Editor’s note: The Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers have created stories about the state’s history, places and key moments throughout the year in honor of the Bicentennial. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
Illinois, our home, turns 200 today.
We have much to commemorate about the state, which has had a great impact on the world, from industry and statesmanship to education and the arts. Through the development of penicillin, we’ve helped to stop disease. We’ve manufactured tractors that built the future, and cleaned up lower Manhattan after 9/11. And leaders who have fought slavery and communism and helped to change the world hail from our state.
Yes, we have much to celebrate. Let’s recall some of the highlights that helped shape Illinois.
Centuries ago, Illinois was home to the largest and most influential city in North America, rivaling the size of European cities at the time. As many as 20,000 people lived about 1,000 years ago in the elaborately planned city that is now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, east of St. Louis.
Although 101,451 Illinoisans today identify themselves as being of American Indian descent, the tribes themselves are gone from Illinois, mostly moved west by the federal government in the 1800s. What remains are the native cemeteries, villages, cities, onetime Indian routes that became the basis for many of our modern roads and highways, and the names of many places and things — beginning with our state itself.
Illinois is where some of the first steps of transportation happened, from canoes on rivers, to railroads, to Route 66 and the Interstates, airports and space travel.
Trains brought Abraham Lincoln’s body home to Illinois, transported southern blacks escaping Jim Crow laws to Chicago, and now carry a labor force of thousands between the suburbs and downtown Chicago daily.
Henry Ford had been mass-producing vehicles for a little more than a decade when Route 66 was commissioned on Nov. 11, 1926. It was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System, its 2,448 miles starting in Chicago before arriving on the West Coast in Los Angeles.
Illinois has the third-highest total of Interstate routes and mileage in America. Only New York and California have more I-designated roadways, with 7 million and 25 million more residents, respectively. Only Texas and California routes cover more mileage, though those states are five- and three-times larger by territory.
The two longest treks of the Interstate system, I-90 and I-80, pass through Illinois on their coast-to-coast journeys. And two key connections to the Gulf States, I-55 and I-65, reach their nadir in the Chicago area.
About 450,000 jobs in the region are linked to O’Hare International Airport and its economic impact is $38 billion, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. In 2017, O’Hare served 79.8 million passengers.
Illinois is home to contractors that supply most commercial and military airplane manufacturers. More than 200 companies in Illinois make up the state’s aerospace cluster, including giants such as AAR Corp., Northrup Grumman and Boeing. The Rockford area alone has more than 70 companies in the aerospace supply chain employing 7,000 people.
Fighting for peace
At times of war, Illinois has heeded the call to duty in great numbers. At a time when Illinois’ population was 1.7 million, more than 250,000 men from Illinois served in the Civil War and nearly 35,000 were killed.
During World War I, more than 351,000 Illinois men served, and some 5,000 of them died. Only New York and Pennsylvania provided more fighting men.
In World War II, 629,516 were called to serve via the draft and an additional 328,338 volunteered to enlist, bringing the total number of men from Illinois entering the services to 957,854.
The number of Illinois women joining the military during World War II was 13,587. Counting those who already were in the military and those whose National Guard units were activated, Illinois supplied the U.S. armed forces with nearly 1 million of its citizens during the course of the war.
Some 17,521 Illinois servicemen and women were killed in combat or later died of wounds, injuries or illness as a result of the war.
The state is also a bastion for civil rights. It had a major influence on the Underground Railroad, helping to bring slaves to freedom. Following the 1908 Race Riots in Springfield, the NAACP was formed. The Chicago Defender was the country’s most influential black newspaper of its day. And Mother Jones, perhaps the greatest fighter for labor and a national rabble-rouser from the 1890s to 1920s, made Illinois the birthplace for the union movement.
Illinois was also the landing place for more than 500,000 of the 6 million to 7 million black Americans from the states of the old Confederacy who moved north during the Great Migration. They were fleeing legal oppression, looking for better lives for their families, and for the rights to vote, to participate in their government, to serve on juries — in other words, to exercise their rights as U.S. citizens.
Of the country’s 45 presidents, four called Illinois home: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Our rivers and Lake Michigan shaped Illinois’ cities, towns and economy and helped the state’s population grow and prosper. Coal was a booming industry, especially when the railroads were the major form of nationwide public transportation.
Ranking among the state’s top industries is agriculture, which is bolstered by soybeans, corn, dairy products, cattle and hogs.
Meatpacking, for which Chicago was No. 1 in the nation for decades, remains a vital trade in Illinois.
Illinois has world-class museums, theaters, sports teams and produces many iconic movies. Jazz and blues, as well as its offspring, rock ‘n’ roll, were influential in Chicago’s music scene, as were gospel and soul. There are too many influential artists from Illinois to even begin to name.
As recent times have proven, the past 200 years have not been without its difficulties, blunders and pain for Illinois. There are many problems that must be fixed, people who need our attention and reasons we need to give to encourage companies and workers to move here.
But this isn’t the time to dwell on our struggles and adversities. This is the time to celebrate our achievements. We are a state built of ingenuity, resilience, might and compassion.
We should look to building on our strengths as we plan for a greater future.
Here’s to the next 200 years.