The White City

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“Chicago will be the main exhibit at the Columbian Exposition,” wrote Julian Ralph in the travel guide prepared for East Coast visitors to the fair. A train ride to that “miracle” city would be a ride, he said, into the next century.

This was the morning time of luxury long-distance train travel, and thousands of fairgoers from Eastern cities traveled to Chicago in the contrivances that had made land travel comfortable for the first time in history—George Pullman’s sleeping cars, “palaces on wheels” built in the model industrial town Pullman had constructed on a drained marsh south of Chicago. Running at eighty miles an hour and stopping only to change locomotives, the Exposition Flyers leaving New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., gave many Americans their first look at the country beyond the Alleghenies—another reason, Chicago’s promoters had argued, for holding the fair in their midland metropolis.

After an all-night run across the prairie that stretched beyond the low hills of Ohio, the first sign of city life from the big windows of the Pullman cars the next morning was the converging of networks of steel rails toward a common destination, the “boss town of America,” the Pullman porters called it.

Steaming toward the heart of Chicago amid the furious clanging of their engine bells, the Eastern express trains passed through an industrial amphitheater bigger and blacker than Pittsburgh—endless reaches of factories, slaughtering houses, grain elevators, steel mills, and freight yards, and slag heaps and coal piles that looked like small mountains. Soot-covered cable cars and long lines of freight wagons waited at crossings for the “whizzers” to shoot by, and everywhere, covering everything, were wind-driven clouds of black and gray smoke, a “sky of soot” wrote a reporter, “under the earth of flaming ovens.”

 
Horrified architect: “Do you mean to say you really expect to open a fair here by ’93?” Burnham: “The point is settled!”
 

From the imperial waiting rooms of Chicago’s train stations, out-of-towners were carried to their hotels in carriages or on cable cars, and on the way they caught their first glimpse of what they had heard was the busiest and noisiest downtown in the world. “A born New Yorker, the energy, roar, and bustle of the place were yet sufficient to first astonish and then fatigue me,” wrote Julian Ralph. “Certain streets of Chicago [are] so packed with people as to make Broadway look desolate and solitudinous by comparison.” Manhattan’s commercial growth extended along its radiating avenues, but Chicago’s was concentrated in a single square mile between the lake and the Chicago River, the most densely packed commercial center of any large city. Its incessant “turmoil and rush” had struck Rudyard Kipling, in his brief visit there in 1887, as the perfect example of the American “Gospel of Rush.” And the city was ugly and dirty, he thought, beyond belief. “Having seen it,” he said, “I urgently desire never to see it again.”

Others, however, found the crowding and energy of Chicago exhilarating. “The business section so sordid to others was grandly terrifying to us,” Hamlin Garland recalled of his and his brother’s initial walk through Chicago, as they counted the stories of the tall buildings and absorbed “the drama of the pavement.... Nothing was commonplace, nothing was ugly to us.”

When you walked into the downtown, “you could feel what Chicago meant,” Theodore Dreiser wrote, describing his first impression of the city, “—eagerness, hope, and desire.” Here were “crowds, opportunities, theaters, museums. . . . Here was a seething city in the making.”

 

Kipling and Dreiser described two Chicagos that were really one, a city of extreme, even violent, contrasts—“queen and guttersnipe of cities,” an American journalist called it, “cynosure and cesspool of the world.” The “most American of cities,” more than three-quarters of its residents were of foreign parentage in 1893. Garden city of parks and tree-bordered boulevards, the majority of its streets were filled with uncollected horse manure and putrid animal corpses. Temperance capital of the country—headquarters of the globe-touring evangelist Dwight L. Moody and of Frances E. Willard’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—it had one saloon for every two hundred persons, its second-largest industry was liquor distilling, and its world-famous vice district operated around the clock with police protection. “The only completely corrupt city in the country” and a stronghold of antilabor and antiradical sentiment after the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886, it was the center of the nation’s trade union and socialist movements and a rallying ground for urban reformers. Magnet city of the mid-continent, it was portrayed by prairie newspapers as a place their young people should shun, where thieves and white slavers lay in wait. “All America,” wrote a horrified German visitor, “looks with fear at this city that hurls her threat over the country.”