“Imagine yourself walking the muddy streets of Chicago in June of 1847. If you had 3 cents in your pocket to spare you might have spent it to buy the first edition of a new newspaper, created in the third-floor loft of a building at the corner of Lake and LaSalle streets.
“It was named the Chicago Daily Tribune and its ‘parents,’ so to speak, were three men named Joseph K.C. Forrest, James Kelly and John E. Wheeler, who were already in the printing business with a Sunday literary paper known as The Gem of the Prairie.
“These men would be out of the daily newspaper business within a few years, and there exist no copies of the earliest issues of the paper. But perhaps you kept buying the publication, grabbing a copy of what is now the earliest known survivor, dated April 23, 1849, the same year the Tribune became the first newspaper in the West to receive news via telegraph on a regular basis. Practically every inch of this and early front pages were given over to advertising — advertising of an intensely practical kind, aimed at newcomers to the young city and travelers passing through what was becoming a transportation center.
“Railroads were transforming Chicago into a metropolis, the central point through which the raw materials from the Midwest and West and the finished goods from the East had to pass. Its population would swell from 17,000 in 1850 to nearly 2 million by the end of the century, and the Tribune was there to record it all.
“For a few years, the newspaper was saddled with debts and shadowed by uncertainty as changes in ownership and editorship took place. Then, in 1855, a 32-year-old Joseph Meharry Medill arrived in town, coming from Cleveland where he had started and run a newspaper, the Cleveland Morning Leader. He purchased an interest in the Tribune with five other men, and over the next decades would become not only a prominent citizen and political power (he was the city’s 26th mayor and would help found the Republican Party), but would transform and grow the Tribune.
“Operating from offices over a post office on a stretch of Clark Street known as ‘Newspaper Row,’ the paper’s increasingly large staff had some of the most important stories of the century to cover, and plenty of rivals covering them.
“There was a presidency, and Medill tirelessly championed Abraham Lincoln. Though he lost an 1858 U.S. Senate run, with Medill’s considerable aid (and the paper’s anti-slavery editorial support), Lincoln won the Republican nomination at a convention held in Chicago and the presidency in 1860.
“There was a fire, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, that roared through the city, with 18,000 buildings destroyed, much of the city leveled, 90,000 people left homeless and 300-some dead. While the city still smoldered, Medill arranged for the paper to be published in a small print shop on Canal Street. The first post-fire edition carried a famously upbeat editorial: ‘CHEER UP! … CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.’
“In November of that year, Medill would run successfully for mayor on what was called the ‘fireproof’ ticket and during his two-year term, the paper warned angrily in print of the dangers posed by unscrupulous and careless builders.
“Those post-fire years were exuberant for the city and the newspaper, filled with technological innovations. The Union Stockyards was in its bloody business — ‘so many cattle as no one has ever dreamed existed in the world,’ the Tribune wrote — telephone service began, a public library was opened, Holy Name Cathedral dedicated, the town of Pullman was built and the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, rose nine stories into the sky at the corner of LaSalle and Adams streets.” (Kogan, Chicago Tribune, 5/22/22)