June 29, 1889 was indeed the day Chicago blew up. No, you didn’t miss reading about some disaster to rival the Great Fire of 1871. That was the day the city blew up from a compact two square miles or so stretching from the Lake Front west to Kedzie Avenue and north from what is now Pershing Road to Fullerton Avenue to the form the largest city in the United States by area and second largest in population. On that day four large Townships and a portion of a fifth one, voted to be annexed into the City. It was the largest single day of growth ever, but would not be the last as the Windy City continued its phenomenal growth by gobbling up neighbors well into the mid-20th Century.
If you are a 21st Century Chicagoan your are required-by-law wise guy cynicism would probably lead you to suspect the City muscled its way over its neighbors or that the separate elections held in each township were fraudulent. But apparently not. The city offered superior municipal services—especially clean Lake Michigan water and—thanks to the lessons of the Great Fire—a modern, well equipped Fire Department. And that was nothing to be sneezed at in the townships where most of the housing was built of wood. In addition, city taxes on residential property were, in most cases, actually lower than those assessed by the townships due to the large base of commercial and industrial property. And when it came to corruption and cronyism some of the townships had even worse reputations than the city.
The City of Chicago had been incorporated in 1837. In 1850 under a new Illinois Constitution the rest of Cook County was divided into Townships for administrative services. These townships could petition to be organized with certain municipal powers by petition of as few as 300 voters. The legislature could, and did, sometimes enact special legislation granting authority to specific townships.
As the rural areas surrounding the city gained in populations, one by one they became organized as functioning units of government.
Here is a short survey of the Townships that joined the city in 1889 from north to south.
Lake View was a largely rural area directly north of the city. It was settled largely by farmers from Germany, Sweden, and Luxembourg in the 1840’s and ‘50s. Their largest cash crop, by the way, was celery of all things. In 1854 a resort hotel—Lakeview House—was built near current Lake Shore Drive and Byron Streets giving its name to the area. The area along the lakefront prospered as a resort and eventually as a suburban haven for the upper middle class. The coming of the railroad increased rapid development of more modest and working class subdivisions to the west.
In 1857, the area now bounded by Fullerton, Western, Devon, and the lake was organized into Lake View Township. A town hall was built in 1872 at Halsted and Addison, the location of which was commemorated in the old Chicago Police Department Town Hall District Station at the same location. The Township exploded in population growing from 2,000 in 1870 to 45,000 in 1887 when much of the Township was incorporated as the City of Lake View. Despite this development voters passed the annexation referendum just two years later in what was one of the more hotly contested contests.
Jefferson Township to the west of Lake View was still more rural as the railroads were slower in coming. It was bounded by Devon Avenue on the north, Harlem Avenue on the west, Western Avenue to the east, and North Avenue to the south. Small settlements sprang up along the old Indian trails and military roads known as the North West Plank Road (later Milwaukee Avenue) and the Lower Road (Elston Avenue) which allowed crops and produce to be laboriously hauled to market in Chicago by wagon. Later the Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad which became the Chicago & Northwest Railroad spurred development of several villages. The Village of Jefferson dates to 1855 and Irving Park to 1867. Jefferson Township lost its northwest corner to newly created Portage Park Township in 1872. The Township covered almost all of what is now called the Northwest Side.
Cicero Township, directly west of the City of Chicago, was organized in 1857. It experienced a population explosion following the Civil War, as usual spurred by convenient rail access to the city. In 1867 the state legislature incorporated the Town of Cicero as a municipality with a special charter, which was revised in 1869. Township and municipal functions were discharged by a single board of elected officials. In that reorganization Chicago annexed almost half of the Township which became known as West Town. The City was able to lure residents of a strip comprising most of the eastern quarter of the remaining Township running from North Avenue south to Pershing to vote to de-annex from that body in join the city in the 1889 referendum, due in no small part to dissatisfaction with corruption in the Town government—something that will probably surprise no Chicagoan.
Lake Township, which despite its name was nowhere near the lake. Bounded on the east by State Street it stretched west to Crawford Avenue and ran from 37th Street to 87th Street. Settlement in the area was boosted by the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal that linked the head of navigation at La Salle on the Illinois River—and from there the Mississippi—and the Chicago River and Lake Michigan which was completed in 1844. Irish canal diggers established the settlement of Hardscrabble, later Bridgeport at the conjunction of the Canal and the South Branch of the Chicago River. The Canal encouraged the establishment of and use of the truck farms in region to supply the Chicago marked with fresh produce. The opening of the Union Stock Yards in 1865 led to overnight growth. More than 10,000 residents poured into the area in the first ten years, most of them employed by the stock yards or meat packers and crammed into ramshackle housing. Those workers overwhelmingly supported joining the city.
Hyde Park Township was at the time regarded as the prestigious crown jewel of the 1889 annexations. It was bounded by 39th Street, today’s Pershing Road on the north and 138th Street and the Calumet River on the south and by State Street on the west and Lake Michigan and the Indiana state line on the east. Shortly after the 1850 creation of the township, Paul Cornell, acting on an insider’s tip from Senator Stephen Douglas that the Illinois Central Railway was coming, personally paid for a topographical survey of the township two years later. In 1853 he bought 300 acres between 51st and 55th Streets and set about developing the first Chicago railroad suburb. Douglas also invested speculatively in the area and—surprise, surprise—did quite well. Cornell named the village he was creating Hyde Park after the affluent New York City suburb hoping to attract wealthy citizens willing to commute to work in the city by train. It worked. Hyde Park was soon a very toney and affluent community. Because it was completely disconnected from Chicago’s grid system except for State Street, the village’s north-south streets never fit will, creating isolation and transportation nightmares familiar to city residents to this day. The Township was re-organized with expanded municipal authority in 1861. Most of the land north of the village to the city limits remained rural until the completion of the Stock Yards spurred spill-over development from Lake Township. Population swelled from 15,750 in 1889 to 85,000, much of that from the development of George Pullman’s model town and railway car construction shops. Unlike other Townships, Hyde Park had invested in a built its own water system using Lake Michigan. Despite this and the fervent desire of the wealthy folks in the village of Hyde Park to remain independent, working class voters overwhelmingly approved annexation in 1889.
The townships still exist but have no current governmental structure or functions except for being used by the Cook County Assessor’s office for taxation valuation and record keeping purposes.
There you have it, in one great gobble the City of Chicago expanded nearly to its current boarders swallowing almost all of the current North, Northwest, West, South, and East sides. I wonder if it burped.