A Long Way From "Satan's Mile" | Feature | Chicago Reader

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A Long Way From "Satan's Mile"

The booming South Loop has a tortuous and tawdry history.


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As the clock struck five on a recent Friday, patrons began to bounce through the doors at the Bar Louie in Dearborn Station. First two, then five, then a boisterous group ten strong and looking barely legal. Laughter erupted from a quartet of African-American women in business casual. Two young Latinos worked laptops at a two-top by the bar, where a lone white guy in a painter's cap nursed a Corona and watched the Blackhawks game flash across a bank of TVs. A couple of cops in yellow vests stomped in to shake off the cold. "Sweet Child o' Mine" squealed from the PA; somewhere a bartender dimmed the lights. Welcome to the new South Loop: Prosperous. Multiethnic. Clean. A far cry from the days when South State Street was known as "Satan's Mile."

The area now known as the South Loop—bounded approximately by Congress Parkway to the north, Cermak to the south, Lake Shore Drive to the east, and the Chicago River to the west—first rates in Chicago history as the site of the Fort Dearborn Massacre, an early and bloody skirmish in the War of 1812. That August, by order of General William Hull, stinging from the British capture of Mackinac Island, the commander of the garrison at the mouth of the Chicago River evacuated a party of about a hundred soldiers, women, and children and led them south along the lakeshore toward the relative safety of Fort Wayne. They didn't make it. Somewhere around what's now 18th Street the party was ambushed by the British-allied Potawatomi Indians. At least half the evacuees were killed on the beach; the rest were captured and sold into slavery, though they were soon ransomed by the British. Fort Dearborn itself was torched, and for the next four years the little settlement by the lake remained essentially abandoned.

Once the war was over, however, Fort Dearborn was rebuilt, and in the ensuing years settlers flocked to the Great Lakes frontier. At the end of the Civil War the area was one of the growing city's busiest neighborhoods. Some of the first residents were Irish and German immigrants working on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, who settled inland, along the south branch of the river. But it was the arrival of the iron horse that sealed the South Loop's destiny. The Chicago and Indiana Western Railroad's Dearborn Station opened at Dearborn and Polk in 1885 and was followed quickly by the Grand Central (1890), Central (1893), and LaSalle stations (1903). The concentration of passenger and freight terminals established Chicago as the rail hub for the nation. By 1900 the South Loop rail yards stretched from State to Clinton, and freight depots and warehouses serving the needs of industries from lumber to printing set up shop in the area.

The Great Chicago Fire, in 1871, was good to the South Loop, sparing it for the most part and even driving businesses south of Harrison while the devastated Loop was rebuilt. More European immigrants streamed in, seeking jobs in the rail yards. Apartments and hotels sprang up to house visitors to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. And the city's wealthiest burghers—among them Marshall Field, Philip Armour, and George Pullman—built grand mansions along the eastern arteries of Calumet and Prairie avenues. A few still stand in the Prairie Avenue Historic District, most notably the Glessner House at 1800 S. Prairie, built for manufacturing magnate John Jacob Glessner in architect H. H. Richardson's signature Romanesque style. Its thick, fortresslike granite walls protected the inhabitants from the gritty street life that, by the turn of the century, was creeping in from the west.

Prosperity begets opportunity, and a few blocks from the city's most elite addresses, establishments of a different sort of notoriety were thriving. Though another, less famous fire in 1874 destroyed a large swath of the shantytown west of Wabash, the area was quickly rebuilt, like its neighbors north of Harrison, in brick and stone. At the turn of the century the cathouses and dives on State Street earned it the "Satan's Mile" moniker; Chicago's most infamous vice district, the Levee, ran from 18th to 22nd. Pimps, pushers, and prostitutes thronged in and out of opium dens and gambling parlors, while strains of ragtime tinkled from saloons like the Bucket of Blood, at 19th and Federal. The names of brothels promised exotic adventures: the Paris, the Shanghai. Others spoke the language of libertines, like the Why Not, on Armour, between 21st and 22nd. A few blocks north, morphine-addicted girls turned tricks for 25 cents a toss on Bed Bug Row.

Most notorious of all was the luxurious Everleigh Club, explored in Karen Abbott's recent best-selling history, Sin in the Second City. It occupied a graystone mansion at 2131-2133 S. Dearborn. Outside, writes Abbott, "blind men cranked hurdy-gurdies, spinning tangled reams of melody. The air reeked of sweat and blood and swine entrails, drifting up from the Union Stock Yards just a few blocks southwest. Mickey Finn hawked his eponymous 'special' at his Dearborn Street bar."

Inside, sisters Minna and Ada Everleigh presided over a house of 30 couture-clad "butterflies." At a time when the average dinner ran 50 cents, a meal at the club's opulent Pullman Buffet set you back $50. Boudoirs were outfitted with mirrored ceilings and marble bedsteads, parlors with gold spittoons.

From 1895 to 1909 the Levee toasted itself annually at the First Ward Ball, an orgy of debauchery that by 1907 drew a crowd 20,000 strong. Cops mingled with madams, judges with thugs, politicians with grifters and prostitutes. Is it any surprise it was also a fund-raiser for the local aldermen, Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna?

When, in 1905, rumors flew that Marshall Field Jr. had been shot at the Everleigh Club, the coroner stuck with the story that his revolver had fired accidentally while he was cleaning it at home. But change was in the wind. Progressive Era reformers took to the streets, agitating for the city to clean up the Levee. Among their leaders were preacher Ernest Bell, editor of the anthology War on the White Slave Trade: Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls. With the passage of the Mann Act in 1910, "white slavery" was the cause of the hour, fueled as much by xenophobia and racism as by concern for the well-being of young women. In the South Loop and across the country early waves of northern European immigrants had given way to an influx of Italians, Hungarians, Jews, and other "swarthy" types, not to mention the northern migration of African-Americans from the south.

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