City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America


The epic of Chicago is the story of the emergence of modern America. Here, witness Chicago's growth from a desolate fur-trading post in the 1830s to one of the world's most explosively alive cities by 1900.

Donald Miller's powerful narrative embraces it all: Chicago's wild beginnings, its reckless growth, its natural calamities (especially the Great Fire of 1871), its raucous politics, its empire-building businessmen, its world-transforming architecture, its rich mix of ...

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The epic of Chicago is the story of the emergence of modern America. Here, witness Chicago's growth from a desolate fur-trading post in the 1830s to one of the world's most explosively alive cities by 1900.

Donald Miller's powerful narrative embraces it all: Chicago's wild beginnings, its reckless growth, its natural calamities (especially the Great Fire of 1871), its raucous politics, its empire-building businessmen, its world-transforming architecture, its rich mix of cultures, its community of young writers and journalists, and its staggering engineering projects—which included the reversal of the Chicago River and raising the entire city from prairie mud to save it from devastating cholera epidemics. The saga of Chicago's unresolved struggle between order and freedom, growth and control, capitalism and community, remains instructive for our time, as we seek ways to build and maintain cities that retain their humanity without losing their energy. City of the Century throbs with the pulse of the great city it brilliantly brings to life.

Thoroughly researched and magnificently written, City of the Century captures all the drama of Chicago's growth from a desolate fur-trading post in the 1830s to a metropolis that by 1890 rivaled New York City. "Brims with life, with people, surprises, and with stories--and stories within stories--all worth telling."--David McCullough, author of Truman. 16 pp. of photos. 704 pp.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
John Barron Chicago Sun-Times With City of the Century, Miller has written what will be judged as the great Chicago history.

David McCullough author of John Adams Brims with life, with people, surprise, and with stories — and stories within stories — all worth telling.

Morris Dickstein The Washington Post Sweeping and beautifully written.

Michiko Kakutani The New York Times A wonderfully readable account of Chicago's early history.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A desolate fur-trading outpost in 1830, Chicago became, within half a century, the nation's railroad hub, livestock and packing center and a manufacturing giant. A glorious anthem to a tumultuous city, this synthesis of industrial, social and cultural history captures the raw, robust spirit of Chicago on every page. Miller, a history professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, peoples his big, colorful, engrossing canvas with architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, railroad entrepreneur George Pullman, settlement-house workers Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, "Meat king" Philip Armour, dry-goods merchant Marshall Field, retailers Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck, reaper inventor Cyrus McCormick, mail-order pioneer Aaron Montgomery Ward, Theodore Dreiser, Lincoln Steffens and others. Chicago-with its experience of mass transit, a regimented workforce, instant suburbs, the Americanization of diverse immigrant groups and battles between privatism and the public good-serves as a prism through which we watch the emergence of modern American life. (Apr.)
Library Journal
No other American city experienced the growth and development, destructive natural disaster, and rebirth that Chicago did in the 19th century. The Great Fire of 1871 was potentially the end of the largest city in America's heartland, but by 1893 Chicago had rebuilt and hosted the World's Columbian Exposition. The story of that growth, loss, and reemergence is remarkable, and historian Miller (Lewis Mumford: A Life, LJ 6/1/89) has written an equally remarkable story of Chicago, what he terms an industrial history. Miller carefully develops the saga of Chicago's growth, despair, and recovery in an extraordinary text that is readable yet scholarly. In his narrative Miller tells of Chicago's historical and literary figures, reform leaders, architects, industrialists, and entrepreneurs. Several histories of the city have appeared over the years (e.g., Edward Wagenknecht's Chicago, LJ 3/15/64), yet Miller's is a model for future historians. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., Ala.
Kirkus Reviews
A picaresque biography of a picaresque city; a thick tome that, despite its weight, one puts down with reluctance.

Miller (History/Lafayette College; Lewis Mumford: A Life, 1989) begins in 1673, with Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, the first Europeans to explore the site. But the true focus of the narrative is the 19th century, following Chicago's explosive growth from a small fort in 1803 to a sprawling city of more than a million people 90 years later. The climax of the book is Chicago's 1893 Columbia Exposition, an almost unimaginably opulent, massive display of American achievement. It was appropriate that this world's fair commemorating 400 years of American development should be hosted by Chicago, writes Miller, who embraces the common thesis that 19th-century Chicago was the most American of American cities: "the epic of Chicago is the story of the emergence of modern America." But Miller takes the argument one step further, asserting that Chicago differed from the rest of the country because it took the most significant trends shaping America to their extremes, for better and for worse. Nowhere else was unbridled capitalism given such free reign. Nowhere else was there a location so ideally suited to the production of wealth and the emergence of "the most compelling of all creations of the 19th century, the wildly expanding industrial metropolis, city of smoke and steel and sweat." Miller describes Chicago as a "living drama" peopled by colorful, complex characters: industrial and merchandising geniuses who created jobs but exploited and denigrated their workers, for example; or the corrupt politicians who nonetheless also gave much to their constituents.

Miller argues that Chicago illuminates our era as well. Capitalism's pluses and minuses, the influence of the city, the responsibilities and limitations of government, the ferment that generates artistic creativity, and other very modern issues are made clearer by this epic history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684831381
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 704
  • Sales rank: 300,470
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald L. Miller is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College and author of nine books, including City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, and Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America. He has hosted, coproduced, or served as historical consultant for more than thirty television documentaries and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. Visit

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Table of Contents

Preface 15
1 Discovery 27
1 The Priest and the Explorer 27
2 Joliet's Dream 41
2 "Didn't Expect No Town" 48
1 Wild Chicago 48
2 Banishing the Past 58
3 Odgen's Chicago 66
1 The Founder 66
2 A Prairie Aristocracy 76
3 The Grid and the Balloon Frame 81
4 The Great Chicago Exchange Engine 89
1 The Big Junction 89
2 The Mechanical Man 103
3 Stacker of Wheat and Wood, Packer of Pork 106
5 Empire City of the West 122
1 Chicago Against Nature 122
2 City of Extremes 131
6 My Lost City 143
1 The Great Fire 143
2 Unapproachable in Calamity 158
7 That Astonishing Chicago 179
1 "Grander and Statelier Than Ever" 179
2 America's City 188
8 The Chicago Machine 198
1 Empires of Order and Blood 198
2 A Fortress of Oppression 216
3 The Pullman Idea 224
4 Steel Rails to Country Kitchens 240
9 The Streetcar City 254
1 Palaces of Desire 254
2 The Loop 265
3 City and Suburb 273
4 Sunday in Chicago 294
10 Stories in Stone and Steel 301
1 Something New Under the Sun 301
2 Burnham and Root 314
3 The Major's Birdcage 335
4 Factories in the Sky 347
11 Sullivan and Civic Renewal 354
1 The Auditorium 354
2 A Proud and Soaring Thing 366
12 The New Chicago 378
1 Burnham's White City 378
2 Hutchinson's Three-Ring Circus 385
3 Harper's University 393
4 The Social Defense of Caste 404
5 The New Chicago Woman 413
6 Cleansing the City 423
13 The Battle for Chicago 435
1 Politics "Ain't Bean Bag" 435
2 Why the Ward Boss Rules 452
3 Haymarket 468
4 It's Harrison Again 482
14 1893 488
1 The Fair 488
2 The "Gomorrah of the West" 505
3 Stories of the Streets and of the Town 516
15 After the Fair 533
1 If Christ Came to Chicago! 533
2 Regeneration 542
Notes 555
Bibliography 639
Acknowledgements 683
Index 685
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2008

    A reviewer

    Enjoyed the book tremendously. Thought the author's delivery of information was amazingly enthralling. He kept my attention at all times and I recommend this to anyone interested in the history of a wonderful city.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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