The late Queen Elizabeth II didn’t visit the United States that often — and when she did, she made appearances primarily in the cities you’d expect, like New York City (1957, 1976, 2010) and Washington D.C. (1951, 1957, 1976, 1991, 2007). But a visit to the Great Lakes region shortly into her reign — one of the longest trips of her early years as Queen — carried unique international significance and brought the Queen on a rare pit stop to the American Midwest.
Although Her Majesty visited the Great Lakes as early as 1951 as a princess alongside her husband Prince Philip to the Windsor – Detroit skyline, it was the 1959 royal tour that carried particular importance: the dedication of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, “a great joint enterprise between our two countries,” by Queen Elizabeth and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower set the tone for international trade in the Great Lakes region.
Still in operation today as the longest inland waterway system in the world, the St. Lawrence Seaway provides access to the Great Lakes region, generating an economic output of $6 trillion annually for eight states and two provinces.
As part of the royal tour, the Queen was internationally received on both sides of the Detroit River when she arrived in Windsor on July 3, 1959, and launched the International Freedom Festival.
To date, The Brittania, the Queen’s royal yacht used throughout the 1959 tour, is the largest yacht to ever pass through the Great Lakes region and the only documented occasion a Monarch passed under the Mackinac Bridge, a modern work of engineering that was less than two years old at the time of the tour.
To commemorate the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip made a single stop in the U.S. during the 45-day royal tour of Canada, arriving in Chicago on July 6, 1959. This 14-hour visit to the city was specifically planned to coincide with the Chicago International Trade Fair.
Greeted with a 21-gun salute upon arrival, the royal couple’s parade down Michigan Avenue attracted a city-wide turnout of more than a million spectators, the highest attendance by the public throughout the royal tour — including in Canada.
The visit, carefully arranged by the Prime Minister of Canada and Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, gave the royal couple ample opportunity to see the best of the city, including a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Ambassador Hotel.
At the close of the long day, the Queen and Prince Philip were sent off on a visit to the Buckingham Fountain, where the Queen received a box of recordings from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before returning to the royal yacht.
The Queen’s visit to Chicago, however, was memorable to Chicagoans in more ways than one: she was the only monarch to visit the city, attracting lasting publicity in the midst of economic and social change at a time when the city was struggling with white flight as residents flocked to the suburbs. During the late 1950s, Chicago underwent major urban development at the expense of vulnerable residents. As wealthier residents flocked to the suburbs, neighborhoods that were poor were razed to make room for large-scale public housing projects that were built on government funding. Unfortunately, public housing was poorly maintained, making many of the buildings dangerous for its residents. Others lost their homes to other urban projects like expressway systems.
The Cabrini high-rises, built in 1959, were just a few of the buildings that were quickly and cheaply constructed to replace predominantly Black neighborhoods like Stateway Gardens.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited a Chicago much rosier than its everyday reality, and commentators and residents alike wasted no time in making comparisons. An editorial column for the Chicago Daily Calumet, entitled “More Queens Needed, noted the coincidental cleanliness of the South Chicago neighborhoods that housed these same developments: queens [are] needed”: “Even during Mayor Daley’s much-publicized clean-up campaigns, the city was never so clean.”
According to the Daily Calumet, the city went to great lengths financially to “put the best foot forward”: “One of the interesting sidelights to Queen Elizabeth’s coming visit to Chicago is the vast amount of preparation being undertaken by the city administration headed by Mayor Daley … how many know that the city is spending an estimated $100,000 to dredge a special channel in Lake Michigan for the Queen’s royal yacht?”
Ultimately, Chicago’s hospitality cost the city of Chicago $75,000 (or, roughly, $675,000 with inflation) to host the occasion.
But beyond both the fanfare and the city’s controversial reception, the Queen’s brief visit to Chicago marked a moment of social and economic change on both a national and international scale — Her Majesty’s mark on the American Midwest and beyond.