Chicago: Fun Facts About The Windy City

By Grace Taylor

View of cityscape with fantastic light and colors of sky against skyscraper. (Aurimas Adomavicius/Getty Images)

It's Named After A Stinky Onion

The third-most populous city in the United States, Chicago, was founded in 1837 after decades of existing as several unincorporated towns. Its name comes from the French interpretation of the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa, which referred to a local and particularly smelly species of onion. Its population swelled by the thousands in only its first years, and it served as a major transit hub for those heading west thanks to its rail lines and access to both the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.

The Birthplace Of Route 66

Of course, no great transit hub would be complete without roads, and Chicago boasts one of the most famous in the world, as it was the origination point of the famed Route 66. Created in 1926 by the Army Corp of Engineers, Route 66 was the main thoroughfare taking drivers from the heart of the Midwest all the way to the beaches of sunny California

Bird's-eye view of the mouth of the Chicago River as it appeared in 1893. (Rand McNally and Co./Wikimedia Commons)

The Only River To Run In Reverse

The Chicago River is small but mighty, which was initially a bit of a problem because it carried sewage into Lake Michigan, leading to an outbreak of sanitation-related illnesses like the lethal typhoid fever. In 1900, the city solved this problem by reversing the river's flow to divert it away from the Great Lakes. It took thousands of laborers to dig the "Big Ditch," as they so creatively called it, that rerouted the river to the Des Plaines River, which eventually dumped into the much larger and fast-moving Mississippi River. It's the only river in the world that runs backward and still considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.  

Illustration from Harper's 1871 depicting Mrs O'Leary with her cow. (Harper's Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

The Great Chicago Fire

Water wasn't Chicago's only obstacle. In 1871, a mysterious fire broke out on the O'Leary family farm, spread through the drought-stricken surrounding areas, and then tore through the city's wooden buildings thanks to that famous wind. In the end, four miles of the city were in ashes, 300 were dead, and more than 10,000 were suddenly homeless. Although historians have never proven the cause of the fire, local lore blames Mrs. O'Leary's naughty cow for knocking over a lantern.

A City Of Wonders

Chicago is a creative city and home to many firsts. The first Ferris Wheel was designed in Chicago by George Washington Gale Ferris for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, and the city is also home to the world's first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building. The building only rose 10 stories, which sounds downright dinky today, but was a pretty big deal back in 1885. The Windy City is also home to the first planetarium in the western world, the Adler Planetarium, built by businessman and science enthusiast Max Adler.

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Grace Taylor

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