Liz Flag Beer

This is the final piece in a five-part series about the history of the Chicago flag and its connections to Chicago drinking history.

If any element on our Chicago flag has caused more of a shake-up than any other, it has to be those pesky blue and white stripes. Fact: the white bands are meant to represent the three sides of the city: South, West, North.

But, wait. Ask anyone from Streeterville or the “East” side of the city, and you’‘ll get repeatedly squawked at about the unjust underrepresentation of their homeland. Fact: the two blue bands are clear insignia meant to pay tribute to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Not so fast.

When the 1917 Flag Commission designated those symbols, they actually mentioned the two branches of the Chicago River and made no mention of lake. Truly. Sometimes we repeatedly hear so much about one thing that it absolutely must be fact because otherwise why would everyone always talk about it?  Other times we are so certain of how our personal connections resonate with a sign, gesture, or symbol and therefore because I, in my own head, believe it to be true, it must be true. Regardless of your perspective or what any of those stripes mean to you, one thing is certain: the white and blue bands on our flag represent the land and water that are Chicago.

Any and all stories of the past and present will allude to something that happened here.  And they most certainly originated, took place or ended on any and all sides of the city.  The stories we’ve already discussed in this series all have connections to various neighborhoods and the people that lived in them. Drinking history, especially in Chicago, is all around us. And the river and the lake have also played significant roles.

In the simplest of terms, we can connect the story of alcohol in this city to those waterways. In Star 1 we discussed whiskey - made from lake water and dumped into the river. In Stars 2 through 4, we discussed the rich brewing history that elevated Chicago to beer mecca. Without the lake, we wouldn’t have had any beer. And without the river, the beer industry would have never existed. Making ties to alcohol thorough water is a no-brainer, but it’s those lesser known moments in history that make this all incredibly fun and worthy of discussion.

Chicago Flag Stripes - Phil Thompson

One hundred and sixty years ago, Chicago experienced its very first moment of social unrest and the events that took place in 1855 would forever change the course of our future. Unlike his predecessors, Levi Boone was a mayor that was born and raised in the heartland of America. His great-uncle, Daniel Boone, would become the icon of Kentucky and although Levi had some serious moonshine roots, he was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and anti-booze. And in the mid-19th Century, that pretty much meant you were anti-Chicago. In a town where saloons were owned by working class foreigners, Levi’s target and mission was simple. Not only did he raise liquor license fees from $50/year to $300/quarter, but he also deemed it illegal for taverns to open on Sundays. In a world where folks worked 12-14 hours per day, six days per week, drinking on a day off was one thing you looked forward to and then all of a sudden, that small, simple luxury was taken away.

The German and Irish communities were not too happy, to say the least. It was not so much a matter of drinking, but rather, Sunday saloon gatherings were about meeting up with friends, colleagues and family. Taverns were important centers of community and that sense of ethnicity was being challenged. Regardless of which European country you came from, Chicago’s ethnic community saw Boone’s initiative as a direct attack on their identity. Many saloon owners simply ignored the newly appointed mayor’s rules and if not fined, they were imprisoned. These practices were soon deemed unacceptable and, although many could not communicate because of language barriers, Chicago’s ethnic communities banded together to take a stand against this prejudice mayor. 

On April 21, 1855, they planned to gather and march toward the courthouse where many of the saloon owner trials were happening. The angry mob moved from the north to the south and as they crossed the Clark Street Bridge, Mayor Levi Boone ordered the bridge to be raised, trapping them on the other side of the Chicago River. The same waterway that was used to transport materials to make beer was now the only thing that stood between an angry crowd and the mayor. The mob grew angrier - several shots were fired and a handful of people were injured, dozens were arrested.

The 1855 Lager Beer Riot set Chicago’s political future in motion. Prior to Levi Boone’s time in office, Chicago mayors were savvy businessmen who were nearly appointed by their fellow English-speaking American colleagues. The German and Irish, or other immigrant groups for that matter, really had no interest in voting or politics. They woke up, went to work, went home, cared for their family and did it all over again. The idea of having a voice was not relevant. But come the next mayoral election, everything changed. Immigrant groups went to their polling places to make the sure the right fella won (although Boone did not run again). When “their” guy, Thomas Dyer, was elected mayor, they witnessed the power of their vote and influence.  And they would come out again and again and again. The 1855 Lager Beer Riots proved to be the birth of the Chicago political machine and also proved to be one of the more interesting and more pivotal moments in Chicago water history.

Illustration by Phil Thompson of Capehorn Illustration.