic “scoreboards” on the walls surrounding the trading floor, and much more.  In 1994, the Board of Trade began to convert its trading platforms from open outcry to electronic trading.  By 2015, the Board of Trade had closed most of its trading pits and ushered in the era of online trading.  With no need for huge trading floors or adjoining office space, the CME Group sold the building to a consortium of real estate companies and leased only a fraction of the building’s office space that it needed for operations.  With the pandemic slowing the return of office workers to the Loop, the building is emptier than ever before, an abandoned tower in the midst of Chicago’s busy financial district.  It begs the question — what is the future of futures trading at the Board of Trade?

Board of Trade

Harold Washington Library Center

400 S. State Street

Chicago needed a new main library and in 1991 it got one, the Harold Washington Library Center, a 10-story 750,000 square foot library facility with beautiful marble walls and floors, wood paneling throughout and a state-of-the-art lighting system.  In less than 10 years, however, the new, massive library already was beginning to look like a dinosaur.  Why go to the library when research could be conducted on a computer at home?  Why go to the bother of checking out a book and returning it at a preordained time when you can purchase it cheaply on a computer or smartphone and read it wherever you go on your favorite reading device?  Chicago has an excellent system of branch libraries serving neighborhoods throughout the city.  Do we still need a huge central library serving a downtown business district that, because of lingering effects from the pandemic, is still bereft of workers, tourists and residents?

Harold Washington Library


111 N. State Street

For well over 100 years, Marshall Field and Company and, later, Macy’s, operated a 14-story department store that occupies a full city block in the heart of the Loop.  A throwback to the big department stores of the 1930s and 40s that catered to every possible need of urbanites, Macy’s State Street Store is no longer the retail powerhouse that it once was.  In fact, the store is shrinking — in 2018 Macy’s sold the upper half of the building (floors 8-14) to an asset management company which, in turn, is leasing the space to corporate tenants.  The parent company of Macy’s also is downsizing and reducing the company’s presence in Chicago.  In 2021, Macy’s permanently closed its Water Tower Place store on the Magnificent Mile, a location it had occupied for 45 years.  The last of its kind — a massive, expensive-to-operate, downtown-anchored department store — Macy’s State Street store appears to be living on borrowed time.

Soldier Field

part of the Museum Campus

Opened in 1924, Soldier Field has hosted a wide variety of sports teams and events over the years, including the Chicago Bears of the National Football League, the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer, major college football games, heavyweight boxing matches and a variety of concerts and stage shows.  Soldier Field has a football capacity of 61,500 and is the oldest and smallest stadium in the National Football League.  This small size is one of the reasons its future is tenuous — the Bears recently announced that they might leave Soldier Field for a stadium they would build on a parcel of land that presently houses the former Arlington Park Race Course in Arlington Heights.  Such a departure would leave Soldier Field without its marquee tenant — and its future very much in doubt.

Soldier Field

Manually-Operated Elevators

Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.

The elevator was invented in 1853 by Elisha Graves Otis and introduced at the Crystal Palace Convention in New York City.  For the next 90 years, most elevators in the U.S. had operators who opened the doors, guided the speed of the car between floors, leveled the car at each stop and announced destinations at each floor for riders.  By the mid-1960s, most elevators in the U.S. became automatic, riders pushed buttons to ascend or descend to their destinations, operators were no longer needed.  Today, there are approximately 22,000 elevators in the city of Chicago and only one set of manually-operated elevators — they are located in the 138-year-old Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Ave.  If you miss the human touch that once came with a simple elevator ride, or if you’ve never ridden a manually-operated elevator, head over to the Fine Arts Building — before something “automatic” takes its place.

Fine Arts elevator

South Shore Line

Millennium Station, 151 N. Michigan Ave.

In 1915, interurban railroads were an extremely popular mode of city-to-city transportation with more than 15,000 miles of track connecting urban areas across the country.  Essentially beefed-up streetcars that ran long-haul routes through suburbs and rural areas on their way to other urban areas, interurbans were so popular that they had grown to become the fifth largest industry in the United States.  But interurbans didn’t last.  Paved roads and interstate highways made cars and trucks more popular than trains and the interurbans began to fold and go out of business.  By 1930 most of the interurban railroads had vanished; by 1960 only four remained in the entire country.  Today there is only one remaining interurban railroad operating in the United States, the South Shore Line, which has been operating electric trains between downtown Chicago (Millennium Station) and South Bend, Ind. (86 miles) since 1905.  The only Chicago area commuter railroad not a part of Metra (the Chicago area’s commuter rail agency), the South Shore Line continues to go it alone and, at least for now, continues to survive as the last of its kind.

South Shore


Halsted and Jackson

There was a time when Chicago had two separate Greektowns, the original in the West Loop (Halsted St. and Jackson Blvd.) which dates to the late 1940s and “New Greektown” on the North Side (Lawrence Ave. and Western Ave.) which was popular from 1975 to 2000.  New Greektown didn’t stand the test of time.  Greeks who moved there to start businesses, night clubs and restaurants decided to move to the suburbs when rents in the neighborhood no longer were affordable.  That left the original Greektown as the sole surviving Hellenic community in Chicago.  But Chicago’s original Greektown also has steadily shrunk in size over the past two decades.  Explosive growth of Fulton Market and West Randolph Street restaurant and entertainment district has led to urban renewal and gentrification of the entire West Loop.  Huge apartment and condominium towers now stand where Santorini, Rodity’s, Parthenon, Pegasus and other stalwart Greek restaurants once plied their trade.  Greek grocery stores and retail businesses have vanished as have many Greek residents, most of whom have long since moved to other neighborhoods in the city and suburbs.  While a speck of the old neighborhood remains — the Greek Islands restaurant still is in business and the National Hellenic Museum continues to celebrate the history and culture of the neighborhood — most of Chicago’s original Greek neighborhood has fizzled out faster than the flames on an order of saganaki.  Why is the neighborhood disappearing?  It’s Greek to us.


16-inch Softball

Softball was invented in Chicago at the Farragut Boat Club in 1874 when a wadded-up boxing glove was hurled at a “batter” who swung at it with a stick.  The result was a new sport — 16-inch softball, a game played without a fielder’s glove.  Over the years, 16-inch softball grew to be the summertime recreational sport of choice for adults throughout the Chicago area.  Every city and suburban park or park district sponsored leagues that had waiting lists of teams waiting to play.  Today, the popularity of 16-inch softball has faded considerably.  Millennials view it as an old man’s sport, women prefer 12-inch softball (with gloves) and softball is no longer the only summertime league in town (today there are many other sports and recreational activities that compete with softball).  Yes, you can still watch or play 16-inch softball in Chicagoland, but with each passing year, it is getting more difficult to do so.


Chicago Beaches

Because the water level of Lake Michigan has been increasing for a number of years, Chicago’s beaches have been getting noticeably smaller, thanks to erosion and sediment displacement.  In fact, some of Chicago’s beaches have disappeared completely.  Juneway and Fargo beaches on the North Side (in Rogers Park) are submerged underwater and a steady drumbeat of crashing waves have collapsed revetment projects that were designed to protect the shoreline.  Other popular beaches — Oak Street, 12th Street, 57th Street, North Avenue — are only a fraction of the size they used to be —thin strips of sand with barely enough space for a row or two of beachgoers.  A crashing meteor may have brought an end to dinosaurs on earth; climate change may be doing the same thing to today’s Chicago’s beaches.

Juneway Beach

Non-Multiplex Movie Theaters

There’s only a handful of historic, non-multiplex movie theaters remaining in Chicago — Logan Theatre (2646 N. Milwaukee Ave.), Music Box (3733 N. Southport Ave.), Davis Theater (4614 N. Lincoln Ave.) and a few others.  These old-time movie palaces generally have only one or two screens (unlike the multiplexes) and often book old, seldom-screened movies or smaller concerts or live staged events.  With the rise of streaming services and other at-home entertainment options, the lingering effect of the pandemic on social activities (like seeing a movie) and the high cost of maintaining older, historic facilities, the continued survival of these institutions appears as though it will be a limited engagement.

Logan Theatre

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner

For more stories about Chicago’s fascinating history, take a look at what Chicago city tours we’re currently running! L Stop Tours operates unique tours all across Chicago’s neighborhoods that are guided by lifelong Chicago residents. Discover the amazing architecture, tasty food, and interesting tidbits about the city in one of our Chicago walking tours!

Its own city

For 106 years, the Chicago Union Stock Yards and adjacent meat packing plants were the most dominant businesses on Chicago’s South Side.

The Stock Yards complex was a veritable city unto itself — a 450-acre tract of land with 10,000 livestock pens with a capacity of tens of thousands of animals; hundreds of smoke-belching meat packing and rendering plants; a large post office dedicated primarily to Stock Yards workers; fully functional fire and police departments; an upscale hotel and world-renowned restaurant (the Stock Yard Inn); and a cavernous indoor stadium (the Chicago Amphitheatre), which hosted livestock shows, presidential nominating conventions and even the debut season of the Chicago Bulls (whose nickname was derived from the neighborhood’s most abundant commodity).

The Stock Yards District also was home to “Whiskey Row,” approximately 75 bars and taverns that were crammed into a one-mile stretch of South Ashland Ave.; more than 150 miles of railroad track that crisscrossed the neighborhood like steel mesh; and its own dedicated elevated transit line — the “Stock Yards Branch” — which featured stations that were named after meat industry names and businesses, such as Packers Ave., Exchange Ave., Swift and Armour.

While the Stock Yards withstood many challenges during its eleven-decade existence — several horrific fires, labor unrest, economic depressions, political pressure and ever-tightening food and safety regulations — the facility finally fell victim to a force it could not stop, the decentralization of the nation’s livestock and meat industries.  Chicago’s meat packers simply closed shop and moved west to be closer to the supply of livestock.  As a result, the Stock Yards no longer were needed as a marketing center.  On July 31, 1971, the huge facility closed its famous front gate for the last time — it was the end of an era for one of Chicago’s largest and most important industries.

What’s there now?

Today, more than 50 years after its closing, there are very few remnants of the livestock or meat packing industries on Chicago’s South Side.  The entire complex (livestock pens, packing plants, railroad shipping facilities) has been bulldozed — replaced by a massive development called “Stockyards Industrial Park,” an assortment of warehouses and manufacturing plants that are engaged in virtually every type of business other than meat packing.  Nearby retailers no longer identify their shops with special neighborhood monikers (i.e. Stock Yards Hardware, the Yards Coffee Shop, etc.); and even that smell, that pungent, odoriferous, godawful smell that permeated every square inch of the South Side (and often the entire city), is gone.

Is anything left from Chicago’s glorious past as the livestock and meat packing capital of the world?  Yes, but you have to know where to find it.  That’s where we come in.

Welcome to L Stop Tours’ Self-Guided Tour of Chicago’s former Stock Yards and Meat Packing District.

Bubbly Creek

South Branch of the Chicago River near Ashland Ave. to W. 38th St.

This infamous one-mile stretch of waterway served as a dumping ground for waste materials from the city’s meat packers (blood, entrails, etc.) during the first 50 years of the Stocky Yards existence and was brought to everyone’s attention by Upton Sinclair in his novel, The Jungle.  The Creek’s name is derived from small gas bubbles that regularly burst on the surface of the Creek — a byproduct of the, uh, byproducts in the water for all these years.  Today, the waterway is much cleaner than it was in Sinclair’s day and the channel is suitable for boating or fishing.  On a hot day, if you take a close look at the surface of the water from one of the area’s bridges, you can still see bubbles rising to the surface.


Live Stock National Bank

4150 S. Halsted

Built in 1925, this beautiful Colonial Revival-style building is a survivor.  A replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the bank outlasted the Great Depression, Chicago’s gangland wars of the Roaring ’20s and the horrific Stock Yards fire of 1934 (the bank opened for business the next day).  The interior of the building was not what you would expect for a bank that mostly did business with blue collar meat plant workers, cattlemen and neighborhood residents — it was opulent, with chandeliers, plenty of marble, classical moldings, raised panels and fluted pilasters.  The bank closed in 1965, six years before the Stock Yards would cease operation.  Although many efforts have been initiated to redevelop the building over the years, none have made it the finish line.  The building stands today on the northeast corner of Halsted and Exchange — empty and boarded up — waiting for someone to restore its former prominence.


Stock Yards Gate

Exchange Ave. at Peoria St.

Erected in 1875, this limestone gate, designed by renowned local architect John Welborn Root, stands today as one of the few visual reminders of Chicago’s past dominance in the livestock and meat packing industries.  Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1981, the gate marked the eastern entrance to the vast 475-acre Stock Yards, the largest facility of its kind in the world.  Directly behind the gate is a memorial to Chicago Firefighters who died in the line of duty, especially those who perished in the Stock Yards Fire of 1934.


Stanley’s Tavern

4258 S. Ashland Ave.

The history of Chicago’s Stock Yards is interwoven with characters from the neighborhood who, like the Yards themselves, were long time survivors.  Stanley’s Tavern is the last saloon still operating on Whiskey Row, the infamous stretch of Ashland Ave. between Pershing Rd. and W. 47th St, which housed dozens upon dozens of bars for thirsty Stock Yards employees, meat packing workers and neighborhood residents.  Though Whiskey Row dates to the early days of the Stock Yards (1865), Stanley’s has an equally impressive history and has been serving loyal customers in the same location since 1935.


Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council

1823 W. 47th St.

Just southwest of the Stock Yards, Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood has long served as a beacon of light for immigrant workers seeking opportunity —jobs in livestock and meat packing industries and affordable nearby housing.  Over the years the Back of the Yards neighborhood has been among the most ethnically diverse areas of the city — among the first arrivals were the Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians, then the Slovaks, African Americans and then Mexican Americans.  Formed after the Great Depression, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council is an organization whose mission is to “enhance the general welfare of all residents, organizations, businesses in our service areas.”  It accomplishes this with social service and economic development programs that support the community.  The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council stands today as a reminder that neighborhoods and community organizations often outlive the businesses and industries that once were responsible for their birth and existence. 


Swift Mansion

4500 S. Michigan Ave.

This ornate, Richardsonian Romanesque gray stone mansion was built in 1892 as a wedding gift to Helen Swift, the daughter of Gustavus F. Swift, the founder of Swift & Co. and also the inventor of the refrigerated rail car (for shipping meat carcasses long distances).  Interestingly, Helen Swift married Edward Morris, the son of another large Chicago meat packer, Nelson Morris.  The Morrises lived in the home until 1916 when they moved to another they built on nearby Drexel Ave.  After serving as a residence for other families, the mansion was a funeral home and most recently was occupied by the Urban League and the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation.


Stockyards Industrial Park

located in an area bounded by Pershing Road, Halsted Ave., W. 47th St. and Ashland Ave.

There is life after the Stock Yards, particularly in terms of the Stockyards Industrial Park, a collection of about 100 businesses (warehouses, manufacturing plants, offices) that have been built on the former Stock Yards property in the 50 years since the huge livestock facility closed.  The Industrial Park is clearly marked — huge metal, gate-like structures with “Stockyards Industrial Council” inscribed on circular medallions arch over neighborhood streets, marking the boundaries and major arterials running through the park.  Without these signs, it is virtually impossible to detect that the Stock Yards once stood here.


Railroad Tracks

3950 S. Morgan

The railroads played a leading role in the success of the Union Stock Yards over the years.  Livestock-hauling freight trains brought hundreds of millions of animals Chicago annually from all parts of the country and refrigerated railroad cars (invented by meat packer Gustavus Swift in 1875) enabled meat carcasses to be shipped as fresh product back to those very same parts of the country that the livestock came from, and farther.  Railroads were the transportation vehicle of choice until the 1950s when trucks made the process more efficient and economical.  Though many of the railroad tracks that snake through the district are abandoned, some, including this set of tracks on Morgan St. are still active and in use.


Kent House

2944 South Michigan Ave.

Designed in 1883 by the prominent architectural firm of Burnham and Root, this lovely Queen Anne mansion was built for Sydney A. Kent, one of the founders of the Chicago Union Stock Yards and survives as one of the few remaining mansions on this former upscale stretch of South Michigan Ave.  Recently converted into several condominium apartments, the building was designated a Chicago landmark in 1987.


Stock Yards L Branch

State Street and West 40th Street

In 1908, the South Side Elevated Railroad took over a little-used 2.8-mile railroad line running west from the Indiana Avenue Station (today’s Green Line) and extended it to the Stock Yards where it went around a big loop and headed back toward Indiana.  The Stock Yard Branch, as it was called, was popular with the 50,000 area workers as well as tourists who would take the L from downtown to visit the huge Stock Yards complex.  The Chicago Transit Authority, which assumed control of Chicago’s public transit system in 1947, discontinued operations on the line in 1957 due to declining ridership. This remnant of the elevated line (a “severed” overpass on State Street near West 40th Street) reveals where the former elevated line used to run.


Vienna Beef

1000 W. Pershing Road

One of Chicago’s most prolific and popular meat companies, Vienna Beef, which got its start when its founders sold hot dogs at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, never had a manufacturing facility located anywhere near the Stock Yards or Packingtown…until 2013.  That’s when the Chicago-based company moved its manufacturing facility from its long-time North Side location to its present site on the northern edge of what is now Stockyards Industrial Park.  While other meat packing plants and food manufacturing facilities have long-since vacated the South Side and Stock Yards District, Vienna Beef stands today as one of the few actual meat companies that still operate within the former Stock Yards district — even though it is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood.


Packers Avenue

 1300 west for 6 blocks from 4000 south to 4600 south

Today, Packers Avenue is just another street sign that labels a non-descript roadway in an industrial park.  Over 100 years ago, the largest meatpackers in the world lined this street, which got its name from the businesses that operated here.  Another area street, Exchange Avenue (runs west at 4150 S. Halsted), is named after the Exchange Building of the Union Stock Yards, an office building where the paperwork for all live animal transactions was completed.


Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner

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From “ghost” voters to dirty tricks, vote stealing to intimidation tactics, Chicago elections chicanery has, over the years, become nothing short of political sport.  Messing with elections — in some way, shape or form — is what we do.  It’s known as the “Chicago way.”

But not, apparently, during the 2020 presidential election.  With voter turnout at an all-time high and extra attention focused on the integrity of the voting process at post offices, polling places and vote counting centers nationwide, officials proclaimed the 2020 election as one of the “cleanest” in decades; that “fraud” was virtually non-existent.  In fact, turnout was so high, I didn’t even need to wear my “Two Ballots Please, I’m From Chicago”  button like I did in the 1988 presidential election.  I felt naked without it.

Such honesty and cleanliness is enough to make an old, died-in-the-wool Chicago election watcher (like myself) nostalgic for the days when Chicago elections featured daring fraudulent behavior and political hijinks.  That said, here are some “Great Moments” in Chicago election history:

Follies of 1856

Chicago Mayor Thomas Dyer is defeated in his re-election campaign by Democratic Congressman “Long” John Wentworth in a landslide.  It became evident during the Chicago elections that voters never forgave Dyer for his misbehavior four years earlier when he decorated horse-drawn carts with hundreds of prostitutes and patronage workers and made them the centerpiece of his inauguration day parade. 

Deafening Support

Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune, devises a plan in 1860 to ensure that his candidate, Abraham Lincoln, wins the Republican nomination for president at the party’s upcoming convention in Chicago.  Thousands of Lincoln “supporters” are brought to the city free of charge (by train) in an effort to stack the convention hall in favor of Lincoln.  The supporters are told to report early to the convention hall, jam the doors, fill as many seats as possible and begin to shout in favor of their candidate.  They are so effective that a newspaper reporter writes:  “It was like all the hogs ever slaughtered in the Cincinnati stockyards giving their death squeals — all at the same time.”

Election Insurrection

Democrats in Chicago team up with Confederate sympathizers in an effort to derail Lincoln’s re-election in 1864.  The plan is to release more than 8,000 Confederate prisoners of war that are held at Camp Douglas during the Chicago elections, have them stuff the ballot boxes in favor of the Democratic candidate, Gen. George McClellan, and then sack and loot the city, burning everything in their path that they could not carry.  The “Chicago Conspiracy,” as it is called, is thwarted when informers tip the Camp Douglas commander in advance of the raid and the insurrectionists are arrested at their hotel.

Identifying Judas 

During the Chicago elections in 1915, Oscar Depriest, a Black alderman, is reviewing the post-election votes in his all-Black ward.  He sees 272 total votes cast — 271 of which are for his mayoral candidate, Republican “Big Bill” Thompson.  “I know who double-crossed here!” Depriest exclaims in outrage.  “Go out and find Mose Jackson and give him a raking over the coals.” 

An Explosive Victory

To assure “Big Bill” Thompson’s re-election as mayor in 1927, Al Capone sends more than 1,000 goons and thugs into the city on the day of the primary.  The goon squad breaks legs, arms, shoots Thompson’s political foes and throws hand grenades into polling places where Thompson was expected to do poorly.  So many hand grenades are thrown that the event becomes known as the “Pineapple Primary.”  Capone’s thugs repeat their activities on election day and Thompson is re-elected.

Beat the Press

Because of a printers’ strike, the Tribune’s 1948 Chicago elections edition goes to press hours earlier than usual, before the polls have even begun to report results.  Based on a sampling of voters that has not failed the newspaper in its election coverage in more than 20 years, the Tribune projects the winner of the presidential election with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”  The poll and the Tribune are wrong and the next morning, a grinning Harry Truman is photographed derisively waving the front page of the newspaper to a crowd of supporters.

Image from Chicago Tribune

Don’t Mess With the Machine

In 1955, Republican Mayoral Candidate Robert Merriam attempts to beat his opponents to the punch by mailing campaign literature to a purloined list of registered Democratic voters.  But the Democrats intercept the literature and send it back to Merriam with “addressee unknown” and “deceased” stamp marks.  In retaliation, the Democrats and their candidate, Richard J. Daley, play the religion card — they send thousands of unsigned letters highlighting Merriam’s recent divorce and the children he abandoned to Catholic neighborhoods throughout the city.  After the election, a victorious Daley gets a new license plate for his car.  It reads “708 220” — the number of votes he received in this, his first citywide election.  He keeps the license plate on his car for the next two decades.

Quote for the Ages

Asked why the reform platform of Robert Merriam wasn’t enough to carry him past Machine politician Richard J. Daley in the mayoral race during the 1955 Chicago elections, 43rd Ward Alderman Mathias “Paddy” Bauler, a longtime city tavern owner, explained it simply:  “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.”

Image from RJD Library – UIC

Stealing Home

 In 1960, Mayor Daley is credited with steering the presidential election in the direction of John F. Kennedy with dirty tricks that only a Machine magician could muster.  Kennedy miraculously carried Chicago by more than 400,00 votes although he carried Illinois by only 8,000 votes.  On election night, the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, allegedly called Daley and asked, “How many votes do we have in Cook County?”  Daley allegedly responded, “How many do you need?”

Simple Math

Asked why Democratic Nominee Hubert Humphrey didn’t carry Illinois in the 1968 presidential election, Mayor Daley replied, “He didn’t get enough votes.”

Actually Seeing a Few “Ghosts”

Two Democratic precinct workers and a Republican election judge are charged with 22 counts of “blatant” election fraud during the 1978 Illinois off-year elections.  During the ’78 Chicago elections, a police patrolman reported that he heard bells ringing repeatedly at one voting machine in a North Side precinct.  When he walked over to the machine, he saw one election official falsifying voters’ registrations and another using a voting machine to register multiple votes.  The policeman asked what the men were doing.  “We have six more to do,” one replied.  “These are ghost voters.”

Image from Wikipedia

A Man of Conviction

In the 1987 mayoral election, political newcomer Sheneather Butler edges incumbent Alderman Wallace Davis, Jr. by the paper-thin margin of 100 votes.  Incredibly, Davis has conducted his entire two-month campaign from a federal prison cell in the Metropolitan Correction Center where he was incarcerated and awaiting trial on federal bribery and extortion charges.  He is believed to be the first alderman in the City Council’s 150-year history to seek re-election from a jail cell.

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner

If you enjoy reading about the history of controversial monuments in Chicago, visit our blog to learn more insightful facts and history about Chicago.

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, because the truth has now emerged, his Chicago statues have been purged.”

Updated version of the “Columbus Day” poem

Christopher Columbus Statues

A Christopher Columbus Statue in Chicago

When I was a youngster in elementary school, I was taught that Christopher Columbus was a pretty important historical figure.  Not only did he discover the New World (the Americas), he did so on an expedition that included three tiny ships: the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.  On Columbus Day, our teachers had us recite a corny poem that commemorated the explorer’s accomplishments.

Today, however, it’s a completely different story.  It seems that everything I was taught about Columbus was nothing more than propaganda, positive spin.  Apparently, the true line on Columbus is that he was a murderer, an enslaver of indigenous people and, with the help of his crew and fellow travelers, the carrier of new diseases to the Americas.  In other words, Columbus is not exactly someone we should be honoring with a national holiday or with one of our monuments in Chicago.  He’s far too controversial a figure for today.

Somewhat reluctantly, Mayor Lori Lightfoot agreed with this sentiment and on July 25, 2020, under the cover of darkness, quietly ordered two monuments in Chicago that were statues of Christopher Columbus removed from their pedestals — one at the southern tip of Grant Park and the other at Arrigo Park (in the heart of the Little Italy neighborhood).  According to Lightfoot, the statues were removed in order to protect public safety which had been threatened the week before when an angry mob of protesters tried to tear the statues down themselves.  A number of protesters and policemen were injured in the disturbance.

This is not the first incidence of controversial monuments in Chicago causing angst and violence in the city, however.


Stephen A. Douglas Tomb

Stephen A Douglas Tomb

On the angst side of the equation is a 96-foot memorial statue at 636 E. 35th St. that rises over the tomb of Stephen A. Douglas, U.S. Senator from Illinois, who is best known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln over the issue of slavery and who lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.  Once a popular figure throughout Illinois, Douglas’s name and reputation have taken a beating in recent times — his wife’s family were slaveholders in Mississippi and Douglas himself was politically soft on the issue, leaving it up to states to decide for themselves to legalize or abolish it.  Today, he is perceived as being on the wrong side of the slavery issue.  And as if to add gas to a long-smoldering fire, his statue overlooks the vibrant and diverse Bronzeville neighborhood, the center of African American life and culture in Chicago.  Perhaps Mr. Douglas is not the most suitable historical figure for the residents of Bronzeville to look up to (literally and figuratively).


Haymarket Statues

One of the monuments in Chicago that caused violence was a statue erected in 1889 in Chicago’s Haymarket District (near West Side) that commemorated the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886, in which protesters fighting for workers’ rights became involved in a melee that killed seven policemen, four civilians and injured dozens.  The ensuing riot was — and continues to be — one of the most significant and important events in the history of the global labor movement.

The statue erected three years after the incident turned out to be one of the most controversial statues in Chicago’s history.  It was a nine-foot depiction of a Chicago police officer with his arm raised.  That was it.  Nothing about the fight for workers’ rights and no mention of the others killed and injured that day.  Needless to say, many people were displeased with the one-sided nature of this commemoration — glorify the police and ignore the noble cause of the demonstrators.  As a result, the statue became a “target” for individuals, groups and organizations.

Unlike other monuments in Chicago, the Haymarket statue has a long history of being destroyed and built back up.

On May 4, 1927, a streetcar motorman deliberately sidetracked his vehicle and crashed it into the monument saying he was “sick of seeing that policeman with his arm raised.”  After several additional vandalizations, the statue was relocated to nearby Union Park for better public visibility.  When nearby expressway construction caused the statue to be moved back to its original location in the 1950s, it once again became the target of vandals.  In 1968, demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War covered the statue with black paint; in 1969, radicals from the Weather Underground blew the statue to bits by placing a bomb between the policeman’s legs; in 1970, the Weather Underground blew up a “rebuilt” Haymarket statue in the same location.  Rebuilt yet again a year later, Mayor Richard J. Daley installed a 24-hour guard next to the statue which cost the city $67,000 per year.  In 1972, the city finally got smart — the statue was relocated to a courtyard inside Chicago Police Headquarters on west 35th St. where it stands today.

However, a beautiful thing has happened at the original site of the Haymarket Memorial — and it serves as a guide for those who wish to commemorate historic figures and events throughout our city…today and in the future.

Haymarket Memorial

In 1992, the City of Chicago erected a new memorial statue (151 N. Des Plaines St.) to honor and draw attention to all of the people and the events of day.  A plaque underneath a bronze statue of a speaker’s wagon reads:  

A decade of strife between labor and industry culminated here in a confrontation that resulted in the tragic death of both workers and policemen. On May 4, 1886, spectators at a labor rally had gathered around the mouth of Crane’s Alley. A contingent of police approaching on Des Plaines Street were met by a bomb thrown from just south of the alley. The resultant trial of eight activists gained worldwide attention for the labor movement and initiated the tradition of ‘May Day’ labor rallies in many cities.


The lesson?

History, like art, is best understood — and becomes richer — when it is viewed from different perspectives and it educates in a clear and unbiased fashion.  It is also important to remember that attitudes and values of people change over time — what may have been acceptable years ago may no longer be tolerable today.

Last week, Mayor Lightfoot unveiled a new committee that will review all of the monuments in Chicago and statues to determine which pieces “warrant attention or action,” will recommend new monuments or public art (with a nod toward underrepresented women, minorities or historical figures) and engage Chicagoans by creating a dialog about the city’s past.

It’s a monumental step in the right direction.

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner

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Does anyone remember Riverview Park in Chicago?

Unless you’re over 60, have grandparents who like to reminisce, or are an avid student of local history, my guess is that you’ve never heard of the place.  And that’s understandable. Riverview Park, an amusement park that was located at Belmont and Western Avenues on the North Side, closed in 1967, ending its 65-year run as one of the most popular leisure-time attractions in Chicago and also in the United States.  While it was open for business, more than 200 million visitors passed through its castle-like front gate.

Riverview Park in Chicago Entrance

Although it began life in 1902 as a skeet shooting range for local residents, Riverview Park in Chicago quickly pivoted to amusements (rides and other attractions) in order to appeal to a wider range of customers.  The strategy worked and within a few years, the park began to grow steadily, with new rides and attractions added annually.  In the 1950s, Riverview Park in Chicago billed itself as the largest amusement park in the United States with 40 major rides and attractions and a staff of more than 1,000.

By the mid-1960s, however, it was a completely different story.  Declining attendance and escalating real estate taxes were to Riverview what kryptonite was to Superman — fatal.  In 1967 the 70-acre park shut down and was quickly sold to a LaSalle Street investment firm, which, in turn, sold it to a paper manufacturer for $6 million.  Today, a shopping center, the DeVry Institute of Technology and the Chicago Area 6 Police headquarters occupy the amusement park’s former space.

What became of Riverview’s famous rides and attractions? 

Unfortunately, most were smashed into oblivion shortly after Riverview Park in Chicago closed its doors for the final time.  Although the park’s owners held an auction just after closing, none of the 50 bidders wanted such attractions as the Pair-O-Chute Jump, the Space Ride, the flash High Ride or even the world-famous Bobs roller coaster.

In its day, the Bobs was billed as the world’s faster roller coaster, attaining a top speed of more than 60 miles per hour.  According to a 1953 article in the Chicago American, the Bobs was the most thrilling ride in America.

The Bobs ride at the Riverview Park in Chicago

Not long ago, the Chicago Sun-Times recalled the Bobs in a feature article: “It was a mind-numbing, body-bruising, 120-second dash through twisted metal and rickety white wood; when it was over, you’d be battered and breathless.”

Nonetheless, it was unwanted at the auction, and shortly thereafter it was demolished and sold for scrap, along with Riverview’s five other roller coasters — the Fireball, the Wild Mouse, the Silver Streak, the Comet and the Greyhound.  Chute the Chutes was also demolished, as was the giant genie’s head that grimaced above the entrance to Aladdin’s Castle.

What, if anything, was saved from Riverview? 

Many of the smaller rides, like the Ferris wheel and miniature train, were sold to carnivals in different parts of the country.  And a Chicagoan bought four children’s rides — The Whip, Kiddy Merry Go-Round, Kiddy Bug and Kiddy Boat — for $2,800.

Believe it or not, one famous ride from the storied amusement park is still in operation today, although you must travel to Georgia to ride it.  Head to Atlanta’s Six Flags Over Georgia Amusement Center and you will see, in all its glory, the famous Riverview carousel, one of the three original rides at the Chicago amusement park.

In 1907, Riverview founders William and George Schmidt commissioned Swiss and Italian immigrant wood carvers to whittle 72 customized horses and four chariots for a merry-go-round that was to take center stage at Riverview Park in Chicago.  They did, and the 96-passenger carousel, and hand-carved masterpiece, was the result.

In its Georgia location, the carousel looks much as it did at Riverview Park in Chicago when it opened in 1908.  A wedding cake-shaped shelter — identical to the one that protected it at Belmont and Western — was constructed to protect the storied ride from the elements.  Now in its 107th year of operation (59 years in Chicago, 48 in Atlanta), the Riverview Carousel has become a nostalgic fan favorite at the Georgia park and continues to rank as one of its most popular and treasured rides.

Laugh Your Troubles Away

For about half of its six-decade run in Chicago, Riverview was indeed the world’s largest amusement park, surpassing, for example, the four-park setup at Coney Island in New York and also local rivals, such as White City and Joyland on Chicago’s South Side.

For many years, the marketing slogan at Riverview Park in Chicago was “Laugh Your Troubles Away.”  In these pandemic times, when life plods along at a snail’s pace, when entertainment options are extremely limited and our lives have literally been turned upside down, a place to laugh our troubles away sounds like a pretty good place to be.

For those of us who remember Riverview Park in Chicago, the memories of a truly great amusement park will have to get us through, instead.

To learn more about the history of Chicago and its famous establishments, book a neighborhood tour with L Stop Tours today!

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner

To learn the history of famous Chicago skyscrapers, you need to go back more than 100 years. Shortly after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the City of Chicago passed new laws that outlawed the use of wood in new building construction.  This preventative measure paved the way for heat resistant materials such as brick, limestone, marble, and Terracotta tile, all of which found new popularity among local architects and building designers.

These fireproof materials lead to a boom in new construction projects, especially high-density buildings in the Loop that housed a variety of tenants.  These multi-story buildings featured massively thick load-bearing walls, walls that supported the weight of the entire building above it.  Because brick or stone can only support so much weight, buildings built with load-bearing walls often topped out at around 10-12 stories.

A picture of one of the oldest and most famous Chicago Skyscrapers

In 1884, at the height of this building boom, architect and engineer William LeBaron Jenney was commissioned by the Home Insurance Company of New York to design its regional headquarters in Chicago at the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets.  Stepping out of the load-bearing wall architectural box, Jenney supported the building with a fireproof steel frame that resembled a skeleton around the entire construction.  Because the frame dispersed the weight of the building, it was much lighter than its load-bearing cousins and, thus, was able to be built taller.  This innovation, experts acclaimed, made the Home Insurance Building the world’s first modern skyscraper and Chicago home to the world’s first skyscraper.

Since then, the city has become world-renowned for its architectural achievements and, of course, its vast array of famous Chicago skyscrapers.

We’ve put together a list of our favorite famous Chicago skyscrapers:

  1. Fisher Building
  2. Marquette Building
  3. Monadnock Building
  4. Old Colony Building
  5. Rookery Building
  6. Lake Point Tower
  7. Chicago Hilton
  8. Merchandise Mart
  9. Old Chicago Main Post Office
  10. Willis Tower
  11. Aon Center
  12. 875 N. Michigan Ave.
  13. Marina City
  14. Tribune Tower
  15. Wrigley Building

We’ve divided our list of famous Chicago skyscrapers into three groups —Pioneers, Record Breakers and Icons.


Fisher Building

Completed in 1896 by D.H. Burnham and Company, the Fisher Building survives today as the oldest building in Chicago that is more than 18 stories high (it has 20 floors).  Its neo-Gothic design, notable for the many carvings and sculptures that decorate its terra cotta facade, was worthy of national recognition — it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.  Built near the Loop’s Financial District, the building is one of the few in the area that is devoted entirely to residential apartments.

Marquette Building

Built in 1895, the Marquette Building is an early steel-frame skyscraper with masonry cladding.  The building is named after explorer Father Jacques Marquette who, in 1674, was the first European settler in Chicago. What makes Marquette one of the most famous Chicago Skyscrapers is its ornate, two-story lobby which features four intricate Tiffany mosaics that depict events in Marquette’s life, including his exploration of Illinois, Native Americans he met along the way and a scene that depicts his burial.  Designed by the architectural firm of Holabird & Roche, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

Monadnock Building

Named after a mountain in New Hampshire, the Monadnock Building was built as two separate buildings that were later joined into a single building.  When it was completed in 1891, the north half of the building was, at 16 stories, the tallest load-bearing brick building in the world —the walls at its base are 6 feet thick. When the south half of the building was completed in 1893, the Monadnock Building became the largest office building in the world, featuring more than 1,200 offices and occupancy of over 6,000 workers.  Known for its decorative aluminum spiral staircases and bay windows, the Monadnock Building is both a famous Chicago skyscraper and National Landmark.

Old Colony Building

Built in 1893, the Old Colony Building, named in honor of the original Plymouth Colony founded by the Pilgrims, is a 17-story structure with beautiful curved bay windows on each of the four corners of the building.  Originally built as an office building, the Old Colony was converted to an apartment building in 2015 and today mainly serves as housing for college students attending school in the South Loop neighborhood.  It was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1976.

Rookery Building

One of the most historically significant buildings and most famous Chicago skyscrapers, the Rookery was designed by the architecture firm of Burnham & Root and features a combination of load-bearing walls and an interior steel frame.  It was completed in 1888.  The centerpiece of the building is a stunning two-story lobby, redesigned in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright, with a skylight and a mesmerizing oriel staircase that visibly climbs to the 12th floor from the second.  Named a National Historic Landmark in 1975, the Rookery Building also has been used in several motion pictures including “Home Alone 2” and the “Untouchables.”

Record Breakers

Lake Point Tower

This sleek, graceful, 70-story Mies van der Rohe-influenced structure was completed in 1968 and was the tallest apartment building in the world when it opened.  Located adjacent to Navy Pier, Lake Point Tower is the only skyscraper in Chicago that sits on the east side of Lake Shore Drive and, given the city’s reluctance to approve any shoreline construction for environmental reasons, it is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.  According to the developers, the shamrock shape of the building ensures that every unit in the building has a view of Lake Michigan.

Chicago Hilton

When it opened in 1927, the Chicago Hilton (formerly the Stevens Hotel) offered 3,000 rooms for guests and was, unequivocally, the largest hotel in the world.  The property offered a wide variety of services and features for guests, including a miniature golf course, a concert music library, a 1,200-seat theater, a 7-chair barbershop and a small hospital with an operating room.  In the past couple of decades, the hotel has been used as a backdrop for several Hollywood movies, including “The Fugitive,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “U.S. Marshalls” and “Road to Perdition.”

Merchandise Mart

Built by retailer Marshall Field so he could consolidate his warehouses into a single facility, the Merchandise Mart was the largest building in the world (4.2 million square feet) when it opened in 1930 on the north bank of the Chicago River.  Spanning two city blocks, the Merchandise Mart is renowned worldwide for the vast number of furniture, fabric and decorator designers that operate showrooms throughout the building.  In the last several years, the building also has come to be known for “Art on the Mart,” the largest digital art projection program in the world.

Old Chicago Main Post Office

Spanning 60 acres (2.5 million square feet), the 12-story Old Chicago Main Post Office — the one that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway with a huge hole for cars to drive through — was the largest post office in the world when it was expanded in 1932 to accommodate Chicago’s booming mail needs (primarily catalogs that were distributed by Montgomery Ward, Spiegel and Sears).  When the city built a new, more efficient facility in 1997, the Old Main Post Office sat idle and unused for more than 20 years.  Today, it has been redeveloped and is now home to such companies as Walgreens, Uber, Ferrara Candy and PepsiCo.

Willis Tower

When the 110-story Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) was completed in 1973, it became the tallest building in the world, a title it would hold for 25 years. Today, one of the most famous Chicago skyscrapers is the third tallest building in the United States and 23rd tallest building in the world.  Although Sears vacated the tower in 1995, it retained the naming rights until it sold the building in 2003.  When London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings leased more than 140,000 square feet of office space from the new owners, they obtained the naming rights and on July 16, 2009 renamed the tower.


Aon Center

The 83-story Aon Center is the fourth tallest building in Chicago, standing in line behind Willis Tower, Trump Tower and the all-new Vista Tower.  A sleek, minimalist tower clad entirely in white granite, the Aon Center takes its name from the Aon Corporation (insurance) which became the building’s primary tenant in September 2001.  Completed in 1973, the building was built by the Standard Oil Company of Indiana and for many years was affectionately known as “Big Stan.”

875 N. Michigan Ave.

Formerly known as the John Hancock Center), 875 N. Michigan Ave. is one of the best known — and most photographed — famous Chicago skyscrapers. A gradual taper of the building’s frame from its base to the top floor along with its distinctive X-bracing on the exterior walls of the building make it easy to identify when viewing the city’s skyline from a distance.  When the building topped out on May 6, 1968, it was the second tallest building in the world; today it is the fifth tallest building in Chicago.

Marina City

In 1963, when the two towers of Marina City opened on the north bank of the Chicago River, Chicagoans thought that architect Bertrand Goldgerg’s futuristic skyscrapers were something right out of the “Jetsons.”  The complex was designed to be a “city within a city” — it included a movie theater, gym, swimming pool, ice rink, bowling alley, stores, restaurants, a small adjacent office building and a marina.  With 450 apartments in each tower, Marina City was the first post-war high-rise complex built in the United States and it is widely credited with beginning the residential renaissance of inner city America.

Tribune Tower

In 1922, the Chicago Tribune hosted an international design competition for its new headquarters to mark the newspaper’s 75th anniversary.  The newspaper challenged architects worldwide to design “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.”  The winning entry was a neo-Gothic design by New York architects John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood that featured flying buttresses near the top.  Construction on the Tribune Tower was completed in 1925 when the building topped out at 463 feet.  The Tribune sold the building in 2018 to developers who plan to convert it into condominiums,

A picture of one of the oldest and most famous Chicago Skyscrapers, the Tribune Tower

Wrigley Building

Built by the William Wrigley Jr. Company (chewing gum) from 1921-24, the Wrigley Building was the first Chicago skyscraper to be constructed north of the Chicago River (made possible by the 1920 construction of the DuSable Bridge that spanned the river at its doorstep).  The building is actually two separate towers — the 30-story South Tower and the 21-story North Tower — that are connected with walkways at ground level and the third and fourteenth floors.  Clad with more than 250,000 pieces of terra cotta, the Wrigley Building looks stunning when the building is bathed in floodlights at night.  The spire and clocktower of the Wrigley Building take their inspiration from the Giralda tower of Seville Cathedral in Spain. 

Most of these skyscrapers and more beautiful buildings and structures can be seen on a variety of our Chicago city tours. If you’d like to learn more about what tour is right for you, please contact us!

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner

Singin’ the Blues of the City at Chess Records in Chicago 

Several decades ago, in a small terra cotta structure located at 2120 S. Michigan Ave., a recording studio helped propel a Chicago record label into one of the most famous in the music business. But what happened to Chess Records in Chicago, the city’s most prolific record company in the 20th century?

A sign about the history of Chess Records in Chicago

In 1968, Leonard and Phil Chess, founders of the firm, sold it to a company called GRT, which promptly turned around and sold it to Sugar Hill Records in the mid-1970s.  MCA Records, part of the entertainment conglomerate that counts among its holdings Universal Pictures, now owns the 10,000 hours of Chess recordings and is presently reissuing the Chess artists to newer, younger audiences.

More than anywhere else in the world, Chess Records in Chicago was famous for popularizing the blues and helping introduce it to the mass market — both domestically and overseas.  And this introduction, according to many in the music industry, literally changed the course of music history.

The Story of Chess Records in Chicago

It began in 1946 when the Chess brothers were operating a dingy bar at 3905 S. Cottage Grove called the Macamba, which was a dark, smoky lounge where musicians often hung out.  Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald sat in the house band.

Leonard Chess, acting on a hunch, left the club to establish his own record company, recording people who played at the Macamba.  Leonard’s first artist, on a label he called Aristocrat, was Andre Tibbs, who sang the “Union Man Blues.”

Before the end of the decade, the Chess label was established and the firm had moved into its two-story headquarters on South Michigan Ave., about 20 blocks south of the Loop.

A picture of the Chess Records in Chicago storefront

The sound the Chess brothers were after was a kind of electrified-Southern, or Mississippi Delta blues.  It was a distinctive sound, featuring a hard-driving beat that, depending on the artist, might include a little gospel, some jazz or what later would become known as “soul.”  And the brothers searched throughout the South to find exactly the right type of artists to record.

The Success

Among the legendary musicians who climbed the long flight of stairs to Chess’ second floor recording studios on Michigan Avenue were Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ramsey Lewis, Etta James, Frontella Bass, Willie Dixon, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and his daughter Aretha and Chicago’s legendary Muddy Waters.

By the late 1950s, business at Chess Records in Chicago was booming and the company began to add other labels, including Argo, Checker, Cadet and Cadet Concept.  Chess was becoming known as the international headquarters for the blues.

The Impact

And the sounds coming out of the Michigan Avenue studios were extremely influential, particularly in Britain. In Liverpool, rhythm and blues records were in great demand among local youth and particularly among two young rock band members named Lennon and McCartney.

In London, another rock-star-to-be, Keith Richards, met a young musician by the name of Mick Jagger in a record shop because he noticed Jagger had a Chess records album under his arm. Later, when Richards and Jagger put together a rhythm and blues-based rock band, they called themselves the Rolling Stones after a Chess-recorded Muddy Waters cut called “Rolling Stone.”

A few years later, when the Rolling Stones were on their first tour of America, they stopped in to record tracks for the “12 x 5” album at Chess Records in Chicago.  One of the cuts earned the title “2120 S. Michigan Ave.,” a kind of dedication to the place that produced the music that influenced them the most.

“I recorded some of my biggest hits at that address,” said rock pioneer Chuck Berry in the Chicago Sun-Times.  “I have a lot of memories of it.  They were great days of great music.”

The Legacy 

Although Chess Records in Chicago vanished from the local scene when the company was purchased by GRT in 1968, the building where it all took place on south Michigan Avenue still stands today.  It achieved landmark status from the City of Chicago in 1990. 

Today the building is owned by the estate of legendary blues artist Willie “Wang Dang Doodle” Dixon and it has become a museum.  The organization that operates it is called the Blues Heaven Foundation, which raises funds for music scholarships, helps supplement the income of blues musicians and helps promote the blues legacy.

Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan Ave. can be seen on our “Prairie District:  Street of the Elite” tour.

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner

When it gets dark on April Fools Day, you can see them gathering at various points along the lakefront.

They’re well-prepared for a long evening — Coleman lanterns, barbecue grills, charcoal, portable televisions, lawn chairs and ice chests full of beer.  Rain gear is vogue if the sky shows even the slightest hint of foul weather; playing cards and poker chips are on hand in case there isn’t much action during the evening.

These are Chicago’s hardy smelt fishermen, a group of enthusiastic anglers who brave frigid weather, ungodly fishing hours and boredom in order to capture a much-prized seasonal  favorite — the elusive smelt — a short, 4-6 inch fish that spawns along the shoreline of Lake Michigan for six weeks every spring.

The Chicago File, April 1991

When I wrote the above article 29 years ago in The Chicago File, fishing for smelt along Chicago’s lakefront during the month of April was an extremely popular activity.   It was highly promoted by the Chicago Park District as a unique seasonal outdoor activity and, as a result, fishermen from all over the Midwest came to Chicago to spend an evening or two on the lakefront capturing the much sought-after fish.

Why was smelt fishing so popular? 

Much of the appeal of smelt fishing stemmed from the fact that it was a highly unique fishing experience, it was radically different than other forms of the sport.  Smelt fishing, for example, had always been a nighttime activity — in Chicago it was (and still is) permitted only during the month of April between the hours of 7 p.m. and 1 a.m.  In other words, it’s the perfect sport for night owls and insomniacs.

Smelt fishing required special equipment in order to be successful.  To catch smelt you used seine, dip or gill nets of a certain size – they could not exceed 12 feet in length or six feet in depth. The mesh size of the net could be no larger than one and a half inches.  The netting restrictions were crafted and enforced by the Chicago Park District and were designed to ensure that no fishermen took more than their fair share of smelt from the water during any given net hoist.  

Another aspect of smelt fishing that made the sport unique was the somewhat odd local tradition in which fishermen felt it necessary to prepare, cook and consume the fish within minutes of it being caught.  This is where the grill, charcoal, ice chests of beer and cooking oil they dragged to the beach came in. All of these items were necessary in order to have a proper “smelt fry” on an otherwise deserted Chicago beach in the middle of the night.

So, yes, for more than a century, the unique sport of smelt fishing has been a popular Chicago outdoor sports activity.  And to this day, there are plenty of smelt fishermen who eagerly await the arrival of April 1 so they can head out to the lakefront and net themselves some smelt.  The only problem is that now, Chicago has more smelt fishermen than there are likely smelt in Lake Michigan.

What happened to the smelt?

Ecologists point to several changes in Lake Michigan that have caused the smelt population to dwindle over the years.  Coho Salmon, for example, have now become predators of smelt because other fish they used to consume (like lake herring) have vanished completely from the lake.  Another reason there are so few smelt in the lake is because of the rapidly multiplying population of invasive zebra mussels in the lake. Because zebra mussels are relatively new to Lake Michigan and because they compete with fish for lake plankton (food), there is less food available for consumption.  As a result, the smelt get less plankton and many do not survive.  

The decline of smelt in Lake Michigan has also caused many smelt fishing festivals and lakeside cookouts to be canceled, as well.  North suburban Lake Forest recently canceled Smelt-O-Rama, a long-standing event on the lakefront that taught youngsters how to catch, clean and cook the tasty little delicacies.  Similarly, the Park District of Highland Park canceled its long-running Smelt Fest because there simply weren’t enough fish being caught to make it viable.

According to the Chicago Park District, smelt season will again open on April 1 and will run through the end of the month — with the same fishing hours, the same net restrictions and the same rules about netting too many fish, although this really hasn’t been an issue for the several years.  

So, what do you do if you crave smelt and want to down a few this evening?

The best advice?  Let someone else find it and net it.  

One of my favorite seafood joints on the South Side, Calumet Fisheries, still has smelt on their a la carte menu in half- and full-order portions.  I suspect, however, that the fish come from Lake Erie or somewhere else where they are in greater supply.

Sound fishy?  



If you want to learn more about Chicago’s history, and the events and people that made the city what it is today, consider going on a Chicago tour with L Stop Tours. Book a unique neighborhood tour today! 

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

– By Tom Schaffner


Looking for something interesting to do on a dreary afternoon?

Take the CTA Red Line to the Sheridan stop and walk a few blocks west to the Clark St. entrance of Graceland Cemetery — one of the most historic sites in the City of Chicago.

Graceland Cemetery is the final resting spot for some of Chicago’s best known citizens and also serves as home to some of the most spectacular grave sites and monuments in the entire city. Getty Tomb, designed by well-known architect Louis Sullivan (who is also buried at Graceland), is an official Chicago landmark and is perhaps one of the most photographed tombs in the United States. It is the final resting spot for Carrie Eliza Getty, wife of wealthy Chicago lumber baron Henry Harrison Getty.

Getty Tomb

Graceland Cemetery

Two important and often photographed sculptures by Lorado Taft are also found at Graceland — Eternal Silence (or the Statue of Death) and The Crusader. Additionally, a granite baseball two-feet in diameter, with stitching, marks the grave of William Hulbert, founder of Major League Baseball’s National League.

One of Chicago’s most famous businessmen, hotelier Potter Palmer, is buried at Graceland with his wife, Bertha, underneath a majestic columned monument. Nothing less would have been fitting for the Palmers. Mr. Palmer was the founder of one of the grandest hotels in the city, the Palmer House; Mrs. Potter Palmer was a revered socialite who devoted herself to many philanthropic causes throughout her life.

Not far away is the majestic monument and tomb of George Pullman, best known for his Pullman Palace railroad cars and the unique, self-contained industrial town he established on the city’s South Side.

The list of famous names goes on. Also buried here are newspapermen Joseph Medill (editor of the Chicago Tribune) and Victor Lawson (founder of the Chicago Daily News); meatpacker and industrialist Philip Armour; inventor of the reaper Cyrus McCormick; retailer Marshall Field; Chicago’s first detective and founder of the Secret Service, Allan Pinkerton; one of Chicago’s first settlers, John Kinzie, Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, father and son mayors of Chicago, Carter Harrison, Sr. and Carter Harrison Jr., “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks and world renowned architect Luwig Mies van der Rohe.

Pullman Tomb

Other people buried here are known by the streets that have since been named after them, such as Charles H. Wacker, John Peter Altgeld and Alexander N. Fullerton.

The most beautiful grave site is located in the middle of the cemetery on a small island overlooking a tranquil pond. A simple plaque on a rock commemorates the final resting spot of Daniel H. Burnham and his wife.

It is appropriate that Mr. Burnham occupies such a beautiful location for it was his Plan for the City of Chicago that laid out the future growth and objectives for Chicago, always emphasizing its beauty. Completed in 1909, Burnham’s Plan is still the benchmark against which new plans for the city are measured.

Writing about the cemetery, Crain’s Chicago Business editor Dan Miller pinpoints the unique draw of Graceland: “It offers something every generation of American seeks — tangible evidence of an honorable history, and veneration of our ancestors.”

It also offers visitors a unique sense of Chicago, people who were primarily responsible for building the City into the great metropolis it is today.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the only sound that penetrates the eternal silence of Graceland is another iconic piece of Chicago’s history — a rickety, rumbling, above-ground railroad that clatters its way down the cemetery’s eastern border. Like rolling thunder, it arrives with a crash…and then slowly rumbles into the distance.

You can visit Graceland Cemetery by going on the Red Line. L Stop Tours also hosts a Chicago city tour via the Red Line that shows visitors the city’s Chinatown, Stretterville, and so much more!

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.


– By Tom Schaffner

It’s December in Chicago and it’s time to celebrate.  Not Christmas, it’s time for the annual First Ward Ball — the most raucous, hedonistic, booze-soaked party for gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, pickpockets, police captains and politicians that the world has ever seen.

Hinky Dink and Bathhouse

We take you back to December 1897 when Chicago had not one but two elected aldermen to serve each ward.  Representing the city’s First Ward were two gentlemen with perhaps the greatest nicknames of all time, John “Bathhouse” Coughlin, a burly, boisterous man who worked in — and owned — several bathhouses throughout the city and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, a quiet, teetotaling saloon owner who received his moniker from Joseph Medill, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, simply for being 5 feet 4 inches tall. 

Politicians such as Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin helped establish Chicago’s reputation for unchecked corruption. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

As emperors of the First Ward, Coughlin and Kenna presided over the Levee, Chicago’s infamous red light district just south of the Loop along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Throughout the year, Coughlin and Kenna used their positions of authority to extract monetary and political support from the hustlers, pimps, gamblers, prostitutes and saloon keepers who comprised the Levee.  They then used this money and political support to consolidate their positions as undisputed “Lords of the Levee.” Political corruption of the first order.

One of the ways Coughlin and Kenna were able to “raise funds” on an annual basis was by hosting an event called the First Ward Ball, a wild evening of debauchery and bacchanalia that, according to some revelers, was an orgy of vice.  The first event, held in 1896 at the 7th Regiment Armory on South Wentworth Avenue, attracted a wild mix of society thrill seekers, police captains, politicians, prostitutes and gamblers.  It was wildly successful.  According to one newspaper report:

“Brewers, wine merchants and distillers offered supplies of liquor at discount prices. Waiters, anticipating huge tips, eagerly paid $5 each for the right to serve at the event. Policemen and politicians came and mingled with pickpockets and common criminals. Prostitutes, in scanty but expensive costume gowns, arrived with police escorts. At the stroke of midnight Coughlin — attired in a green dress suit, mauve vest, pale pink gloves, yellow pumps and silken top hat and flanked by Minna and Ada Everleigh, the brothel queens —led the ball`s grand march.”

Big and Bad

Every year the First Ward Ball grew larger and wilder.  By 1908, the First Ward Ball featured 20,000 paying guests and had moved into the spacious Chicago Coliseum, a venue that normally hosted national political conventions and championship boxing matches.  During the course of the evening, revelers downed 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer. Riotous drunks stripped off the costumes of unattended young women. A madam named French Annie stabbed her boyfriend with a hatpin.

Editorial cartoon from The Chicago Tribune, 1908 by John T. McCutcheon

Kenna beamed with joy.  “It’s a lollapalooza! There are more people here than ever before.  All the business houses are here, all the big people. Chicago ain’t no sissy town.”

Indeed it wasn’t.  However, by 1909, the reformers had had enough.  “A real description of last year’s ball is simply unprintable,” said Arthur Burrage Farwell, the president of the Chicago Law and Order League. “We must stop this disgrace.”

Sustained public pressure prompted Chicago Mayor Fred Busse to put an end to the soiree and on December 10, 1909 the city revoked the liquor license and the First Ward Ball was no more.

This December when you’re out and about with family and friends, hoisting a cocktail and enjoying a little holiday merriment, remember to toast Bathhouse Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna — two corrupt machine politicians who put the “Party” in Democratic Party.

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.