Chicago is a city of names. Names that are ever-changing. Chicago Air Park became Midway Airport. The Chicago-Kansas City Highway became the Eisenhower Expressway. And Wells Street was once Fifth Avenue.
The fact that any evidence remains of Chicago’s Fifth Avenue is remarkable. That’s because it was only known by that name from 1870 to 1918. Before that half-century it was known as Wells Street, and became Wells once again after.
There has always been a Wells Street, as long as there has been a Chicago. It was one of the city’s original streets from when the grid was first laid out.
The street was named after Captain William Wells, who led a very complicated life. He was a white man born in Kentucky, but at the age of 12 was captured by Indians who brought him into the Miami tribe and gave him a new, Indian, family. It is believed that when he grew up he may have killed a number of other white men during the wars between the colonies and the Indians.
Because Wells was fluid in both languages, he eventually became an interpreter and began working for the U.S. government as an “Indian agent.” This is something similar to being a minor diplomat on the early frontier. He was authorized to speak for the U.S. government when it came to Indian affairs.
Wells was killed leading a party of Miami Indians to Chicago investigating the Fort Dearborn massacre. His group was surrounded and slaughtered on the shore of Lake Michigan near what is now The Loop the same way that the original group fleeing Fort Dearborn was.
Though he didn’t save any lives, he was widely regarded as a hero, and that’s why the street was named after him. It was also the reason that it was renamed Fifth Avenue in 1870. Because by then the street “had fallen into disrepute,” as the Chicago Tribune put it. People didn’t want a hero’s name on that byway anymore.
In time things improved on Fifth Avenue, and in 1918 local historians sought to have the Wells name restored. That didn’t happen without a fight. By then, “Fifth Avenue” in New York was a very big deal, and ever the “Second City,” Chicago businessmen wanted to bask in that halo, too. Remarkably, historians won and the name Wells was once again restored to The Loop.
Now the trivia question is: Which building in The Loop still bears the inscription “S. Fifth Ave.” on its facade as pictured above?
Leave your answers in the comment section below.