Thursday, June 14, 2012

Devil in the White City

I recently finished reading Erik Larson's book, “The Devil in the White City,” about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. I know, I know, it has nothing to do with Kalamazoo. However, reading about the fair made we wonder if any of my people traveled to Chicago to wander the Midway, stroll the paths of the wooded island, gaze in wonder at the beautiful white city or take a ride on the first Ferris Wheel.

Now, you can actually check to see if any of your Kalamazoo folk went to Chicago and stayed at the Kalamazoo Columbian House.  The Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society has indexed the guest book and added the names (you can click to view the actual image) to their online database.  While you can't check this index separately from the other items in their database, you just might find something else of interest while you are there.   To start your search click here.

Despite the tough times sweeping the country in the early 1890s (failing banks and increasing unemployment), many people made the trip to Chicago anyway. Attendees were awed by the sheer size of some of the buildings. Larson described the clock tower within the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building. It stood about 100 feet tall, its face seven feet wide. Yet the top of the clock remained over 100 feet from the arched glass roof. The peristyle hall and the other buildings gleamed in the sun and provided a lovely contrast to the varied shades of blue of Lake Michigan.

The story of the fair and the difficulties overcome to build it was intriguing. In addition, Larson provides us with a sense of what walking around Chicago or any other city must have been like at that time, from the stench of garbage (and worse in areas without sewers) to the marvel of electric lights which lit up the park at night (gas lamps were used elsewhere).

Another relatively new phenomenon was single, young women moving away from home to try their luck in the big city. Unfortunately, some of them encountered a man whose story is also chronicled in the book. He was an attractive young man who also happened to be a serial killer who particularly preyed on naïve young women. A few young ladies from my family tree actually did go to Chicago and elsewhere to earn teaching credentials. Reading this book made me wonder how they adjusted to life in the big city after having lived in sleepy Kalamazoo.

In addition to these two stories, Larson tells many interesting little tidbits of information and drops names of people tangentially related to the fair. One example was Elias Disney (yes THAT Disney). Elias, father of Walt and Roy, helped construct some of the buildings. Larson suggests that his stories of the beauty of the buildings at the fair may have influenced the vision that eventually resulted in Walt Disney World.

This book has a little something for everyone. From architecture to Chicago history, from the story of a psychopath to a slice of life in the early 1890s you are sure to learn something new. If you haven't read this book (and are actually reading this blog) I think you'll find it a worthwhile read.

Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois)
From Wikipedia.  This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.


  1. Sonja, isn't that a great book? A salesman from B&N recommended it to me last year. Perfect one to read, because my 2nd great grandparents were living in Chicago at that time, and I kept wondering if they went. He was the 1st librarian at the new Newberry Library in Chicago.

  2. Yes, I really enjoyed it. I heard an interview with Larson on the radio and bought the book based on that. Living in Chicago and being a librarian (and therefore probably being interested in a variety of things) I wouldn't be surprised to learn that your gg-grandparents did go.