Illinois Firsts, Mosts, and Onlys
Dubious distinctions and proud boasts
See Illinois (unpublished)
Driving through it, the traveler might conclude that a list of Illinois’s firsts, mosts, and onlys would consist only of corn. She would be mistaken. Here follows a partial listing, by region, of such achievements.
Outdated by now, sadly, and my list was never comprehensive. Nor is it perfectly trustworthy, the inventiveness of the state’s people showing itself in part in their ability to invent firsts, mosts, and onlys for bragging purposes. I did try to winnow the impressive from the invented.
The Windy City, blow by blow
The civic boast is an art form in some cities, a pastime in others, but in Chicago it is more like a sport in which whoever racks up the most points wins. Tourist-oriented articles and web sites in particular often cross the fine line between boasting and boosting. Both Evanston and Plainfield claim to have invented the ice cream sundae, but neither did. It has been alleged that the zoot suit was a Chicago invention, but most pop culture historians say it was invented in Harlem. The “intramural railway” built to ferry tourists back and forth from the Loop during the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition is said by some proud Chicagoans to have been the first elevated electric railway—an assertion by people who were so proud of Chicago that they never left it, or they might have learned that New York City’s first elevated railway service began regular service in 1870. The Nicolson pavement—essentially, streets made of pine blocks dipped in tar—has been said to have been invented locally, in 1857. It was in fact invented by one Samuel Nicolson, who paid such a pavement down as an experiment, on a street in Boston in 1854. One could go on.
Some lists of firsts “produced” in Chicago include new devices that were introduced or manufactured here but invented somewhere else. The World Columbian Exposition for instance was an orgy of product introductions, from now-staples of the American diet as Aunt Jemima Syrup to the hamburger and diet carbonated soda, snacks foods such as Juicy Fruit chewing gum and Cracker Jacks, breakfast foods such as cream of wheat and shredded wheat, and Pabst beer. The U.S. Mint offered the first commemorative coins and the Post Office produced its first commemorative stamp set and the first picture postcards. However, while the city was the venue for the introduction of these wonders, it was not their source.
Other Chicago firsts are valid enough, but only according to definitions or adjusted for conditions that aren’t always admitted to. Only the most fastidious Chicago promoters note that the Lincoln Park Zoo is the world's largest free public zoo, or that Provident Hospital’s Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in 1893 performed the first successful open-heart surgery—meaning one that did not kill his patient. (The first heart transplant, by the way, was performed in 1904 by Dr. Alexis Carrel of the University of Chicago’s—but the patient was a dog, which survived only two hours.) The University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine considers itself the largest medical school in the U.S. in terms of enrollment, with nearly thirteen hundred students, but that includes students at three Downstate campuses as well as Chicago. The base mats for the nuclear plant at Zion required the largest continuous reinforced concrete pours in the U.S. when they were finished in 1973—if you don’t count dams, as a few compilers of “biggests” lists do. In the Auditorium Theater, air cooled by ice was delivered into the room via ducts, which some have claimed made it the first large building to be air-conditioned; however, the first building whose air was cooled by modern mechanical refrigeration equipment debuted a year later in New York.
Earning a first prize by reducing the size of the competitive field is a familiar trick from the sports world, and it comes as no surprise that some Chicago institutions do the same thing. O’Hare International Airport is indeed “the world’s busiest” in terms of aircraft operations, but not in terms of the numbers of passengers served. The Chicago Board of Trade is often described as the world’s busiest futures exchange, but it is seldom made clear whether that refers to the number of contracts traded, their dollar value, or whether the comparison is made to other open-pit markets or electronic exchanges. (CBOT scrupulously calls itself merely “a leading futures and options on futures exchange.”)
Over the years, the city’s pride in its behemoths has suffered blows. When the Pentagon opened in 1943, the Merchandise Mart lost its status as the largest building in the world (measured in floor area) and ever since has had to be content to be known merely as the largest commercial building in the world. When work began on Grant Park’s Buckingham Fountain in 1927, it was the largest in the world; that honor now goes (for the moment) to the Suntec City Fountain of Wealth in Singapore, reducing Buckingham Fountain to merely the world's largest illuminated fountain.
Some claims of distinction seem insusceptible to proof. Before it was closed in 2005, The Berghoff in the Loop may indeed have been “the world's busiest sit-down restaurant,” but how exactly can one test the assertion? Then there are the claims that are accurate but arcane. Aurora University is home to the world's largest collection of Prophecy Charts—large, hand-painted canvases used as visual aids by camp preachers.
Other claims, while accurate enough, are of dubious importance. The fact that the Art Institute boasts the world's largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris is undisputed but unimportant; whether it is the best collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris is important but very disputable. The fact that the Chicago Park District administers the world’s largest municipal harbor system is a legitimate source of pride to the people who do it but not, perhaps, a reason to move to Chicago. The fact that the United Methodist Church, which sits atop a skyscraper at 77 W. Washington St., boasts not the tallest but the highest steeple around confers a distinction but not, alas, much of an honor.
Such boasting is unnecessry as well as unseemly, Chicagoland’s distinctions on the national and world stages being wonderfully numerous. Here are a few. (We omit mere stunts, such as the world’s fastest rapper, biggest box of chocolates, largest balloon picture, most taxing dance marathon, and the like.)
The Taste of Chicago is the world's largest free outdoor food festival. In 2006 it attracted more than 3.6 million people, although recent years have seen attendance slip.
Food processing giant Argo’s corn-milling plant in Summit was the largest the world when it opened.
The National Biscuit Company’s bakery in Chicago Lawn at 7300 South Kedzie Avenue was the largest bakery in one location in the world when it opened in 1941. (Other sources are perhaps more accurate when they describe the plant as the world's largest cookie and cracker factory.)
The Keebler Co. operates what has been called the world's largest ice cream cone factory in Chicago, at 10839 S. Langley Avenue.
Biggests—Business and industry
Sears, Roebuck was for many years the world’s biggest retailer.
More recently Oakbrook-based McDonald’s was the world’s biggest fast food operation.
R. R. Donnelley & Sons was for many years North America's largest commercial printer.
Chicago’s John D. Hertz built Yellow Cab into the nation’s largest taxicab management company.
The Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co, is the world's biggest maker of chewing gum.
In 2007 the Chicago Board of Trade merged with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to create the world’s largest derivatives market.
The Chicago Tribune Freedom Center at 777 W. Chicago Ave. on the Chicago River’s North Branch houses the nation’s largest newspaper printing and distribution facility.
In 1865 the first steel rail made in the U.S. was produced at Eber Ward’s North Chicago Rolling Mill Company on the North Branch of the Chicago River. (The first ever was produced in Wales, in 1857.)
The Central Manufacturing District (CMD) was the first planned manufacturing district in the United States when it opened in 1905.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was the leading piano manufacturing center in the world, for a time producing about half of all pianos sold in the U.S. One local firm, W. W. Kimball Company, was for a time the largest single producer of pianos and organs in the world.
Chicago-based Lion Manufacturing Corporation created, in 1932, the first pinball machine, the Ballyhoo—of which 50,000 were sold in less than a year—and spawned a new company, Bally Manufacturing Company, which is still based here.
Limestone has been taken out of the Material Services’ quarry in south suburban Thornton since the 1830s, which has left it a mile wide and 260 feet deep; the company claims it is the world’s largest commercial limestone quarry.
Commonwealth Edison generates more electricity from nuclear power than any other utility in the country.
In 2002, UAL Corp., parent of Elk Grove-based United Airlines, lost $2.1 billion—then the biggest annual loss in airline history.
ComEd’s Fisk Street power station was the world’s largest (5 megawatt capacity) when it began operation in 1903.
Old Chicago in was the world's first completely enclosed amusement park and shopping center, open 365 days a year.
The 1.2 million square feet of selling space at the Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect made it (briefly) the largest enclosed mall in the U.S.; later, Schaumburg’s Woodfield took the title and held it for 20 years
The more than 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space in the three buildings of McCormick Place make it the nation's largest convention center.
The gargantuan Stevens Hotel (now Chicago Hilton and Towers), completed in 1927 with 3,000 guest rooms, was for years the world’s largest hotel.
The remnants of Chicago first "automobile row" on South Michigan Avenue are considered to be the largest, intact such district in the U.S.
The 38-foot dome in Preston Bradley Hall in the 1897 old main branch of the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center) is the largest Tiffany stained-glass dome in the world
When the 756,640-square-foot Harold Washington Library opened 1991 it was listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest public library building in the world
It is sometimes asserted that the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn is the largest single-campus community college in the nation; the College itself is content to call itself the Midwest’s largest single-campus community college
Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. is among such institutions the world's largest—one of the nicer things than can be said for that building.
The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen is the nation’s largest Latino museum
The Shedd Aquarium was the world's largest indoor aquarium when it opened in 1929; it must today content itself with being the world’s largest indoor aquarium.
Sue, the T Rex at Field Museum, is not only the largest, most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found but the most expensive, costing the museum more than $8 million.
The Circuit Court of Cook County is the largest unified court system in the world, and the Cook County Department of Corrections operates the largest single-site jail in the nation.
Grant Park is home to the largest surviving stand of American elm trees anywhere in the country.
The U.S. Post Office that spans Congress Parkway was the largest in world devoted exclusively to postal business when it opened in 1932
The James W. Jardine Water Purification Plant, located just north of Chicago's Navy Pier, is the world's largest water filtration plant.
The Stickney Water Reclamation Plant run by the Metro Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world; it can handle 1,200 million gallons per day.
Western Avenue is by local yardsticks at least the world's longest street at nearly 26 miles
The platform of the Red Line subway under State Street is the longest continuous subway platform in the world.
When it opened in 1937, the Outer Drive Bridge that carries Lake Shore Drive across the Chicago River was the largest bascule bridge in the world
Navy Pier was downsized from the 1.5 mile leviathan originally called for in the 1909 Chicago Plan; even at its abbreviated length of 3,000 feet–nearly 3/5 of a mile—the pier was the world’s largest when it was built in 1916
When it opened in 1954 Grant Park’s North garage was thought to be the world’s largest underground parking facility with space for 2,359 cars.
For about three miles the Dan Ryan Expressway is fourteen lanes wide, which makes it one of the widest expressways in the world.
The Sanitary and Ship Canal was the largest civil engineering project of its day, which required the removal of more rock, soil, and clay than would be removed to make the Panama Canal.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Disasters
On December 30, 1903, a fire at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre killed 602, people, then and now the worst theater fire in U.S. history
When a burning warehouse in the Union Stockyards collapsed in 1910, 21 members of the Chicago Fire Department died–the single greatest loss of firefighters in U.S. history until Sept. 11, 2001.
On May 25, 1979, an American Airlines DC-10 lost an engine and crashed shortly after taking off from O’Hare International Airport. All 271 persons on board and two more on the ground were killed, making it the worst single aviation accident in U.S. history.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Terrestrial Transit Firsts
In 1865, the North Chicago Rolling Mill Company made experimental train rails out of Bessemer steel ingots—the first such rails produced in the United States.
The first multiple-unit control system for rapid transit rail cars was installed by Chicago’s South Side Elevated Co.
The first metered expressway on-ramp in the U.S. debuted in Chicago, in 1963, on the Eisenhower Expressway. The system used a police officer rather than lights or gates to pace the rate at which vehicles were allowed onto the road.
When the University of Illinois at Chicago opened its new campus in the 1960s, it was called the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, making it the only university in the world known to be named after a freeway interchange.
The world's first mass transit rail service in the median of an expressway was inaugurated in 1969 on the Dan Ryan expressway
City officials assert that the roughly $120 million in gross revenue earned by parking spaces at O'Hare in 2005 was more than any other airport in the world.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Medicine
In 1891, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams headed a team of physicians who conducted the world’s first successful open-heart surgery
Cook County General Hospital opened the first blood bank (1937), which in 1973 became the first whose blood bank used all-frozen blood; it also was the site of the nation’s first trauma unit (1966).
What is today’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center boasts of several distinctions. One of its predecessor institutions graduated the first African American from a U.S. medical school (Dr. David Jones Peck, 1847). In 1908 Dr. James Bryan Herrick discovered sickle cell anemia. The first reattachment of a severed hand was performed there in 1962 by Dr. William D. Shorey.
The University of Chicago hospitals saw the world’s first successful living-donor liver transplant (by Dr. Christoph Broelsch in 1989), the first use of cancer chemotherapy (Dr. Leon Jacobson, 1943) and the first bone marrow transplant (Dr. Jacobson again, in the late 1940s.)
The University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine has the largest minority enrollment (African American, Asian American and Hispanic) of any medical school outside traditionally all-black medical schools.
The world’s largest dental library may be found at the Chicago offices of the American Dental Association
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), published by the Chicago-based American Medical Association, is the world’s most widely read medical journal.
The longest medical operation–96 hours to remove a massive ovarian cyst–was performed in 1951 in Chicago.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Fine Arts
The Henrik Ibsen play Ghosts was given its world premiere in Chicago in 1882, when it was presented in Norwegian by a mostly amateur cast.
The Chicago Society of Artists, which dates from 1888, calls itself “the nation’s longest lived” such organization.
Maurice Brown’s Little Theater on the seventh floor of the Fine Arts Building is (regarded by some as the first of its kind in the country) gave Euripides' The Trojan Women its first U.S. production, in 1912.
Lorraine Hansberry became the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway when her A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959.
Landscaped by Jens Jensen,the Shakespeare Garden at the northwest corner of the Garret Theological Institute on the campus of Northwestern University was the first in the country planned, like the one at Stratford-on-Avon, to display the flowers and herbs mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays.
The Romanian Folk Art Museum, 2526 Ridgeway, features the nation’s largest collection of Romanian folk art.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Buildings
The Monadnock Block at 53 W. Jackson Blvd. is reckoned to be the world's tallest masonry building.
The city has been home to a succession of world’s tallest buildings.
The United States Mail Building when it opened in Chicago in 1921 was the largest building in the world devoted exclusively to postal business.
In 1906, Sears Roebuck, then the world’s largest mail-order company, moved into the world’s largest commercial building–the Merchandise Building, centerpiece of its West Side headquarters complex at 900-930 S. Homan Avenue.
The Sears Merchadise Building was surpassed in square footage in 1930, when the Merchandise Mart opened its 4,000,000 square feet on the Chicago River.
Water Tower Place was the tallest concrete building ever constructed when it was finished in 1975.
The office tower at 311 S. Wacker Dr. was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world when it built. That distinction now belongs—for the moment–to Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates
Water Tower Place in Chicago was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world from 1975 to 1990, when it was surpassed in height by 311 South Wacker Drive. That building in turn is less tall than Trump tower, which 92-story structure became the tallest concrete reinforced building in the world when it was completed in 2009.
The elevators in the John Hancock Center have been described in the press as the world’s fastest but this is mere hype. After a redo, the elevators at the Sears Tower are certainly among the fastest in the U.S.; they cover the 1400 feet to the 103rd floor at 1,600 feet per minute. Alas, Chicago’s elevators are to the new ones being built in the many Asia super-skyscrapers as a cable car is to a bullet train. Taipei 101 boasts elevators that travel at a peak speed of 3,314 feet per minute.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Civil Engineering
The first trunnion bascule bridge in the U.S. was built in Chicago in 1902–the Cortland Bridge (originally the Clybourn Place Drawbridge) across the North Branch of the Chicago River.
In 1990 a crew working on the Deep Tunnel flood control project of what is now known as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago set a new world record for tunneling in a day: 160 feet)
Commonwealth Edison’s Fisk Street power station was the first such plant designed exclusively for turbine-driven generators, which was enough to qualify the plant as a National Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
In 1956, the nation’s first boiling water reactor nuclear power station—later named a Nuclear Historic Landmark—began operating at Argonne National Laboratory
Northeast Illinois’s electric power utility, Commonwealth Edison, made a early commitment to nuclear power; ComEd built the first reactors in several size categories.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Aviation
Chicago transplant Bessie Coleman became the first African American in the world to earn a pilots license.
At the Aero Club of Illinois’s international meet of 1912, at Grant Park, airship aviator Lincoln Beachey set a new world's altitude record.
The airline industry may be said to have been born in Chicago, where the first commercial air passenger (an intrepid female reporter) departed Chicago for San Francisco on July 2, 1927.
Reports of an airship-like apparition in the sky from Sacramento in November of 1896 were followed by similar sightings in other states. On April 11, 1897, a photograph of the thing was reportedly taken in Chicago and is usually described by buffs as probably the first UFO photo in existence.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Education
The school for the deaf set up within the Chicago Public Schools system was the first of its kind in the country.
Lincoln Park Zoo first zoo to receive national recognition for contributions to science education—National Award for Museum Service from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Francis W. Parker School was the first school to have an official Parents Association. The first meeting was held in 1904 with Dr. John Dewey as the guest speaker. Parker’s The Weekly calls itself the oldest student-run newspaper in North America.
The oldest university press in metropolitan Chicago is the University of Chicago Press, which was established in 1891 by William Rainey Harper as one of three divisions of the new University of Chicago and has grown to be the largest of American university presses.
Joliet Junior College, established in 1901, is the oldest public junior college still in operation.
The playground of universal memory–the metal pipe “jungle gym” or “monkey bars” set on an asphalt slab, the strap swings, the teeter-totter–was largely invented in turn-of-the-century Illinois. What is reputedly the "world's first jungle gym" play apparatus may be seen on the Crow Island playground in Winnetka. A product of good intentions and bad thinking, the traditional playground was an injury lawyer’s dream of fun.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Food
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the venue for the debut of such familiar consumer products as Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, and Juicy Fruit gum, along with two staples of the late-twentieth century diet—carbonated soda and hamburgers.
The soda fountain treat, the malted milkshake, was concocted by Ivar "Pop" Coulson in a South Side Walgreen’s in 1922.
The first-anywhere McDonald's restaurant opened in Des Plaines in 1955
The deep dish or Chicago-style pizza (in fact a cheese pie) was invented by Ike Sewell, a transplanted Texan, in 1943 as the centerpiece of the restaurant Pizzeria Uno.
Restaurant impresario Ernie Byfield, who ran the Sherman House’s College Inn in the Loop, claimed to have invented the club sandwich.
The Hostess Twinkie snack cake was invented in 1930 by the Chicago-area regional manager of Continental Banking Company.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Sciences
The first controlled nuclear chain reaction occurred beneath the old University of Chicago football stadium at Fifty-seventh and Ellis on December 2, 1942.
Fermilab outside Batavia runs boasts the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, or atom smasher.
The first American to win a Nobel Prize (in 1907) was Albert Abraham Michelson, long-time head of the physics department at the University of Chicago
The Adler Planetarium became the first such facility in the western hemisphere when it opened in 1930
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Fire-fighting
The first firehouse fire pole was used by the men of Chicago Fire Department’s Engine Company 2 in 1878; a hay-binding pole running up to an upper-floor hayloft was appropriated by them to make quick descents, and the innovation was ordered installed in all city firehouses.
Among the other tools of the fire-fighting trade invented or first used in Chicago are the collapsible fire escape, the standard fire-fighter’s helmet (known as “the Chicago helmet”), and the snorkel truck (introduced by the Chicago Fire Department in 1958).
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Popular Arts
The Midway at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition introduced a concept, and every carnival and fair to this day has its midway
Pittsburgh bridge maker George W. Ferris introduced his "wheel" that carried thrilled visitors 250 feet into the air
William Selig, a magician interested in projections, built what some consider the world’s first movie studio, in 1897 in Rogers Park; within ten years his Selig Polyscope Company studio was the largest movie factory in the country
WGN’s weekly bowling review, “Tenpin Tattler,” with host Sam Weinstein, ran from 1935 until 1995, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running radio show in the world
“Painted Dreams,” which premiered in 1930 on radio station WGN, is widely recognized as the first radio soap opera
Riverview Amusement Park had the world's first suspended roller coaster (1908) and first parachute ride (1936).
The first successful sound system for the movie industry was developed at Western Electric Co.’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero.
"Music's most glorious voice": the Hammond organ was invented in the early 1930s by Laurens Hammond of Evanston.
Bradford Exchange Collector Plate Museum at 9333 Milwaukee Ave. in Niles claims to have the largest permanent collection of limited-edition collector’s plates.
The first daytime TV soap opera, the 15-minute These Are My Children, was produced by NBC in Chicago.
The Museum of Science and Industry is usually ranked as the oldest and largest, contemporary science and technology museum in the U.S.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Politics
The original “smoke-filled room” was suite 804–805 in the Blackstone Hotel where Warren G. Harding won, or anyway obtained, the Republican Party Presidential nomination on Feb. 21, 1920.
In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Chicago to accept the Democratic Presidential nomination—the first time a presidential nominee had made an acceptance speech at a national party convention.
When Jane Margaret Byrne was elected mayor in 1979 she made Chicago the largest city in the United States to have a female mayor.
The first African American female elected to the U.S. Senate (in 1992) was Carol Moseley Braun, then the Cook County Recorder of Deeds
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Sports
In 1901, the American Bowling Congress conducted its inaugural national men's tournament on the lanes in the Welsbach Building on Wabash Avenue in the Loop.
The Chicago Yacht Club’s annual Chicago to Mackinac Race, first run in 1898, is reckoned the oldest and longest (333 miles) freshwater sailboat race in world.
The first motor car race in America was held in Chicago, in 1895, at the instigation of the Chicago Times-Herald.
The first baton-twirling contest is generally thought to have been staged in 1935 at the Chicagoland Music Festival
The University of Chicago in 1898 launched the first program of competitive athletics for women at a major university.
In 1935, Chicago's Jay Berwanger was the winner of the first-ever Heisman Trophy.
In 1896, Chicago defeated Iowa 15-12 in the first five-on-five intercollegiate men's basketball game.
Chicago boasts the nation's longest running men's and women's support organizations–the University of Chicago’s Order of the C and the Women's Athletic Association, both founded in 1904.
The NBA’s highest scorer, oldest player, highest career playoff average, and most wins in a season are among the records held by the Chicago Bulls team or its players.
In 1933 the Bears won the NFL’S first postseason game, beating the New York Giants to become National Football League champs–the first world professional football title.
The most points scored in any NFL game is 73, done by the Chicago Bears against the Washington Redskins (0) in the 1940 league championship game.
Among those holding the record for most touchdowns in an NFL game are two Chicago players, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals (against the Chicago Bears, in 1929) and Gale Sayers of the Bears, in 1965.
The most combined net yards gained in an NFL career—21,803—were racked up by Walter Payton of the Bears, who also holds NFL records for single-game rushing (275 yards), total yards rushing, and rushing attempts.
Pro baseball’s first intracity World Series took place in Chicago in 1906
The first All Star Game was played at Comiskey Park on July 6, 1933.
Baseball’s record for most home runs hit in one month is held by Sammy Sosa of the Cubs;
The longest major league baseball game ever played involved the Chicago White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers (8 hours and 6 minutes, in 1984).
The most runs batted by a major league baseball player in one season is 191, by the Cubs famed Robert “Hack” Wilson, in 1930.
In 1994, the first game and the opening ceremonies of the first World Cup Soccer championship ever to be hosted in the U.S. were held in Chicago.
The 1919 White Sox are the only team known to have thrown a World Series.
The Chicago Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in America and oldest club in the Chicago area, was built in Wheaton in 1894.
Firsts, Worsts, and Onlys—Miscellaneous
Italian-American nun Frances Xavier Cabrini, who ministered to the Italians of Chicago’s West Side, was the first American declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
Mae C. Jemison, medical doctor, engineer, and astronaut, was NASA’s first African American woman astronaut.
Brookfield Zoo, which opened in 1934, was the first open-habitat zoo in America.
Winnetka Site of Guinness World Record for "Biggest Garage Sale," achieved in 1994 when the Winnetka Congregational Church raised $214,085.99 in a single day
Harvey was the site of Illinois's first orphanage for African American children opened in 1899 by Amanda Berry Smith.
The Evanston-based National Woman's Christian Temperance Union is the oldest continuing non-sectarian woman's organization in the world.
The Polish Museum of America, the oldest ethnic museum in America, housing one of the largest collections of Polish artifacts and archives outside of Poland.
Socrates Greek American School, founded in 1907 by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, was the first Greek school in the world outside of Greece.
Dzemijetul Hajrije (The Benevolent Society) of Illinois founded by local Bosniam Muslims in 1906 is the oldest existing Muslim organization in the United States.
Chicago was home to the first-ever Rotary Club, founded February 1905 by by attorney Paul P. Harris.
Sinnissippi: Northern Illinois
In the 1850s, the first bridge to span the Mississippi River was opened at Rock Island On July 12, 1940, the Rock Island Centennial Bridge was the first four-lane bridge across the Mississippi River.
The oldest Swedish Lutheran Church building in the U.S. is thought to be that dedicated December 3, 1854 by the Lutheran congregation in Andover in Henry County. That church is today known as the "Jenny Lind Chapel."
Outside Malta in DeKalb County, a one-mile section of dirt and gravel road was paved with concrete in October 1914. This “seedling mile” an early experiment in the use of concrete for roads, and was incorporated into the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental hard-surface roadway in the U.S.
Julia C. Lathrop of Rockford became the first woman to head a U.S. Government agency when President William H. Taft appointed her chief of the Children's Bureau in 1912. Rockford scored another first when Gov. Henry Homer in 1933 named Rockford’s Kate O'Connor to supervise the state's new minimum wage law for women and children, making her the first woman code officer in Illinois.
Timber Lake Playhouse in Mt. Carroll calls itself Illinois's oldest summer theater.
The Quad Cities lies on the only stretch of the Mississippi that runs east and west.
The company that sponsors it calls the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, an interactive agricultural exhibit, the largest agricultural exhibit in the world.
Kraft cheese was born when J.L. Kraft & Bros. Co. opens its first cheese factory in Stockton in 1914. The plant packed process cheese in tins for use by the U.S armed forces during World War I.
Whistling Wings in Hanover calls itself the world’s largest producer of mallard ducks, of which it sells 200,000 year to hunting preserves, laboratories, and restaurants. It goal: “To provide the highest quality live Mallard Ducks with long wings, correct size, true color and good temperament.”
Northern Illinois University’s 1999 Fall Job Fair was the largest one-day, on-campus job fair in the nation, says the university.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago Historical Scenic Collection at Northern Illinois University is considered the largest continuous and best-preserved collection of operatic stage, consisting as it does of more than 5 million square feet of painted surfaces.
The highest point in Illinois is Charles Mound in Jo Daviess County. Its summit is 1,246 feet above sea level. Stockton 's average elevation of 1000 feet gives it the distinction of being the highest town in Illinois.
Locals regard Rock Island’s C.C. Knell as the inventor of America's first easy chair.
The only bi-state St. Patrick's Day parade in the U.S. is staged each March in the Quad Cities. The procession begins in Rock Island and crosses the Mississippi into Davenport, Iowa.
Local lore has it that the “Shoot the Chutes” toboggan slide debuted at the Watch Tower amusement park on the site of today’s Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island in 1888.
The Illinois Railway Museum’s main passenger boarding and alighting area is built around an 1851 depot moved there from Marengo, making it the oldest continuously operating passenger station west of Pittsburgh.
America's largest go-kart street race is the Rock Island Grand Prix. Held during Labor Day weekend, the race typically draws 400 entries from throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The Deere & Co. Administrative Center was the world's first building made of Cor-Ten steel.
DeKalb was home to the nation's first county farm bureau.
The novelty basketball act known as the Harlem Globetrotters played their first game on January 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Illinois, where a crowd of 300 watched the “Harlemites”—actually from Chicago—take on the Hinckley Merchants team.
Lincoln’s Land: Central Illinois
Arenzville is proud to call itself “home of the world’s best burgoo.”
The tallest common hackberry tree in the U.S. stood in Mason City until it was knocked down by winds in 2002. Recognized as national champion in 1994, the tree measured 84 feet tall and nearly 21 feet in circumference.
In 1878 the first open-faced watch in the U.S. is made at Springfield’s Illinois Watch Factory.
Ruth Ellis, noted by some as America's oldest outed lesbian (she came out in 1915) was born July 23, 1899, in Springfield.
Lincoln University in Lincoln was the first institution named for Abraham Lincoln and the only one so named while he was alive.
Springfield’s Shelby Cullom was chairman of the Illinois delegation to the 1872 Republican National Convention. There he placed President U.S. Grant in nomination for a second term with the shortest such speech on record–one sentence of 82 words
On June 30, 1870, Ada Miser Kepley of Effingham graduated from Northwestern University’s Union College of Law, thus becoming the first woman in the U.S. to graduate from a law school. However, when she applied for a license to practice law in Illinois she was denied because of her sex.
In 1888, a statue of Pierre Menard became the first such work erected on the grounds of the new state capitol building in Springfield.
The Macoupin County Courthouse at 200 East Main Street in Carlinville, dubbed the “Million Dollar Courthouse” because of its exorbitant construction cost, was once the largest courthouse in country.
The Railsplitter, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest covered wagon, stood for years on historic Route 66 near Divernon, and now stands in Lincoln on the corner of Woodlawn and Route 66. The wagon weighs five tons and is 40 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 24 feet tall.
Pana’s statue of Lincoln by Charles Mulligan is the only known depiction of Lincoln with his hand raised.
The Greater St. Louis Parachute Club based in Greenville is the longest continuously operating United States Parachute Association affiliated parachute club in the U.S.
The Grand Prairie: East Central Illinois
For some reason, Grand Prairians are especially prone to claim distinctions that are not quite as distinctive as they are made out to be.
First there are the claims are that might be true but are hard to confirm. The Funk Gem and Mineral Museum, may indeed be “part of the biggest one-man mineral collection in the world” but who knows? Visitors who wish to check it out for themselves will find it on the grounds of the restored Civil War-era residence of one of McLean County's illustrious citizens. LaFayette Funk known as the Funk Prairie Home, located east of Shirley.
A less large list consists of claims that are exaggerated, if not invented. Locals sometimes boast that Upper Limits, an indoor climbing gym on Washington Street in Bloomington, is the tallest such facility in the world. The gym itself is satisfied to describe it merely as one of the tallest. (The climbing silos in Bloomington are 65 feet in height; a gym in Calgary, Alberta, is 72 feet tall, and new ones are being built all the time.)
The Assembly Hall, which opened in 1967 at the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus next to Memorial Stadium, is usually described as the world’s largest concrete domed sport structure. Designed by architect Max Abramovitz, the structure spans 400 feet, and was in fact one of the two largest edge-supported domes in the world, but has since lost even that distinction.
A county history claims Minonk in 1882 had the first electric streetlights in the world. Least biased, or more informed sources, state that the first street in the world to be lit by electric light was Mosley Street, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which was lit in February 1879. Wabash, Indiana, is thought to have done it next, in 1880. Minonk might have been next—a local resident who was there recalled to a reporter later that Minonk was the second town in the United States to have municipal electric lighting.
It is sometimes stated that the Eureka Company of Bloomington made the first electric vacuum cleaner in 1901. It could not have been in 1901, as the company was not formed until 1909. And the implication, no doubt unintended, that the first vacuum cleaner was made in Bloomington is equally groundless; Eureka was founded in Detroit, and did not move to central Illinois until 1945. Nor was the machine the first vacuum cleaner—there were already several patents for vacuum cleaner technology on the books—though it might have been the first commercially viable machine of the type.
One imaginative booster has stated that the origins of the VISA credit card lie in Bloomington, whose McLean County Bank issues charge cards for Vacation Insurance Savings Accounts–a concept later sold to BankAmericard, which was the forerunner of today’s Visa card. Other sources assert, with some weight, that the term was coined by BankAmericard’s 's founder because the word was instantly recognizable in many languages in many countries, and that it also denoted universal acceptance.
Finally, there are the claims that are of dubious merit even if true. Baseball pitcher Charles "Hoss" Radbourne, a Bloomington resident, got into the Hall of Fame for winning the most games (60, in 1884) in a season. Radbourne also is recalled in his hometown for a photograph of him in uniform in which he appears to be making an obscene gesture with his finger; American Heritage magazine declared him perhaps the first person photographed doing so.
Bill Flick, long-time columnist at the Bloomington Pantagraph, collects what he calls Tourists Distractions. Flick had described the walls of the dressing rooms at Illinois State University’s Braden Auditorium—visits to which have been memorialized by more than 500 performers who signed their names on it—perhaps the World's Largest Collection of Autographs.
Flick also has noted the tombstone of local man Richard Jones, who must have had a relative in the engraving business, considering that the more than five-feet-tall markers is covered with words, including an epitaph of 147 words, making it surely the Most Words Engraved Upon Headstone.
Bloomingonians have become adroit at divining distinctions that are not obviously apparent. The 28-story Watterston Towers on the campus of ISU in Normal is widely reckoned to be the world’s tallest college residence hall. No dispute about that. Locals also insist that the buildings are the highest point in Illinois between Chicago and St. Louis—a reputation that does no harm when it comes to recruiting students, but which would seem to be bogus. Watterston, at 198.5 feet, is far from the tallest building Downstate–the flagpole atop the cupola on the Illinois statehouse, for example, is 405 feet above the ground. However, since Bloomington-Normal stands at 829 feet above sea level and Springfield only 586, Watterston’s summit is indeed the higher point, by more than 136 feet.
The Pullman Palace Co.’s first railroad sleeper car was built in Bloomington, in the shops of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. Dubbed, the "Pioneer," this car carried the body of the slain President Lincoln from Washington, D.C. to Springfield for burial in 1865.
American Passion Play performed each year at Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Bloomington since 1923, is “the oldest continuously performed Passion Play in the United States.”
In 1872, Lida Brown McMurry, critic and teacher at Northern Illinois University for seventeen years, founded the first student Y.W.C.A chapter in the U.S. at the-then Illinois State Normal University.
In 1870, the University of Illinois became the first U.S. university to offer shop instruction.
Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County is thought to be the first strip mine site to be converted to a park, although the model has been much copied since, in Illinois and elsewhere.
The U.S. Army Ammunition Plant at the former Joliet Arsenal, now the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, was in its heyday the biggest TNT factory (presumably measured by output) in the world.
Iroquois County regards itself as the only county in the country named after the confederation of Native American tribes.
The region has a fine tradition of innovation in popular foods. The first Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shop opened in Charleston in 1983, thanks to proprietor Jimmy John Liautaud. The original building still stands near the corner of Fourth Street and Lincoln Avenue.
Bloomington-Normal was home to the first Steak 'n Shake restaurant in the world, it having been conceived by local restaurateur Gus Belt. The first one opened in February of 1934. Belt ground up steaks for his burgers at the counter to demonstrate their quality—hence the otherwise unintelligible slogan, “"In Sight It Must Be Right.” That first drive-in was located at Main and Virginia streets, but it had to be closed in 1999.
Bloomington's Kathryn Beich candies, now a division of Nestles, holds the Guinness Book records for the world's largest candy bar, a chocolate bar measuring 25 feet long, 6 1/2 feet wide, and nearly 8 inches thick–7,200 pounds in all.
Since 1937, Bloomington is the only place in the world where Beer Nuts—a concoction of local confectioners named Shirk–are made, in a 100,000 square foot manufacturing facility on Robinson St.—although, happily for the firm, Bloomington is far from the only place where they are eaten.
Forgottonia: Western Illinois
Pike County’s first settler, Frank McWhorter, was an African American freedman who in the 1830s founded the settlement three miles east of Barry today known as New Philadelphia, described by locals as the first black town in the United States. (Another Illinois town, Brooklyn, in Madison County, claims that honor; the latter is arguably the first (1873) town to be officially incorporated by African Americans.)
In the 19th century, Galesburg’s Swedish residential district was able to sustain its own church, newspaper, said to be the first Swedish-language newspaper of any kind in America.
The Abingdon Sanitary Manufacturing Company made vitreous china plumbing fixtures, including the first colored plumbing fixtures (in 1928).
Quincy’s Gardner Museum of Architecture & Design was founded in 1974 as “the first independent architecture museum in the United States.”
The Decker Press, a small press based in Prairie City, was for a time the largest publishing house in the U.S. devoted exclusively to publishing poetry.
When it was established in 1870, Carthage College in the town of that name was the first Lutheran college in the Midwest.
James Hurt is among the scholars who regard Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology as “the single most widely read book of American poetry.”
Ellisville was for years home to what might have been the world's smallest operating library, thanks to volunteer Helen Myers, who since 1966 lent books from her own collection of 400 out of a 10-14-foot shed. Publicity sparked by her efforts led to donations which compelled construction of a giant 14-by-22 foot structure housing 3,500 volumes.
Mini-Megalopolis: Metro East
Fort de Chartres park every year hosts the largest French colonial rendezvous in the country. The limestone powder magazine that is the only surviving structure from the third Fort de Chartres, is considered to be the oldest building in Illinois.
The meeting that led to the formation of the first national miners' union in the U.S. took place in Belleville in 1861, when the American Miners' Association was formed.
The Eckert's Country Story & Farms, located at Route 15 and Greenmount Road outside Belleville, is reckoned by its owners to be the largest pick-your-own orchard operation in the U.S.
McKendree College, founded in 1828, is the oldest existing college in Illinois.
Bellefontaine House, on the southern edge of the city of Waterloo, is restored as the site of the earliest settlement (1782) made by colonists of American descent in the State of Illinois.
In 1855 the first shaft mine in Illinois was sunk near St. Johns in search of coal
The World's Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville is in fact a water tower painted to resemble a bottle of Brooks Tangy Catsup.
Collinsville home to the annual International Horseradish Festival, on account of its being the world's largest producer of horseradish.
The first soybeans planted in Illinois were planted at Alton.
Illinois’s first capital “city” was Kaskaskia, in 1818
Midwest Mesopotamia: Southern Illinois
The National Road, the first federally funded and planned national highway in America, terminated in Vandalia. In 1926, U.S. 40 was laid out along its original path, which in turn was paralleled by I-70 when that interstate was built in the 1970s.
In 1868 the Thunderbolt Express, said to be the first temperature-controlled fruit train in America, began regular operation between Centralia and Chicago.
The Marion 5761, purchased by the Sahara Coal Co. in 1968, was then the largest coal stripping shovel in the world.
Robinson was the smallest town ever to host a PGA event when it was the site of the Robinson Open, an annual PGA tour event held at the Quail Creek course from1966 through 1974.
Twice a year for the past 25 years, Forest Service Road No. 345 in Illinois's Shawnee National Forest–otherwise known as LaRue Road–has held the distinction of being the only public road closed in America just to accommodate migrating snakes and amphibians.
Alto Pass in hilly Union County acquired its name because it is the highest elevation in Illinois traversed by a railroad.
Pinckneyvillans like to say that their annual Mardi Gras celebration each fall features the oldest nighttime parade in the State of Illinois, and that the town hosts the longest running county fair in the state.
The first coal mine in Illinois opened in 1810 along the banks of the Big Muddy River near Murphysboro
The 26,000 acre Carlyle Lake–Illinois's other Great Lake–is the largest manmade lake in Illinois.
Benton was the site of the last public hanging in Illinois; the occasion was the execution of gangster Charlie Birger outside the town jail.
Amax Coal Company’s Bucyrus-Erie 3270 is the largest land-based machine on earth.
The Galatia Mine in Saline County is the largest underground mine in Illinois.
In 1845, Lawrenceville gained notoriety as the first place in Illinois to execute a woman by hanging.
Burden Falls in the Burden Falls Wilderness Area near Vienna is the tallest waterfall in Illinois.
The old freight railway tunnel at Jackson Hollow in the Shawnee National Forest (now a bike path) is the longest such tunnel in Illinois. Southern Illinois do not like to be reminded that the State Street subway tunnel in Chicago which carried CTA trains is nearly 48 times longer.
Sand Cave near Eddyville (off Cedar Grove Church Road) is the largest sandstone cave in North America.
Sulfur emissions from its smokestacks made the Baldwin coal-fired plant, some thirty miles southeast of St. Louis, for years the most polluting power plant in the U.S.
The first paraffin-free oil was produced in 1924 at the Indian Refining Company plant next to the Embarras River outside Lawrenceville.
Vandalians founded Illinois’s first state historical society
Albion was the home to the young state’s first piano, thanks to English immigrant Morris Birkbeck. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture