The Great Chicago Fire began when flames sparked in the Chicago barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, igniting a two-day blaze that killed between 200 and 300 people, destroyed 17,450 buildings, left 100,000 homeless and caused an estimated $200 million (roughly $4 billion in 2020 dollars) in damages. Legend has it that a cow kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary barn and started the fire, but other theories hold that humans or even a comet may have been responsible for the event that left four square miles of the Windy City, including its business district, in ruins. Reconstruction efforts began quickly and spurred great economic development and population growth, as architects laid the foundation for a modern city featuring the world’s first skyscrapers.
United States Corporal Alvin C. York reportedly killed over 20 German soldiers and captured an additional 132 at the head of a small detachment in the Argonne Forest near the Meuse River in France. The exploits later earned York the Medal of Honor. York went on to found a school for underprivileged children in rural Tennessee and his heroism became the basis for a movie, Sergeant York. Upon York’s death in 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson called him “a symbol of American courage and sacrifice” who epitomized “the gallantry of American fighting men and their sacrifices on behalf of freedom.”
The Office of Homeland Security was founded less than one month after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Now a cabinet department, Homeland Security is one of the largest organs of the federal government, charged with preventing terror attacks, border security, immigrations and customs, disaster relief and prevention and other related tasks. The Department of Homeland Security eventually absorbed no fewer than 22 agencies into its fold. Entities absorbed by DHS included the Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection and even the Coast Guard.
Religious dissident Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Williams had spoken out against the right of civil authorities to punish religious dissension and to confiscate Native American land. Williams, with the assistance of the Narragansett tribe, established a settlement in present-day Rhode Island. He declared the settlement open to all those seeking freedom of conscience and the removal of the church from civil matters. Taking the success of the venture as a sign from God, Williams named the community “Providence.” Rhode Island became a haven for religious minorities. Nearly a century after his death, Williams’ notion of a separation between church and state inspired the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, to consider the limits of the First Amendment.
Harnessing the power of the mighty Colorado River, the Hoover Dam began sending electricity over transmission lines spanning 266 miles of mountains and deserts to run the lights, radios, and stoves of Los Angeles. Work on the dam began under President Herbert Hoover’s administration but completed as a public works project during the Roosevelt administration. When it was finished in 1935, the towering concrete and steel plug was the tallest dam in the world. The electricity generated deep in the bowels of Hoover Dam was only a secondary benefit. The central reason for the dam was the collection, preservation, and rational distribution of that most precious of all western commodities: water.
Coaching legend Dean Smith unexpectedly retired as the head coach of the UNC Tar Heels basketball team. Smith coached from 1961 to 1997 and retired with 879 victories, which was the NCAA Division I men's basketball record at that time. Smith was best known for running a clean program and having a high graduation rate of 96.6%. He also supported desegregation by recruiting the university's first African-American scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott, and pushing for equal treatment for African Americans by local businesses. His first national championship with the Tar Heels came with the 1981-1982 team, which featured Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy. His second championship came in 1993.
Less than a year before Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as president of the United States, Spiro Agnew became the first U.S. vice president to resign in disgrace after the U.S. Justice Department uncovered widespread evidence of his political corruption, including allegations of accepting bribes that had continued into his tenure as U.S. vice president. The same day, he pleaded no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion in exchange for the dropping of charges of political corruption. He was subsequently fined $10,000, sentenced to three years probation, and disbarred by the Maryland court of appeals.
The hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro reached a dramatic climax when U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters intercepted an Egyptian airliner attempting to fly the Palestinian hijackers to freedom and force the jet to land at a NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily. A stand-off over control of the plane took place with 350 Italian Military Forces surrounding 80 U.S. Special Forces and the plane. After five hours of negotiations between the Italian and American governments, the U.S. yielded and conceded the Italian claim of jurisdiction.
Actor Christopher Reeve, who became famous for his starring role in four Superman films, died from heart failure at the age of 52 at a hospital near his home in Westchester County, New York. In 1995, Reeve broke his neck when he was thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition. The injury paralyzed him from the shoulders down, and he used a wheelchair and ventilator for the rest of his life. Beginning in the 1980s, Reeve was an activist for environmental and human-rights causes and for artistic freedom of expression. After his accident, he lobbied for spinal injury research, including human embryonic stem cell research, and for better insurance coverage for people with disabilities. Over the course of his career, Reeve received a BAFTA Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Emmy Award and a Grammy Award.
Saturday Night Live (SNL), a topical comedy sketch show featuring Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, made its debut on NBC. The 90-minute program, which from its inception has been broadcast live from Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center, includes a different guest host and musical act each week. The opening sketch of each show ends with one actor saying, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Created by comedy writer Lorne Michaels, the influential comedian George Carlin hosted the debut episode. The show had launched the careers of such performers as Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, Tina Fey, Amy Pohler and Kristen Wiig.
26-year-old Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" became his first ever top 40 hit. Springsteen had two heavily promoted major-label albums behind him, but nothing approaching a popular hit. Tapped by Columbia Records as the Next Big Thing back in 1973, he’d been marketed first as the “New Dylan” and then as America’s new “Street Poet,” but unless you were a rock-journalism junkie or had been witness to one of his raucous three-hour live shows in an East Coast rock club, you’d probably never bought one of his records or even heard his name. That would all change soon, however, for the poet laureate of the Jersey Shore. "Born to Run" marked the start of his eventual transition from little-known cult figure to international superstar.
Former President Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, served one term as U.S. president between 1977 and 1981. One of his key achievements as president was mediating the peace talks between Israel and Egypt in 1978. The Nobel Committee had wanted to give Carter the prize that year for his efforts, along with Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin, but was prevented from doing so by a technicality—he had not been nominated by the official deadline.
Future Basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson made his debut for the Los Angeles Lakers at the San Diego Clippers. Johnson scored 26 points during the Lakers 103-102 win. In his thirteen years in the NBA as a player, Magic Johnson would go on to be one of the best players of all time, winning 5 NBA Championships with the Lakers. His many accolades include 3x Finals MVP and 12x All-Star. The Lakers retired Johnson's #32 in 1992. After his retirement from basketball, Johnson became an extremely successful entrepreneur—his investment firm had estimated holdings of approximately $1 billion as of 2020—and a prominent HIV/AIDS activist. Johnson was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996, and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
During World War II, over 70,000 men were designated conscientious objectors, mostly men whose religious beliefs made them opposed to war. Some refused to serve, but 25,000 joined the US armed forces in noncombat roles such as medics and chaplains. Private First Class Desmond T. Doss of Lynchburg, Virginia, was presented the Medal of Honor for outstanding bravery as a combat medic, the first conscientious objector in American history to receive the nation’s highest military award. When called on by his country to fight in World War II, Doss, a dedicated pacifist, registered as a conscientious objector. Eventually sent to the Pacific theater of war as a medical corpsman, Doss voluntarily put his life in the utmost peril during the bloody Battle for Okinawa, saving dozens of lives well beyond the call of duty.
At 12:15 p.m. local time, a motorized rubber dinghy loaded with explosives blew a 40-by-40-foot hole in the port side of the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer that was refueling at Aden, Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed and 38 wounded in the attack, which was carried out by two suicide terrorists alleged to be members of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network. The explosion caused extensive flooding in the warship, causing the ship to list slightly, but by the evening crew members had managed to stop the flooding and keep the Cole afloat.Six men believed to be involved in the Cole attack were soon arrested in Yemen. Lacking cooperation by Yemeni authorities, the FBI has failed to conclusively link the attack to bin Laden.
The Continental Congress authorized construction and administration of the first American naval force—the precursor to the United States Navy. Since the outbreak of open hostilities with the British in April, little consideration had been given to protection by sea until Congress received news that a British naval fleet was on its way. In November, the Continental Navy was formally organized, and on December 22, Esek Hopkins was appointed the first commander in chief of the Continental Navy. During the American Revolution, the Continental Navy successfully preyed on British merchant shipping and won several victories over British warships. This first naval force was disbanded after the war. What is now known as the United States Navy was formally established with the creation of the federal Department of the Navy in April 1798.
John Denver died when his experimental amateur aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay on the California coast. To those who bought records like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by the millions in the 1970s, John Denver was much more than just a great songwriter and performer. With his oversized glasses, bowl haircut and down vest, he was an unlikely fashion icon, and with his vocal environmentalism, he was the living embodiment of an outdoorsy lifestyle. A movie star and political activist as well as a musician, John Denver was one of the biggest stars of his generation, and is credited by the Recording Industry Association of America with selling more than 32 million albums in the US alone.
Simone Biles became the most decorated gymnast in world championship history when she won gold medals in the balance beam and the floor exercise at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. The wins increased her career medal total in the championships to 25. The record medal count — two more than the previous high, held for more than two decades by Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus — strengthened the case of those who already consider Biles to be the greatest gymnast of all time.
U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound when he flew the “Glamorous Glennis," experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane named after his wife, over Rogers Dry Lake in Southern California. The X-1 was lifted to an altitude of 25,000 feet by a B-29 aircraft and then released through the bomb bay, rocketing to 40,000 feet and exceeding 662 miles per hour (the sound barrier at that altitude). Because of the secrecy of the project, Bell and Yeager’s achievement was not announced until June 1948. Yeager continued to serve as a test pilot, and in 1953 he flew 1,650 miles per hour in an X-1A rocket plane. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1975 with the rank of brigadier general.
African American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for his non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population" At 35 years of age, the Georgia-born minister was the youngest person ever to receive the award. Influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, he advocated nonviolent civil disobedience to racial segregation. The peaceful protests he led throughout the American South were often met with violence, but King and his followers persisted, and their nonviolent movement gained momentum. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a crime drama featuring multiple storylines and a large ensemble cast including John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel, opened in theaters. Made for less than $10 million, Pulp Fiction earned more than $100 million at the box office and was a huge critical hit, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earning seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.