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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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Neighborhoods
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

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Big Questions
Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?
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New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname is “The Big Apple.” So just where did this now-ubiquitous moniker originate?

MAKING A BIG APPLE

Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families who sold apples on the city's streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account posits that the term comes from a famous 19th-century brothel madam named Eve, whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Beginning on February 18, 1924, he began every column with the header, “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.

Fitz Gerald reportedly first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the ‘cooling rings’ of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. ‘Where y'all goin' from here?’ queried one. ‘From here we're headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it quickly took off.

CATCHING ON

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s—who had a habit of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs—helped the nickname spread beyond the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his (somewhat unjust) due, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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