Place of Protest: Chicago's Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption

Clark Street Bridge, 1855

Charging City Hall

German immigrants march from the margins to the center of the city to challenge the mayor's temperance policies.

ON APRIL 21, 1855, THE MAYOR OF CHICAGO DEPUTIZED EMERGENCY POLICEMEN AND STATIONED CANNONS IN FRONT OF CITY HALL. A first-term mayor and champion of temperance, Levi Boone braced for a second wave of protesters after ordering arrests and dispersing a crowd at City Hall earlier that day. The protesters consisted largely of German immigrants who resented Boone's implementation of higher liquor fees, shortened liquor licenses, and enforcement of a law prohibiting open saloons on Sundays. After all, taverns served an important social function as a gathering place for immigrant communities in nineteenth-century Chicago. An incensed contingent marched south from their North Side neighborhoods to join and defend their fellow protesters.


THE MAYOR'S POLICE FORCE INTERCEPTED THE MARCH AT CLARK STREET BRIDGE, a symbolic and literal crossroads that connected the city center with North Side neighborhoods. The Chicago River flowing underneath the bridge also transported goods and people, serving as a crucial link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River after the completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848. In addition to its important location on the waterways of the Midwest, Chicago emerged as the center of an expanding railroad system that drew a workforce of German and Irish immigrants. Now, many of the workers marched on their mayor.THE BRIDGE TENDER BOUGHT BOONE'S MEN MORE TIME by swinging open the bridge and temporarily stalling the protestors. After the police arrived and reconnected the bridge, a violent skirmish left one protestor dead and dozens more arrested. The conflict dealt a significant blow to temperance reform in Chicago and Boone never ran for mayor again. In the ensuing era of municipal partisanship, the Lager Beer Riot represented the power of the people while also sparking fear of ethnic difference and mobilization.

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