Notable Events That Greatly Impacted Chicago's History

Cityscape image of Chicago downtown during twilight blue hour.
Cityscape image of Chicago downtown during twilight blue hour.
  • Iroquois Theater fire is the deadliest theater fire in the history of US
  • Chicago race riot led to the death of more Blacks than Whites
  • Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world for 25 years

Chicago is the largest city in the Midwestern United States and one of the region’s dominant metropolises. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the City of Chicago is an international hub for culture, finance, education, industry, and transportation. It played a major role in shaping America’s economic, political, and cultural history. However, the city’s history has also been shaped by several events, some of which were tragic and led to the death of hundreds of people. Here are some of the notable events that greatly impacted Chicago’s history.

1871 - The Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is one of the worst disasters in the history of Chicago. The three-day fire that broke out on October 8, destroyed about 3.3 square miles of the city, killing 300 people and leaving about 100,000 residents homeless. As a result of the fire, Chicago now has one of the best fire-fighting forces in the country.

1893 - The World's Columbian Exposition (World's Fair)

1893 was an eventful year in Chicago, with several events taking place in the city including the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. However, the most popular notable event that year was the World’s Columbian Exposition held to mark Christopher Columbus’ 400th anniversary of his arrival in New World in 1492. The exposition influenced the city’s architecture, arts, sanitation, and self-image.

1893 - Sears, Roebuck and Company in business.

Another notable event in 1893 was the founding of Sea, Roebuck and Company by Alvah Roebuck and Richard Sear. The chain of department stores which began as a mail ordering Catalog Company opened its first retail store in Chicago. In 2018, Sear was the US’ 31st largest retailer.

1903 - Iroquois Theater Fire

On December 30, 1903, Chicago witnessed the deadliest theatre fire in the history of the US. The Iroquois Theatre Fire broke out at around 3:15 pm, killing at least 602 people and injuring about 250 people. The Iroquois fire led to widespread implementation of firefighting and prevention strategies, including the implementation of a panic bar which is now mandatory in most buildings.

1915 - SS Eastland Disaster

SS Eastland was a Chicago-based tour ship commissioned in 1902 and begun its voyage in 1903. Immediately after its construction, it was discovered that the ship had several design flaws which were rectified. On July 24, 1924, the ship rolled completely on its side and sunk 20 feet below the surface, killing a total of 844 people, including crew members.

1919 - Chicago Race Riot

The 1919 Chicago race riot was a racial conflict involving the blacks against the whites. The riot began on July 27 on the South Side of Chicago and ended on August 3. A total of 38 people died (15 whites and 23 blacks) and 537 were injured, the majority being blacks. Also, about 2,000 blacks lost their homes. 

1929 - St. Valentine's Day Massacre

The 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre was the cold blood murder of seven members of the Chicago’ North Side Gang by unknown assailants. The incident was a result of a power struggle between the Irish North Siders and Italian South Siders.

1955 - First McDonald's Franchise Restaurant Opened

McDonald’s was founded in 1940 in San Bernardino, California. In 1955, Ray Kroc joined the fast-food company and purchased it from the McDonalds brothers. The first McDonald’s franchise was opened in Chicago in 1955 in Des Plaines. The company's global headquarter was moved to Chicago from Oak Brook in 2018.

1973 - Sears Tower Was Completed

The Sears, Roebuck and Company, founded in Chicago, was the largest retailer in the world, had its employees scattered throughout the city. To bring its employees together, the company commissioned the construction of Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in 1970. The tower was completed in 1973 and was the tallest building in the world for 25 years until 1998.

1979 - Chicago's first female mayor, Jane M. Byrne, takes office.

In April 1979, Chicago became the first major city in the US to elect a female mayor. Jane Byrne was elected the 50th mayor and the first female mayor of the city serving from 1979 to 1983. She is one of the only two Chicago female mayors.

1986 - Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions, Inc. in business.

Harpo Production was founded by Oprah Winfrey in Chicago in 1986. Harpo (Oprah spelled backward) Studio was based in Chicago until it was closed in 2015. OWN and Harpo Production is now based in West Hollywood, California.


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