The History of Chicago Heights
At a young age, I thought Chicago Heights was a magical place. It seemed everyone came from Italy and lived to tell stories about family and their towns of origin. Every time we would go to visit family, I left ten pounds heavier and still craving the pasta, meatballs, sausage, ravioli and cookies that left me in a catatonic state. To me, life was good in Chicago Heights. I never really gave any thought to how the city became what it was, or how my family began a life there.
As I grew up, life, along with its unexpectedness, ran its course. Through these experiences, I began to understand and appreciate the opportunity of being an American and the history behind a town that welcomed my immigrant family.
Long before Chicago was ever a city or America was ever a unified country, the area known today as Chicago Heights was once a well-trafficked route for Native-Americans. As centuries passed and westward expansion grew, traders and trappers crowded the trails. Eventually settlers decided to erect the town of Bloom. Its favorable location along the Dixie and Lincoln Highways attracted a large number of European immigrants1.
After the Civil War, America experienced a railroad boom. This advancement in transportation allowed safe passage from Bloom to Chicago in under two hours. By the late 19th century, Chicago was the nation’s fastest growing city. The United States’ need for modernization drove the transformation of the village into an industrial city.
Bloom’s industrialization was tremendous. The “Cross Roads” of America served thirty-eight railroads and innumerable shipping facilities. Numerous factories were built, dedicated to the production of steel and railroad equipment2. The opportunity for employment and compensation attracted immigrants from Italy, Greece and Poland, as well as African-Americans from the South.
The man-hours it took to meet the demand of an ever-growing nation contributed to low pay and unsafe working conditions. In 1886, the infamous Haymarket riots hit the city of Chicago and surrounding areas. What started as peaceful protests for an eight-hour workday, turned into violent attacks on employers and work places. Ultimately, the riots killed both police and protesters.
With societal unrest growing over the congestion and mistreatment of workers, city planners decided to invest in safer and improved living spaces. To persuade businesses and families to relocate, the city of Bloom changed its name to Chicago Heights, in hopes the word “Chicago” would entice population growth1. The suburbs allowed a safe place to raise a family. Heading into the 20th century, Chicago Heights’ growth and momentum were seemingly unstoppable. Unfortunately, prosperity in the Heights, as well as in the rest of the country, suffered major setbacks after the turn of the century.
Following World War I and the influenza outbreak of 1918, the country sank into an economic depression. By 1929, the United States was reporting rapidly rising unemployment rates. Hundreds of people in Chicago Heights lost their Jobs. A third of the factories in Chicago Heights closed their doors. Small family businesses went bankrupt, and the owners sought relief on welfare2.
Chicago Heights was in need of aide, and the Mob answered. Al Capone considered himself the “Robinhood” of Chicago Heights2. Through the black-market sale of liquor and gambling, the Heights sustained itself during the Great Depression. With time on their hands, the people of the Heights looked to fill the void with neighborhood sporting events. Baseball teams were created and healthy rivalries began on the field.
As the years passed, the strength of Americans in places like Chicago Heights persisted. Times were tough, however, society held together. In 1939, World War II began. The demand for steel and factory work brought work back to the city. National corporations like Borg-Warner acquired local factories such as Calumet Steel, and industrial production was back on the rise to help supply the war effort2.
The Heights was not exempt to the tolls of war. While the economy continued to grow, families were struck with grief over the loss of their sons and brothers. Many men sacrificed their lives fighting against oppression and fascism. Poles, Greeks, African-Americans and Italians from Chicago Heights, gave what could not be returned towards the war effort.
After the War, GIs returned home looking to start families and resume normal lives. Housing demand grew and the Heights, as with the rest of the country, began to flourish once more. By the 70’s, virtually all vacant land had been reconstructed into new-subdivisions2. Nonetheless, post-War changes threatened the city’s good fortune. Most of the cargo transportation was switching over to trucks, leaving the railroads struggling to survive. If that was not enough, newer and more efficient factories began opening up abroad, leading to factory closures due to outsourcing.
By the 1980s, Chicago Heights’ steel industry had declined and the downtown district had collapsed. Through the remainder of the 20th century and now into the 21st century, the city is slowly rebuilding. Halsted Street is seeing a resurgence of new businesses and restaurants. The population numbers have stabilized, and schools and public services remain strong. The City of Chicago Heights has done what it has for over 150 years – carry on through adversity.
1. Candeloro D. & Paul B. Chicago Heights (Images of America). Dover, NH: Arcadia Publishing 1998.
2. Candeloro D. & Paul B. Chicago Heights at the Crossroads of the Nation (The Making of America Series). Charleston, SC; Arcadia Publishing 2004.