Located 180 bicycle miles northwest of Indianapolis, the shoulder were riding on improved as we pressed closer and closer to the heart of America’s third largest city. At 2.8 million people, Chicago sits at the southernmost edge of Lake Michigan, First discovered in 1673 by Jesuit missionaries, not much is known about this area between then and 1779 when its first permanent settlement was established.
Even the meaning of its name is open to conjecture. An Indian word, Chicago could mean ‘skunk’, ‘strong’, ‘great’ or ‘wild onion’ depending on which of the five or six tribes that were present you associate it with. Its official beginning is known however. Chicago was incorporated in 1833 with 350 residents. With its close proximity to the east coast via the Great Lakes, the West via the railroad and the South via the Illinois and Michigan Canal of 1848 that connected it to the Mississippi River, it grew quickly. However by 1871 most of the city, including its city hall, burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire.
Despite the fact that the massive inferno killed hundreds of people, displaced nearly a hundred thousand more, burned over 17,000 buildings, and fully incinerated an area four miles long and nearly a mile wide, two important parts survived. Chicago still had its railroad tracks and its meat packing houses. It was this last part, also called the stock yards, that would go on to change the way the world would eat.
In doing so, it was by taking advantage of locomotive transport that the slaughterhouses of Chicago also signaled the end of the cowboy in America. Because of the combination of rail and the Chicago stock yards, cities no longer had to rely on long cattle drives, especially through their streets, to bring them fresh meat. Instead the cow flesh that arrived on their dinner plates first traveled to factories such as Swift, Armour and Morris in Chicago where it was then processed and sent to them via refrigerated rail car.
Until the 1950’s, before meat packing was decentralized as slaughterhouses left Chicago in the 1950's for non-union cities, Chicago's meatpacking industry employed more than 50,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States. In addition to processing meat, the packinghouses made creative and lucrative use of slaughterhouse by-products. They built an intricate network of hundreds of inter-connected buildings to manufacture items such as leather, soap, fertilizer, glue, imitation ivory, gelatin, shoe polish, buttons, perfume, and even violin and tennis racquet strings.
In 1906 the stock yards also gave rise to another kind of movement. When Upton Sincliar self published his highly acclaimed novel The Jungle, the whole nation took notice of the dirty conditions at the Stockyards. His book even reached the White House. There President Theodore Roosevelt was so moved that he launched the campaign that would lead to regulations protecting the nation's food supply. Still read regularly today, it is even referenced in "Fast Food Nation”, today’s best seller about the health crisis a new kind of diet is causing America
For the first half of the 20th Century, in keeping pace with its stock yards, Chicago was a city where things were made by the millions, where industries were busy producing for the American people and for the world. Chicago was the place where the world's first, and biggest, mail-order catalogue companies were located. It was the printing center of the country. It was a city of steel mills. It was a maker of men's clothing, machine tools, telephones, and farm equipment.
As meat packing waned and as Chicago’s economy matured, with the help of the Chicago Board of Trade, which organizes the financial movement of the nation’s agricultural products, its strength as a financial center became pronounced. Because of its geographic proximity to the rest of the country, American companies began to set up headquarters in Chicago. It now serves as home to a number of international business giants including United Airlines, McDonalds, Motorola, Caterpillar, Ameritech, Sears and Marshall Fields. Present day Chicago also has a very rich network of small and middle sized businesses.
Chicago’s economic impact is huge. For example, if Chicago were its own country, the size of its economy would make it the 18th largest money generating engine in the world. In the US only New York CIty, which ranks 14th in this regard and Los Angeles at 16th have bigger economic production.
A city of firsts, Chicago leads the world in other way as well. For better or for worse it was through the the top secret Manhattan Project that the University of Chicago gave us the world’s first nuclear reaction. Its airport, O’Hare International is not only the the world’s busiest but as a global hub it receives flights from all over the planet.
A city of big thinkers, it has always dominated the race to the sky. In 1884, its ten story Home Insurance Building became what is widely recognized as this planet’s first skyscraper. And until 1996, at 110 stories, the Sears Tower was the world’s tallest building. It still holds the distinction, however, as having the world’s highest occupied floor.
As the national trend setter that it is, Chicago has long led the way in another important area. Bicycling! Still referred to as the cycling capital of the United State, during the 1890s, more than 10,000 cyclists hailed from 54 distinct bicycle clubs . With 80 different bike manufacturers by 1896, it was to bicycles, what Detroit once was to cars. In fact, by as early as 1900, the Chicago region made two-thirds of all the bicycles and bicycle equipment produced in the United States.
As testimony to Chicago’s two wheel prowess in the late 19th Century, consider this from Chicago cyclist, Howard Kaplan. He found it in a a 1953 book entitled "Fabulous Chicago" by Emmott Dedmon:
“The most popular form of transportation remained the bicycle. The Chicago Post reported in May of 1897 that all society was awheel and the boulevards and parkways gay with the latest model cycles. "The fashionable girl no longer lolls about in tea gowns and darkened rooms," the paper said, "but stands beside you in short skirts, sailor hat, low shoes and leggings, ready for a spin on the wheel." Every afternoon and evening cycling parties might be found at the Saddle and Cycle Club north of the city. A popular rendezvous for less fashionable cyclers was Fisher's Beer Garden at the north end of Lincoln Park. The Auditorium Hotel was another cycling center. Neighborhood clubs met at their own clubhouse, took a preliminary spin and then converged on the Auditorium for dinner. In the evening, there might be a spontaneous parade on Michigan Avenue, with the clubs moving in column down the street and then breaking ranks to move off towards their homes.”
By 1905, Arnold, Schwinn & Co, aided in large part by its exclusive contract with Sears, Roebuck and Co., emerged as Chicago’s number one bike manufacturer. As the market matured, even as makers sprang up in other parts of the country, by the 1950s, Schwinn still sold about one-quarter of all bicycles in the United States. As late as 1970, before imported brands began to gain prominence, Schwinn employed as many as 1,800 people in Chicago and made about a million two wheel machines a year.
Besides influencing the economy, bicycles also influenced Chicago politics. In fact one of the campaign slogans one its early mayors, Carter Harrison II, used was "Not the Champion Cyclist; But the Cyclists' Champion”. He held office from 1897-1915. In walking his talk, one of his acts was to create THE bike path to the city of Evanston FIFTEEN miles away THAT IS STILL. IN USE TODAY.
In the next half of century, another of its Mayors, Richard J Daley, the father of the present Mayor, was also a strong proponent of bicycling. By the time he died in office, he served from 1955 to 1976, his administration set the gears in motion for an elaborate bike route network that today includes an expanded lakefront path, rush hour bike lanes on two if its main thoroughfares and standard use bike lanes on many others.
Thirteen years later, when his son, Richard M Daley was elected, Chiacgo bicyclists had a champion working for them once again. An avid cyclist, his goal has always been to “make the City of Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S.".
The Mayor's Bicycle advisory Council that he established to encourage bicycling in his city has, to date, installed 10,000 bike racks and a hundred miles of signed bike routes. They also regularly sponsor many of the biking events that take place in Chicago, such as the L.A.T.E. (Long After Twilight Ends) Ride, the Commuter Challenge, Bike the Drive and Bike to Work. The Millennium Park bike station that they opened at summer’s end in 2004 represents another cutting edge development as Chicago continues to lead the way for bicyclists everywhere. A large facility, far more than indoor parking for bicycles in the heart of the city, it also features repair, showers, rental, lockers, and a cafe.
Of all the Mayors that we regularly visit, none has done more to advance the cause of cyclists more than Mayor Richard M, Daley. Even before their state of the art Millennium Park bike facility was put into service, in 2001, “Bicycling” magazine honored Chicago as the “Best Cycling City in the United States” of cities with more than one million residents. With the help of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, a bike organization emulated and admired by two wheel advocacy groups all over the nation, Chicago leads the bike world once again.