By Liam Ford
7:32 PM CST, March 5, 2014
CNN’s “Chicagoland” documentary series, which starts airing Thursday, is accompanied online by photos of the city through the years.
But the first photo in the cnn.com gallery seemed a little suspicious, and CNN took down the image Wednesday after being contacted by the Tribune.
The photo supposedly showed “what Chicago looked like in its early days along Lake Street,” including a covered wagon struggling down a muddy street lined by wooden buildings straight out of the Old West.
The image is apparently a still photograph from the 1937 movie “In Old Chicago,” a fictionalized telling of the story of the O’Leary family arriving in Chicago in 1854 that ends with the Great Fire.
“Chicago just didn’t look like that,” said Tim Samuelson, a cultural historian with the city of Chicago, when the Tribune asked him about it.
After being contacted about the photo, a CNN spokeswoman said in an email:
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention; we’re trying to reach the source. It was supplied to us as an historical photograph. At this time we’ve decided to remove the photo and make a note of the changes with this language: An earlier version of this gallery had an image of downtown Chicago whose authenticity is now in question and has therefore been removed.”
The CNN gallery credited the photo to picturesofpast.com, which labels it as “1837 Lake Street Chicago” but doesn’t say where the photo came from. It appears to have been picked up by a Chicago resident’s blog that posted it for the city’s 175th anniversary in 2012. When a photo search for “1837 Chicago” is done on Google Images, the photo on the blog pops up first.
Historians believe the first photographs ever taken in the United States date to 1839, so there wouldn’t be any actual photos from 1837, the year Chicago was incorporated as a city.
In the movie, the people in the wagon are Mrs. O’Leary and her children, and the year is 1854. Actress Alice Brady won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
Samuelson singled out one thing in the photo — “that real picturesque building with the mansard roof and the dormer” — as a type that was not seen in Chicago’s early years, when downtown was dominated by frame construction.
Other clues that the photo isn’t a street scene from Chicago in 1837?
In the foreground are what appear to be telegraph or electrical poles, which didn’t arrive in Chicago until 1848, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
And the photo shows the wagon being pulled down a winding street.
“The curve in the street clearly makes it not in Chicago because we’ve been on a grid from the first,” said Jacob Kaplan, editor of the website ForgottenChicago.com. “That’s kind of an obvious giveaway.”
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