Interview with “Windy City Historian” Patrick McBriarty

Patrick McBriarty is a Chicago historian who is best known as being the foremost expert on the history of Chicago’s bridges. Beyond writing Chicago River Bridges (2013), three children’s books about city infrastructure, and his blog The Trunnion, he gives public presentations and tours around the Chicagoland area to adults and children. Chicago River Bridges won the 2013 Henry N. Barkhausen Award for Original Research in Great Lakes Maritime History and the 2015 Ferguson Prize for Outstanding and Original Reference from the Society for the History of Technology. He regularly presents at the Chicago Maritime Museum and the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. He manages the websites for all of his projects and spearheaded the nearly eight thousand member facebook page, Windy City Historians, which he jokingly calls “Chicago History Porn.” He now hosts the podcast Windy City Historians with local history writer Chris Lynch about the history of Chicago from the seventeenth century to the present. McBriarty’s work in history has been entirely aimed at a public audience with a focus on public education. McBriarty is equal parts expert historian and amateur enthusiast which grants him access to a diverse audience. 

I sat down with Patrick on September 10, 2019 to get his thoughts about his experiences working in public history. The following is not a verbatim interview. The words are ours but have been condensed for time.

Anthony

What did you do before you started writing and talking about history?

Patrick:  

Well, [my degree] was from Miami University, and actually, while I was there I had a minor in international business so I ended up being a few courses shy of a minor in history in undergrad. I stuck around with a masters in economics.

Anthony

I’ve noticed that you seem to be able to brand yourself well, and I wonder if— and I know that you’re the bridge guy to a lot of people.

Patrick:  

Many people have called me that, yeah.

Anthony

Do you think that branding comes from your experience in business? Where does it come from?

Patrick:  

Well, definitely, I came through business school with my economics degree, and then worked for about twenty years or more in doing a little bit of sales or marketing and then eventually some management or SAP consulting. Then I turned full time to the books and the creative work which I’ve done pretty much full time for the last five and a half—actually, no, pretty much going on seven years now.

So yes, I already have a sense of sales and marketing, but I really enjoy the creative aspect of being able to pursue the projects I want to pursue. The sales and marketing doesn’t drive what I’m doing, the interests do. 

Anthony:

How is presenting public history as an interpreter compared to working with kids? How is that audience switch?

Patrick

I mean, the switch is fun actually, but I find that the same themes—if you distill them properly—resonate well with both. I mean, one of the things that I joke about even today that I live under a bridge since writing my first book. And that goes back to doing the kids presentation on the first book which is a picture book called Drawbridges Open and Close. 

Essentially a bridge structure is any wall and a ceiling. Or a table or a chair is really a bridge; it’s just a really specialized bridge because that structure is all over the place.

You run into things kids will give you once they catch on to the concept. I was at a school and one of them raised their hand and said, “Well, I live under a bridge on top of a bridge and on top of a bridge because I sleep in a bunk bed. So you never know [when] you’re gonna wind up with somebody else’s ideas that you can kinda take and use as well.

Anthony

I went to a talk that you gave about the podcast, and [in] the first couple of episodes about the podcasts you reveal this new alternate history of Chicago. An audience member challenged you at one point. I felt you responded to it pretty well. How do you feel about those kind of interactions? Have you had those before? 

Patrick:  

I think any good theory or idea ought to be challenged as much as possible because it helps make it more robust. And I also like to think about things in different ways. So that, should I have a question, I should try to respond to it in a reasonable manner, but I also learned early on, just saying “I don’t know” is a sufficient answer. But if it’s something I want to investigate, that’s another way I can follow up with it. I can’t be the expert on all things.

Anthony

In your podcast, you seem to focus on the history tellers themselves. Was that something you intended to do? 

Patrick

You know, that’s a good question. I think part of it is my own sense of not really considering myself that much of an expert but more of a synthesizer and gatherer of information. I think I’m probably good at telling stories and pulling out the good bits. But I’d much prefer having somebody else be the expert. 

We just stumbled into the fact that here John Swenson has uncovered this new history that we’re hoping will also get run up the academic flagpole. In the background I’m working on massaging a paper he started several years ago and trying to get that in shape; where then collaboratively we’ll put it out and get it published to have some more academic rigor put to this idea that there’s this second portage, and maybe that was the primary portage for most of these French explorers. Marquette and Joliet probably didn’t go past what’s today the Michigan Avenue bridge but probably went down through the Calumet River. That’s pretty revolutionary for Chicago’s early history. That’s interesting and fascinating, and yet it wasn’t something that we didn’t just take at face value. There’s been some controversy around it. 

But if we end up being wrong then so be it. We’ll happily fix or retract things, but at this point it’s a compelling enough argument that we felt it was worth putting that out there to see where it goes. John Swenson—I’m still in contact with him—is working to refine this as I’m working on this paper right now, and hopefully we’ll have that published in the spring next year.

Anthony

It’s fascinating because your subjects are more than just these dead historical figures. Your subjects are the people who you’re interviewing.

Patrick:

It’s a really fun way of presenting the history. And that’s kind of the point. How do we tell these stories that are still fresh and may be new, or can we uncover any new history and put it together in a way that hasn’t been done before? 

My guess is that we’ll probably start to hit decade-to-decade coming up next. I’m working right now on the subsequent ones to the Marquette and Joliet reenactment where we’re gonna talk about Point de Sable and John Kinzie and Fort Dearborn and the battle or massacre­­—depending on how you want to tell it—, and then work our way up to the 1840s and 1850s and so on. That’s gonna be fun because it’s going to take me into some bits of history that—some of which I know quite well—I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Fort Dearborn period and John Kinzie and Jean Lalime and the first murder of Chicago. Then after that, I’m not so well versed in some history. It’s going to be fun to bring in some other experts and learn more about that and also prepare for those interviews as we roll out a new episode the last Friday of each month. 

For a copy of the full transcript of the interview with Patrick McBriarty, contact Anthony Stamilio at astamilio@luc.edu.

Gypsy Coeds Ride the Silver Streak

When I began my internship at the Peoria Riverfront Museum this past May, I had a vague idea of what to expect. I had put together a small panel exhibit at Marquette University, and I had also developed a small exhibit for the Milwaukee County Historical Society. But I had never produced an exhibit that would serve as the main feature of a gallery. The Gypsy Coeds Ride the Silver Streak will occupy 2,000 square feet at the Peoria Riverfront Museum beginning this Friday, October 16, to January 17, 2016. Sifting through research materials and finding objects to feature in the exhibit was a rewarding and challenging process, and after fifteen weeks I feel like I learned more about the exhibit development process and how a small museum operates.

The Story

Twenty young women from Bradford, Illinois, traveled the country in a silver 1926 Ford Model T over eight summers in the 1930s and 1940s. They called themselves the Gypsy Coeds, and they dubbed their old “flivver” the Silver Streak. Wherever they went—Canada, New York, Atlanta, or California—they drew a crowd. Everyone wondered how these girls could travel across the country without a proper chaperone. The crowds were also astonished that the ancient “tin Lizzie” still ran! After all, by the last trip the car was sixteen years old. But the girls trusted the old Ford, and their story struck a chord with townsfolk and celebrities across North America.

I started work on the exhibit in the middle of May, and Kristan McKinsey, my supervisor and curator of the museum, already had a wealth of information for me to process. McKinsey had heard about the Gypsy Coeds from a museum member and had contacted John Butte, the owner of the Silver Streak. Butte had already begun extensive research on the Gypsy Coeds and the Silver Streak in preparation for writing a book about the trips. He had also developed a website about the girls and the car. Butte shared many of the objects he had at his disposal; his mother was a Gypsy Coed, and she collected many souvenirs on her trip in 1939. I had many resources at my disposal, and I was confident that I could put together a fun and educational exhibit.

McKinsey suggested that I begin by brainstorming ideas of what I wanted the exhibit to have in it; how would I convey this remarkable story? My interest in oral history led me to think of incorporating that element some how. McKinsey had also informed me that the museum had an interactive touch-screen, and she wanted to use it to trace the routes of some of the Gypsy Coeds’ more significant trips. But I also incorporated more traditional exhibit elements: labels, objects, and photographs. After discussing my ideas with McKinsey, she suggested creating a project timeline. After creating the timeline, I dove into the research.

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Public History as It Happens: Grant Writing for a Historical Society (Part 1)

Graduate students in public history at Loyola University recently launched “The Public History Lab,” an initiative to increase community interaction and service. The PHL offered to the nearby Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society volunteer student labor and advice ranging from collections management to membership development and programming. One area of focus is grant writing. This series of posts follows the process of beginning a grant application from scratch. And hopefully concludes with news of success!

Targeting a Grant

As Grant Project Coordinator, my first task was to identify some feasible grants for RPWRHS. Factors for this feasibility include: relevance to the institution, realistic expectations for submitting a competitive application, and the extensiveness of an application in relation to our available labor. I knew, generally, of collection assessment grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately the deadline had not only passed, but it also appeared that RPWRHS may not qualify as primarily a “museum.” But only a bit more searching led to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institution.”

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Living Donors and the Oral Historian

When Kristin wrote recently about the troubles of working with living donors, I could not help but relate her woes to my own summertime job experience.  This summer I have worked as the Oral History Intern at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City where I have had the privilege of engaging a whole other type of living donor: the oral history interviewee.

In October, the Tenement Museum will debut a new exhibit entitled Shop Life. This basement exhibit explores the history of business culture at the landmarked 97 Orchard Street tenement.  One of my goals is to strengthen the Museum’s oral history collection with information about other neighborhood shops and storefronts, past and present. These interviews might someday serve as the foundations for a Shop Life neighborhood walking tour to accompany the new tenement exhibit.

LES TLH PostLower East Side tenements

To collect oral histories, I rely on the theory and methodology taught in our graduate course Oral History at Loyola University Chicago.  We delved into the intricacies of interview technique, transcription methodology, and the ethical implications of exploiting interview sources for our own academic and professional gains.  Now that I am in the field doing this work for myself, I realize one topic, preceding all the rest, remained largely unaddressed: How do you even get someone to sit down with you for an interview?

Continue reading “Living Donors and the Oral Historian”