5 Historical Facts You Didn’t Know About Chicago

September 14, 2015 7:00 AM

Nat King Cole made his mark in Chicago by winning a talent competition. (Credit: David Kellum Papers)

When it comes to Chicago history, some facts are well-known: The Great Chicago Fire was in 1871, the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series since way back in 1908 and Harold Washington was the first African-American mayor Chicago. But dig a little bit deeper, and you can discover even more interesting stories about the notable people and places in the Windy City. Here are a few facts about the city that you might not know.
Green Hornet

Public transportation can create disasters, and that’s certainly true in Chicago. According to historian Peter Alter of Chicago History Museum, a street car known as the Green Hornet collided with a tanker truck carrying fuel on May 25, 1950. It was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; the streetcar exploded and 34 people died. “There’s a great thirst for info on public transportation, so I don’t know why it’s more obscure,” Alter told us in a phone interview. Never heard of the Green Hornet collision? There might be a reason for that. Alter noted the death toll in a tragedy may play a role in how widely known a disaster is in the years that follow.

Mayor Anton Cermak

The city of Chicago has a long and storied past when it comes to politics. But did you know Mayor Anton Cermak was killed while in office? Cermak was shot in February 1933 while visiting President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami. Cermak died about one month later. According to Alter, Cermak was shot by Giuseppe Zangara, who was probably aiming for FDR. Cermak also allegedly uttered the words “I am glad it was me instead of you” to FDR, but as Alter noted, “There’s no way to prove that he said that.” Alter also pointed out Chicago’s 22nd Street was renamed Cermak Road in the fallen mayor’s honor.

Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole made his mark in Chicago by winning a talent competition. (Credit: David Kellum Papers)

Nat King Cole made his mark in Chicago by winning a talent competition. (Credit: David Kellum Papers)

Did you know legendary musician and entertainer Nat King Cole’s talents were apparent while he was growing up in Chicago? Before he became “Unforgettable,” Cole was winning talent competitions in Chicago. According to Beverly Cook, librarian and archivist of Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library, Cole won a talent contest for Bronzeville youths organized by the Chicago Defender. Cole took home the grand prize.

Related: Best Family-Friendly Bike Trails In Chicago

Oldest House In Chicago

What’s the oldest house in Chicago? It depends on who you ask. Clarke House Museum in Chicago’s Prairie Avenue Historic District, was built in 1836 and has been moved twice. On the other hand, the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House in the Norwood Park neighborhood in the city’s extreme Northwest Side was built in 1833; however, as noted on the Norwood Park Historical Society’s website, Norwood Park wasn’t annexed to Chicago until 1893. For a fascinating look at the history of the debate, take a look at Geoffrey Johnson’s November 2007 article in Chicago Magazine. You can visit both historic homes today; for information on hours and other details, check out each house’s respective websites.

Skyscrapers In Chicago

Take a look at Chicago’s skyline, and you likely can’t help but be in awe of the majestic skyscrapers that seem to touch the clouds. According to Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of Chicago Architecture Foundation, Chicago’s architecture has a number of firsts and claims to fame to its name. “The first skyscrapers were built here,” Osmond noted in an email. In addition, the first Ferris Wheel was designed for the 1893 World’s Fair, held right in the Windy City.

Related: Best Historically Significant Bars In Chicago

Megan Horst-Hatch is a runner, reader, baker, gardener, knitter, and other words that end in “-er.” She is also the president of Megan Writes, LLC. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.

Watch & Listen LIVE