As the largest city in the American Midwest and one of the main cultural hubs of North America for over a century, Chicago has earned its fair share of nicknames. Chi-Town, Second City, The 312, and the Heart of America have all been associated with the City of Big Shoulders. But one has stuck like no other — The Windy City. So how did Chicago get this descriptive nickname? It’s not quite what you would guess!

The Winds of Lake Michigan

Aerial view of Lake Michigan and the city
Credit: yongyuan/ iStock 

The most obvious answer is that the nickname is a reference to the strong winds that blow off the dominant body of water in the region, Lake Michigan. While there is evidence that this is a point of origination for the term, since Chicago originally promoted itself as a summer destination with relaxing breezes, it is most likely not the only reason.

After all, there are many large cities that are noted for their high winds. San Francisco, for example, experiences much more intense winds because of its location adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. Even Boston and New York City, one of Chicago’s chief rivals during its primary period of growth, have recorded stronger winds from the Atlantic Ocean on many occasions.

Hot Air from Loud Politicians

Another frequently cited reason for name is related to Chicago’s fierce political climate and boisterous residents. The wind that powered The Windy City, according to the story, came from the mouths of rousing politicians and noisy citizens.

This story gained the most traction when Chicago was in competition with New York to host the 1893 World’s Fair, which was scheduled to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic. One writer in particular, Charles Dana, is credited with popularizing the term when he used it in The New York Sun in 1890, imploring readers to ignore the “nonsensical claims of that Windy City.”

There is only one problem with this version of events, however. In almost a century of searching, no one has been able to find any article from 1890 by Charles Dana in which he wrote this phrase or any other referencing Chicago as The Windy City. This popular explanation is now considered to be nothing more than a legend.

The Cincinnati Rivalry

Aerial view of Cincinnati cityscape showing waterways and skyscrapers
Credit: Smart Pro Imaging/ Shutterstock

To find out where the term really came from, we have to go to another one of Chicago’s rivals, one that may not be as well-known as the Chicago–New York feud. Chicago and Cincinnati had a fierce regional competition that originated as both cities grew during the 1860s and 1870s.

This rivalry had a good amount of evidence that remains today. Cincinnati began calling itself Porkopolis after it became the meatpacking capital of the Midwest. That is, until Chicago stole the nickname after it overtook Cincinnati as the largest meat producer in the region.

First Appearance of “The Windy City” in Print

So where is the first written record of “The Windy City”? There are two appearances of the nickname in 1876, both in the Cincinnati Inquirer. The more famous of these is in reference to a tornado that hit Chicago and reads “That Windy City. Some Freaks of the Last Chicago Tornado.”

So while we may never know whether the term comes from Lake Michigan, its politicians, New York, Cincinnati or a freak tornado, Chicagoans seem to like it. And as long as they’re happy with it, The Windy City will keep its famous moniker.