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9 Surprising Secrets About Chicago and Its History

City Secrets is a new mental_floss feature sharing fascinating facts and stories from the histories of famous cities.

The City of Big Shoulders, The Windy City, City on the Make—no matter what you call it, Chicago has plenty of stories (and secrets) to tell. Here's but a small selection. 

1. O'HARE AIRPORT IS NAMED AFTER THE HEROIC SON OF AL CAPONE'S LAWYER.

Chicago’s airport—which by some counts is the busiest in the world—was originally named Orchard Field. In 1949, at the suggestion of Chicago publishing baron Robert R. McCormick, it was renamed O’Hare Airport to honor Edward “Butch” O’Hare, a Navy fighter pilot and Medal of Honor recipient who perished in World War II.

While Butch O’Hare’s heroism is well-documented, his father’s story is noteworthy as well. Edward J. O’Hare, a.k.a. “Easy Eddie,” was a lawyer, dog track owner, and business associate of Al Capone, often operating as counsel for the notorious crime boss. The two got along swimmingly until Capone was charged with tax evasion in 1931—charges that sprouted from O’Hare’s cooperation with the government.

In 1939, shortly before Capone was paroled and released from Alcatraz, “Easy Eddie” O’Hare was shot to death in his car by two men at the intersection of Ogden Avenue and Rockwell Street. While no one knows for sure whether or not the hit was ordered by Capone, the murder had all the markings of a gangland assassination.

2. THE CHICAGO FIRE WAS BOUND TO HAPPEN.

Mrs. O’Leary and her cow get a bad rap. First of all, the cow is likely innocent; its supposed culpability for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is nothing more than the result of unsubstantiated rumor and bovine slander. Secondly, the city would’ve burned down sooner or later, as it was a tinder box waiting for the slightest spark. As DePaul University professor Joseph P. Schwieterman told WBEZ, “Fires would have been inevitable.”

The city was densely packed with wooden homes, buildings, and over 561 miles of wood sidewalks. After the fire, wood construction was banned in downtown Chicago, a move that stymied Chicago’s other big fire—a blaze started on the city’s southside in 1874 that killed 20 people and destroyed about 47 acres—before it could match or exceed 1871’s disaster. So, had the Great Chicago Fire not happened in 1871, there would likely have only been a 3-year wait for a similar occurrence. 

3. THERE'S A SECRET CHICAGO SYMBOL ALL OVER THE CITY—YOU JUST NEED TO KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR.

Flickr User Daniel X. O'Neil // CC BY 2.0

Chicagoans love their flag and they aren’t afraid to show it. (Chances are, you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has a Chicago flag tattoo.) The four red stars and two blue stripes are unmistakable, but the city has another ubiquitous symbol—though it remains unnoticed by most Chicagoans as they go about their daily business.

It’s called an “official municipal device,” and it was created in 1892. Its appearance is defined in the city code, which states, “The municipal device, for use by the varied unofficial interests of the city and its people, shall show a Y-shaped figure in a circle, colored and designed to suit individual tastes and needs.”

The symbol represents where the three branches of the Chicago River meet, and it can be spotted everywhere from the flashy marquee of the Chicago Theater to lamp posts, traffic control boxes, manhole covers, libraries, and more.

Now that you know what it looks like, you won’t be able to miss it.

4. THE CHICAGO RIVER WON A MASSIVE COURT CASE ...

Flickr User Daniel X. O'Neil // CC BY 2.0

As Chicago grew in the late 19th century, so did its pollution. Waste from factories and citizens flowed down the Chicago River into Lake Michigan—the city’s water source—and became a public health hazard. Chicago responded by doing the seemingly impossible: In 1900, engineers from the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the river. Problem solved … for Chicago.

At the other end of the river’s path sits St. Louis, and all that waste and pollution from Chicagoans flowed down into the source of that city's drinking water, the Mississippi River. Missouri sued Illinois and, because it was a dispute between states, the case was heard by the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land ruled in Illinois’ favor in 1906, deciding that Missouri couldn’t prove the sewage was necessarily Chicago’s and that the river didn't seem any different from before.

5. ... THE RIVER LOST A BIG LAWSUIT, TOO.

Flickr User Antonio Bovino // CC BY 2.0

Fast-forward to the 1920s: Chicago was drawing so much water from Lake Michigan to flush its sewage, water levels in all the Great Lakes (except for Lake Superior) started to noticeably recede. The effects were so dramatic, harbors in states as far away as New York reported diminished shipping capabilities. These states sued and a prolonged and complicated court case resulted in Chicago having to build its own sewage treatment plants.

Funnily enough, the state that was on Illinois’ side during this battle? Their old foe Missouri, who had taken a liking to their ports' increased water heights courtesy of the reversed Chicago River.

6. THERE'S A TUNNEL SYSTEM DOWNTOWN TO SHIELD CHICAGOANS FROM THE WEATHER.

Flickr User John Greenfield // CC BY 2.0

The Chicago Pedway allows pedestrians to travel through a large section of the Loop without having to face the winter cold (or summer heat, or spring showers, or fall … pleasantness). The tunnels, bridges, and concourses that make up the Pedway feature shops, restaurants, and access to train systems.

Construction on the Pedway began in 1951, and it’s getting bigger all the time [PDF]. Currently, it connects an area longer than 40 blocks, and some accessible highlights include City Hall, the Chicago Cultural Center, and Millennium Park. And, because it’s Chicago, you can go on a guided architecture tour inside the Pedway.

7. PEOPLE WHO SHOVEL THEIR SIDEWALKS WELL ARE ELIGIBLE FOR AN AWARD FROM THE CITY.

As anyone who has cleared a parking space and called “dibs” on it with a lawn chair and three-legged Weber grill will tell you, shoveling is a big deal in Chicago. To wit, the city has an official prize for shoveling excellence: The “Winter Wonder” Award.

Winners get a shoutout on the Chicago Department of Transportation website and receive an “award signed by the co-chairs of MPAC”—that’s the Mayor's Pedestrian Advisory Council, natch.

8. ACCESS TO THE CITY'S BEST SKYSCRAPER OBSERVATION DECKS COSTS YOU ONLY A DRINK OR DINNER.

Flickr User TheeErin // CC BY-SA 2.0

Sure, it may not be a cheap drink or dinner, but it's a far more relaxed way to take in the skyline. To name a few, the John Hancock's Signature Room at the 95th, Lake Point Tower's Cité, and (if you're willing to become a member) the Aon Center's Mid-America Club all offer incredible views to go along with your meal.

Lake Point Tower's view is especially rare. The building—which was, for a time, the tallest apartment building in the world—is the only building in Chicago that sits east of Lake Shore Drive. When it was built in the mid-60s, it was one of three. The change happened in 1987, when a section of Lake Shore Drive was rerouted to remove dangerously sharp turns, and the new path took it east of the other two buildings—but not Lake Point Tower, making it a Chicago anomaly.

9. THE BEAUTIFUL LAKEFRONT IS THANKS TO A CRANKY AND LITIGIOUS CATALOG BARON.

Flickr User dtadd // CC BY-SA 2.0

If you've ever taken a jog on one of Chicago's lakefront paths or relaxed on one of the city's beaches, you have Aaron Montgomery Ward to thank. After making a fortune with his mail-order catalog business, Ward spent his twilight years suing into oblivion anyone who dared to try to build private property on the lakefront.

Citing Daniel Burnham's original Plan for Chicago, which states that the lakefront was to be "Public Ground—A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstruction," Ward spent a considerable part of his fortune making sure Burnham's words were honored, dragging anyone who tried to build private property on the lake to court. In 1909, the Supreme Court of Illinois backed Ward, and city's lakefront has remained public to this day. After the ruling, he remarked:

I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with the certainty that even gratitude would be denied as interest. I fought for the poor people of Chicago, not the millionaires ... Perhaps I may yet see the public appreciate my efforts.

If only all lawsuits reaped such reward.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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environment
Germany Wants to Fight Air Pollution With Free Public Transit
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images

Getting people out of their cars is an essential part of combating climate change. By one estimate, getting people to ditch their two-car household for just one car and a public transit commute could save up to 30 percent in carbon dioxide emissions [PDF]. But how do you convince commuters to take the train or the bus? In Germany, the answer may be making all public transit free, according to The Local.

According to a letter from three of Germany's government ministers to the European Union Environment Commissioner, in 2018, Germany will test free public transit in five western German cities, including Bonn. Germany has failed to meet EU air pollution limits for several years, and has been warned that it could face heavy fines if the country doesn't clean up its air. In a report from 2017, the European Environment Agency estimated that 80,767 premature deaths in Germany in 2014 were due to air pollution.

City officials in the regions where free transport will be tested say there may be some difficulty getting ahold of enough electric buses to support the increase in ridership, though, and their systems will likely need more trains and bus lines to make the plan work.

Germany isn't the first to test out free public transportation, though it may be the first to do it on a nation-wide level. The Estonian capital of Tallinn tried in 2013, with less-than-stellar results. Ridership didn't surge as high as expected—one study found that the elimination of fares only resulted in a 1.2 percent increase in demand for service. And that doesn't necessarily mean that those new riders were jumping out of their cars, since those who would otherwise bike or walk might take the opportunity to hop on the bus more often if they don't have to load a transit card.

Transportation isn't prohibitively expensive in Germany, and Germans already ride public transit at much higher rates than people do in the U.S. In Berlin, it costs about $4 a ride—more expensive than a ride in Paris or Madrid but about what you'd pay in Geneva, and cheaper than the lowest fare in London. And there are already discounts for kids, students, and the elderly. While that doesn't necessarily mean making public transit free isn't worth it, it does mean that eliminating fares might not make the huge dent in car emissions that the government hopes it will.

What could bring in more riders? Improving existing service. According to research on transportation ridership, doing things like improving waits and transfer times bring in far more new riders than reducing fares. As one study puts it, "This seldom happens, however, since transport managers often cannot resist the idea of reducing passenger fares even though the practice is known to have less impact on ridership."

The same study notes that increasing the prices of other modes of transit (say, making road tolls and parking fees higher to make driving the more expensive choice) is a more effective way of forcing people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. But that tends to be more unpopular than just giving people free bus passes.

[h/t The Local]

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