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Running Through Chicago History

Join a Chicago running tour that puts you face-to-face with the 19th-century World’s Fair—and its notorious villain.

Chilly air pricks my cheeks as I
 step off Chicago’s elevated train at 63rd Street with my tour guide, Marlin Keesler. I bristle with excitement as we kick into a slow jog, then pick up speed on the ramp to the street.

“Everything else in Chicago is eye candy,” Marlin says, nodding toward the soaring architecture and elegant parks to our north. “This is a real neighborhood.”

Real history is what brought me to Marlin’s South Side running tour. Several years ago, I tore through Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Larson brings a novel-like pace as he juxtaposes the true story of H.H. Holmes, a charismatic serial killer, with that of Daniel Burnham, the mastermind behind the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair.

Founder of Chicago Running Tours and More, Marlin leads his Devil in the White City tour through several South Side neighborhoods. The run also passes through Englewood and the site of the World’s Fair Hotel, where Holmes used secret passageways and stairways to nowhere to facilitate his sinister crimes.

Marlin travels the 8.1 miles of the tour at my pace, which varies from 8-minuteto 10-minute miles, depending on how much we talk. (On scheduled group runs, available for some of his other tours, guides aim for a pace of 10 to 
12 minutes per mile. Tour lengths range from 3.1 miles to 8.1 miles.)

Photo courtesy of Marlin Kessler/Chicago Running Tours

At 63rd and Wallace, we enter a U.S. post office built there in 1939 after Holmes’ Murder Castle, as it became known, burned to the ground. Anita, a postal clerk, tells us people come in all the time to ask about basement tunnels rumored to be part of Holmes’ original network, but tours aren’t offered.

We continue on, stopping at the entrance to Jackson Park, where abandoned buildings give way to a stretch of green, and Marlin pulls out a photo showing fairgoers disembarking from a train at the spot where we stand.

“The electricity building was over here, and the transportation building was over here,” he says, prodding my imagination. “Buffalo Bill wasn’t allowed into the fair, so he set up his show just outside the fairgrounds. He made a load of money.”

Throughout the tour, Marlin produces a mix of black-and-white photos and informed storytelling at a pace that keeps me thinking and moving.

For all their whitewashed grandeur, the buildings at the World’s Fair were designed as temporary structures and have since been destroyed. The exception is the Palace of Fine Arts, which was reinforced and expanded as the Museum of Science and Industry.

Our final stretch takes us through the Midway Plaisance, site of the fair’s entertainment and rides. Today, an ice rink marks the spot where George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. debuted his famous wheel during the fair.

We end our run at an ornate booth below elevated tracks. A sign tells us this station, now the Garfield stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Green Line, was built in 1892 to connect the rest of the city with the World’s Fair. As our train rolls north, the station fades. Yet even now, it links us with a brilliant and chilling past.

Private runs start at $89 per person; group runs (not available for all topics) at $26.75 per person (chicagorunningtours.com). 

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