When does a town become a city? For Chicago, that was exactly 184 years ago, when the state of Illinois officially gave it the bump to city status using the exact language you’d expect from a law written in 1837: “That the district of country in the county of Cook in the state aforesaid ... shall hereafter be known by the name of city.”
Similar to how this anniversary doesn’t matter much to anyone outside of Chicago today, it wasn’t a big deal across the country back then. Martin Van Buren was sworn in as the United States’ eighth president on the same day, which dominated national headlines. And unlike the Midwest metropolis it is now, the newly anointed city of Chicago had a population of just 4,500 at the time.
What Chicago did have at the time was tons of prairie land ideally placed between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Great engineering innovations helped overcome critical challenges including sewage and clean water. (You really don’t want those two things to mix.)
Still, those early decades brought big challenges before the city could reach its potential, including...
- A collapse of the national economy within months of being incorporated
- A canal project that initially put the state in financial despair
- Outbreaks of deadly diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid
- The country dissolving into civil war for four years
- A fire that wiped out huge parts of the city
But those challenges taught the city critical lessons that helped it grow, improve and thrive. Chicago’s massive water-related government projects informed how many other U.S. cities would provide those resources. The steel- and stone-heavy structures built in place of the wood buildings destroyed in the Great Fire set the stage for other modern cities embracing similar materials.
So it’s fair to say that Chicago has a lot to celebrate on its 184th birthday today. Make sure to wish it a happy one!
A version of this story was originally published March 4, 2020.