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The Rust Belt City

The Chicago skyline and the Kennedy Expressway in the 1960s .
Published by Dexter Press, Inc., of New York.

Dirt and grime from almost a century of manufacturing in Chicago began to take a toll on the downtown area in the 1960s. The unrecognizable skyline in the postcard above shows an aging Chicago that looks more like the present-day skyline of Detroit. Chicago was just another Rust Belt city.

The steel industry in particular was a booming business here. The steel mills were so numerous that the sky would glow orange and red at night over the southern part of the lake. Surrounding the downtown area were industrial factory and warehouse buildings. The chimneys on these buildings spewed pollution into the air. Ironically, many people these days live in these old brick buildings, now referred to as “luxury lofts.”

Chicago’s location in the middle of the country made it a perfect place for industry. Iron ore was easily transported to Chicago via boats and trains from upper Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. The Illinois River allowed for quick transport of materials to the Mississippi River and south down to the Gulf of Mexico. Roadways and the railroad also converge on the city.

The steel mills at night in south Chicago and nearby Gary, Indiana.
Published by Cameo Greeting Cards, Inc., of Chicago. 

The stockyards employed 40,000 people in the early 1920s. The stockyards not only stunk up the city, but also polluted a portion of the south branch of the Chicago River. The river near the stockyards was later called “bubbly creek” because bubbles would rise to the top of the water from decomposing animal carcasses. The river actually still bubbles today, and the state recently decided that it would be too expensive to clean it up.

In the near western suburb of Cicero, 25,000 people worked at Western Electric Company in 1917, making it one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world during that decade, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago website.

Unlike other Rust Belt cities, Chicago still always had its own swagger and charm, with fine restaurants, shops and housing for the rich, middle class and poor. It was industry that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the city. So the next time you ask yourself on a cold winter’s day “Why didn’t my family settle in sunny California?,” the answer is simple: Jobs, stupid!


A boat travels under a bridge in downtown Chicago in 1917.
Published by the Detroit Publishing Co.




Smoke rises from chimneys in the early 1900s.
Published by the Detroit Publishing Co.



Red brick manufacturing buildings on the near north side in the early 1900s.
Published by VO Hammon Publishing Company of Chicago.

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