From canals to clocks: Famous Chicago conventions


NATO summit

, which opens Sunday with more than 60 heads of state expected to attend, is the most august such gathering in Chicago history. As far as conventions go, though, the number of participants is middling compared with others the city regularly hosts, namely the radiologists and the restaurateurs, who were unceremoniously bounced by


. And the impact? Time will tell, but Chicago has been the home to a number of momentous decisions, movements and gatherings. William Host, associate professor of hospitality and tourism at

Roosevelt University

, who makes a point of knowing such things, offered up these four influential meetings.


National Ship Canal Convention, 1863

Delegates met June 2-4

on the lakefront in an enormous tent that seated 4,700


Set the stage for the

St. Lawrence Seaway

, calling for the construction "of a ship canal, or canals to connect the Mother of Rivers with the lakes and the lakes with the ocean," the Tribune reported on May 30. The Tribune had no doubt of its significance, writing, "It is a project of far greater importance, both in a military and commercial point of view, than any other that has been presented to the American public during the present century." Of course, there was plenty more talk, not to mention digging, before the seaway became a reality: It didn't officially open for nearly 100 years.

General Time Convention, 1883


Railroad representatives met Oct. 11

at Grand Pacific Hotel at LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard

Finalized and set the date for implementing standard time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific) for nearly all railroads. On Nov. 18, the "Day of Two Noons," railroad officials in Chicago adjusted timepieces 9 minutes and 32 seconds behind. Before adopting this standard, U.S. travelers had to deal with 53 different types of time, the Tribune reported. For example, St. Louis time was 10 minutes ahead of Chicago, Springfield was 8 minutes ahead and Waukegan was about a minute ahead. Eventually, of course, what was known as "railroad time" was adopted by everybody.

World's Congress of Representative Women, 1893

Delegates met May 15-21

in what was then the city's premier convention hall: the Art Institute

Part of the World's Columbian Exposition, the congress drew 150,000 people, who heard speeches by 500 women from 27 countries, Host said. The sessions promoted not only the right to vote and Prohibition, but also a more liberal attitude to fashion, that is, women wearing pants. The attendees were a who's who of women's rights, "brilliant American women," as the Tribune reported: Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, May Wright Sewall and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Chicago delegation was led by Ellen Henrotin, who would later work with

Jane Addams


Hull House

, and Bertha Palmer.

World's Parliament of Religion, 1893

Delegates met Sept. 11-27

in the Art Institute, also known as the Art Palace, which was the Auxiliary Building at the world's fair

Gathered under one roof an unprecedented assembly of religious traditions to promote understanding and peace. As the Tribune reported, "Under the banner of a common hope met yesterday the strangest gathering of men the world has seen. No tie of blood bound them. Jew sat by Gentile; Russian by Hindoo; Greek by negro; Saxon by Gaul. There were black faces and white; yellow and red; bearded and shaven." While it didn't end religious strife, the parliament did spark comparative religious studies, Christian ecumenism and, of course, more religious parliaments, including a centennial event in Chicago in 1993.