The first Europeans to visit Illinois were the French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette in 1673, but the region was ceded to Britain after the French and Indian War. After the American Revolution, Illinois became a territory of the United States, and achieved statehood in 1818. Located on Lake Michigan, and connected to the eastern ports via the Erie Canal, Chicago became a booming metropolis, and even the fire of 1871 could not stunt its growth. In the second half of the 19th century the great need for workers in the mills, rail yards and slaughterhouses made Chicago a popular destination for immigrants and freed blacks. During Prohibition Chicago became synonymous with bootleg liquor and gangsters like Al Capone.
Date of Statehood: December 3, 1818
Population: 12,830,632 (2010)
Size: 57,916 square miles
Nickname(s): Prairie State; Land of Lincoln
Motto: State Sovereignty, National Union
Tree: White Oak
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- In 1858, incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln—for the most part unfamiliar at the time—engaged in a series of debates throughout Illinois for the state’s Senate seat. Although Lincoln lost the race, his warning against a nation divided between free and slave-holding states drew the attention of the nation, and he was elected president only two years later.
- What began as an ordinary fire in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn on October 8, 1871, quickly turned into what became known as the Great Chicago Fire, which devastated roughly 18,000 buildings, left close to 100,000 inhabitants homeless and killed between 200 and 300 people.
- On May 4, 1886, after weeks of protests in which workers were demanding an eight-hour workday, a bomb was thrown during a demonstration at the Randolph Street Haymarket. Eight officers were killed and 60 were injured, spurring a public cry for justice. Although the bomber was never identified, eight anarchists were tried and convicted of murder in what is often referred to as a grave miscarriage of justice.
- The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago attracted 27 million visitors during its six-month operation—more than 40 percent of the United States’ total population at the time. Among the many inventions exhibited there was the first Ferris wheel, built to rival the Eiffel Tower that had been built for the Paris Fair in 1889. The 250-foot diameter wheel carried 36 cars with up to 60 riders each.
- When an angry mob formed outside of the city jail in Springfield on August 14, 1908, seeking revenge against two black men accused of separate crimes against whites, policemen escorted the prisoners out the back door to safety. In the violent riot that ensued, buildings were destroyed and looted and two unrelated black members of the community were lynched. The appalling event led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) a few months later.
- Illinois has the largest recoverable bituminous coal reserve of any state in the United States–close to 1.2 billion tons.
- Chicago’s Willis Tower, formerly named Sears Tower, is the tallest building in North America.