Chicago Central High School

The Original Chicago High School
A large building with trees in front of it

Description automatically generated with low confidence
courtesy of Marjorie Warvelle Bear’s “A Mile Square of Chicago”

                       The History of Chicago Central High School

Chicago (population: 2.8 million) is located along the shores of Lake Michigan in northeastern Illinois. From its early days as a Potawatomie settlement, then as the site of Fort Dearborn in 1803, which led up to the formation of the city and its incorporation in 1833 and 1837, respectively, the “City of Big Shoulders” became a major location in the US for various reasons. Railroads and water transportation were two reasons why Chicago was one of the fastest growing cities in the country during the 19th Century.

Today, numerous railroads and highways of interstate, US, state, and local designations bring people together in the city on a daily basis, as does air traffic at O’Hare and Midway Airports. Chicago is a melting pot of people from many nationalities, making it ethnically diverse, and thus is referred to as “the financial, economic, and cultural capital of the Midwest (according to Wikipedia).”

The people of this metropolis were also keen to education, which is no surprise when you consider that there are numerous colleges and universities in the city, such as Illinois-Chicago, DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern, Chicago State, Illinois Institute of Technology, North Park, St. Xavier, and Northeastern Illinois (to name a few). Public education was just getting started as Chicago was building its name as a major city, and the first public high school opened its doors in 1856.

Chicago Central High School (first known as Chicago High School) began admitting students for secondary education in 1856 to counter what some of the parochial schools had started around the same time (see Former Archdiocese of Chicago High Schools – The Early Years). The school was considered to be the first co-ed high school in the United States, beginning as a three-year school, then expanding to four years in 1870. Located on Monroe Street near Halsted, a three-year course was offered in general studies as well as English/Classical courses, and a two-year package of study was available for elementary school teaching candidates.

Of the first students that were admitted, a total of 114 (57 boys, 57 girls) started course work after taking an entrance exam with math, history, geography, and grammar questions. Nine of the 114 were native Chicagoans, while the rest came from states from the Eastern U.S. or overseas.

Even in spite of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago High School was bursting at the seams when it was decided to build three other schools to alleviate the overcrowding on the north, west, and south sides of Chicago. Those buildings were ready for use in the fall of 1875, and as a result, only juniors and seniors were attending Chicago Central High School (renamed Central in 1878) because the freshmen and sophomores were at North DivisionWest Division, and South Division.

Even that did not stop the student enrollments from swelling, and in 1880, it was decided to close Central High School. The people in charge at the time decided to have students (regardless of their year in school) attend the school closest to their home, which meant the the city of Chicago saw a number of public high schools open up with more people moving to the Midwest due to immigration.

Central High’s building had become overgrown, due to being too small and the neighborhood changed from residential to commercial because businesses located around it, most of which catered to the immigrants and their families. The school was located not far from Hull-House on South Halsted, which was opened in 1889 by Jane Addams & Ellen Gates Starr as a location for immigrants and others could learn from each other as well as adopting to a big city like Chicago.

The limestone building that housed Chicago Central was later used as the home for English High & Manual Training School, then as a warehouse by the Chicago Board of Education. It was torn down in 1950 to make way for the proposed Northwest (now Kennedy) Expressway. After its closing, Central was affiliated with alumni from West Division as both schools met in joint reunions. West Division (and later McKinley) teacher Lucy Wilson was secretary of the Central High School Alumni Association.


Year opened as a three-year school:                        1856

Became a four-year school:                                      1870

Year enrollment was limited to juniors and seniors:  1875

Name change to Central High School:                      1878

Year closed:                                                              1880

School colors, nickname, & song:                             may not utilized these


Chicago Central did offer baseball to its students, but given the era it was opened, football was in its infancy and basketball was not introduced. Schools of that era were different because their role was to educate and enrich their students with course offerings of Latin and Greek, honorary societies that presented plays and music, and thus sports was not a big part of their educational process as it would become in the 20th Century.

As a superintendent of the school once stated in the book “A Mile Square of Chicago” by Marjorie Warvelle Bear (Oak Brook, Il; Tirpac, 2007), “The highest and most important objective of intellectual education is mental education,” so it was obvious that sports would not have a major role in the school’s identity from its beginning.


According to IHSA historian Robert Pruter (, Central began to offer baseball as an intramural sport beginning in 1870. It grew to schedule and play games against amateur clubs and private schools later on. Records were non-existant on what Chicago teams Central played from 1870-1880, but we have found results for at least five games from this period, as follows:

May 5, 1871: Chicago University freshmen, L (not the current University of Chicago, but as earlier one);

June 19, 1873: McVicker’s Theatre, W;

May 10, 1874: Eagles, L;

May 24, 1874: Leavitt Street Nine, W; and

June 14, 1874: Highlanders (Highland Park), W.


In 1866, Chicago High School offered the following courses taught by its nine-member faculty: botany, Latin, French, German, Greek, astronomy, geometry, history, Cicero, (physical) geography, mensuration (mathematics), political economy, and natural philosophy.


CHS was also the home to the Washington Irving Society, which is considered the oldest-known literary society in an American high school. The organization was formed in 1857, and named after the popular writer of the 19th Century that wrote satire for youth. The society continued on at West Division/McKinley High School after Central High closed, and was discontinued in 1954 when McKinley closed.

The school also had its own newspaper, The Lever, which was founded in January 1874 by students William Morton Payne and Paul Shorey. Payne would later become a writer and educator at West Division High School, and lectured at Midwestern universities about English literature.


Cyrus Hall McCormick (class of 1874) — head of International Harvester;

William Morton Payne (1874) — see above;

Albert G. Lane (class of 1859) — became principal of a school prior to turning 18, later was superintendent of both Cook County & Chicago Public Schools, and led the movement for manual education at the high school level. As a result, Lane Technical High School was opened in his honor in 1908;

Ella Young Flagg (class of 1860) — educator, was the first woman to be head of a large city school system in the U.S., serving as Chicago Public School superintendent from 1909-1915, studied under John Dewey at the University of Chicago, and was on the state board of education from 1888-1913; and

Robert Waller (year unknown) –involved in real estate, insurance, and served on the Columbian Exposition board along with Cyrus McCormick. Was comptroller of the city of Chicago from 1897 until his death two years later. North Division High School was renamed in his honor.


by all means, please contact us. We’re more than happy to hear if there is additional information about Chicago Central High School and to list it for those interested. Please contact us by either emailing or sending your information thru the regular mail at the following addresses. A photo of the building is also greatly appreciated.

By e-mail:

By USPS: Illinois High School Glory Days

                6439 North Neva

                Chicago, IL  60631

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