The story of the statue atop La Salle Street

September 5, 2011

If you're in Lincoln Park this Labor Day, you might pass him on your way to the zoo or North Avenue Beach. Look for him a few hundred feet north of the Chicago History Museum.

There he stands, gazing down the street that carries his name. He is one of Chicago's most visible statues. He is - to give him his full name -Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

Much of the material about La Salle is incomplete or contradictory. He seems to have been born of minor French nobility in 1643. As a youth he studied with the Jesuits, and may have thought about becoming a priest. But in 1666 he moved to France's North American outpost at Montreal.

La Salle was ambitious and well-connected. He received a series of royal patents to explore the interior of the continent. The idea was to set up forts and trading posts, and eventually attract settlers from the mother country.

Beginning in 1669, La Salle mounted a series of expeditions. He explored the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, then moved onto the Illinois River and the Mississippi Valley. He probably portaged through the area that became Chicago. But if he did, he didn't think it important enough to mention.

Every so often he returned to France to get his patents renewed, or otherwise engage in court intrigue. He was always on the go, and never found time to get married.

And though La Salle was intelligent and brave, he wasn't always popular. During a 1687 expedition into Texas, his men mutinied and killed him.

La Salle's name has been immortalized in streets and parks and hotels and towns and counties. And as anyone who ever watched All in the Family knows, there was once a La Salle car. ("Gee, our old La Salle ran great . . .")

The La Salle statue is among the city's older monuments. Designed by Jacques de La Laing, it was cast in Belgium, shipped to Chicago and formally dedicated in 1889. The money for the project was provided by art patron Lambert Tree.