Downtown after the great fire of 1871

The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

Happy birthday, Chicago! We would’ve written you something yesterday, but you decided to celebrate with a bright sunny day—such a rarity this time of year!—so we decided to celebrate, too, by driving around and admiring your beauty, both natural (the lakefront) and human-made (the skyline). You look pretty good for 181.

Now that we’re done celebrating and are back to work, here’s your life story, courtesy of Harold Henderson: “The story of Chicago with the good parts left in.”

It’s true that you were not founded precisely 181 years ago yesterday.  That was only when the first city charter was signed. You were incorporated as a village four years before that, on August 10, 1833, and your first permanent residents arrived sometime in the 1780s. (We can celebrate on all those days, too, if you want.) Henderson wrote:

Chicago has always been a town of immigrants and mostly not of the WASP variety: when the 18th-century trader Jean Baptiste Point duSable, his Potawatomi wife Catherine, and their family became the first regular residents, you might say it was a BFIC (Black French Indian Catholic) town. Chicago’s first businessmen were fur traders who answered to the American Fur Company’s headquarters at Mackinaw on the far north end of Lake Michigan.

And all the highlights you may have heard about in passing are here: the reversal of the Chicago River, the birth of commodity trading, the perfidy of the Mayors Daley, Jane Addams. What a life you’ve had!