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Illinois is located in the north central United
States, in the heart of the Midwest. Illinois was little more than a
vast wilderness 200 years ago. Since entering the Union on December
3, 1818, as the 21st state, the economy of Illinois has expanded
until today Illinois is one of the most productive agricultural and
industrial states in the Union, and its economic influence now
extends far beyond the Midwest.
Flanked by the Mississippi River on the west and
by a short stretch of Lake Michigan on the northeast, the state is
largely an area of flat or gently rolling plains that were once
covered by tall luxuriant prairie grasses. The grasslands have long
since been cleared for raising crops, but the state still retains
its nickname, the Prairie State. Much of the land is tidily laid out
in the checkerboard pattern so typical of the Midwest. Large
prosperous farms specialize in raising grain and livestock on the
rich prairie soils. Tall grain elevators, church spires, and an
occasional grove of trees are the most conspicuous landmarks; and
machine sheds, fields of corn and soybeans, and hogs in feedlots are
the most common sights across the farmlands.
Rural Illinois does not lack physical and
agricultural diversity. It has hill lands and a national forest in
the south, cotton fields on the fertile alluvial lands in the
extreme south, scenic bluffs along the Mississippi, and hillside
dairy farms in the northwest.
In addition, rural Illinois is far from being
isolated from urban Illinois. The state is covered by a dense
network of railroads, highways, waterways, and air routes, most of
which converge on the great metropolis of Chicago. The third largest
city in the United States, Chicago dominates the industrial,
financial, and social life of the state. In some ways, Chicago
stands apart from the rest of the state. To many Chicagoans,
Illinois consists of two sections: Chicago and
"downstate." Other Illinois cities, such as Peoria,
Rockford, and Decatur, tend to be overshadowed by Chicago.
Nevertheless, these smaller communities manage to retain their
distinctive characteristics. Perhaps the most famous is the state
capital, Springfield, which President Abraham Lincoln often referred
to as his home. The national fame of Springfield, New Salem, and
other places in Illinois that are associated with Lincoln are
reflected in the official state slogan, Land of Lincoln.
The state is named for the Illinois, or Illini, a
confederation of Native Americans of various tribes who inhabited
Illinois and other sections of the Midwest at the time the first
French explorers entered the region. The name Illinois is said to
have been a French version of the Illini word for themselves, "Illiniwek."
Illinois ranks 25th in size among the states of the Union,
with an area of 57,918 square miles. That includes 750 square miles
of inland water and 1,575 square miles of Lake Michigan over which
the state has jurisdiction. The greatest north-to-south dimension of
the state is 379 miles, and the greatest east-to-west distance is
213 miles. The mean elevation is about 600 feet.
The climate of Illinois is characterized by warm
to hot summers and cool to cold winters. In winter polar air masses
move south or southeast across the state from Canada, bringing cold
and crisp weather. In summer warm air masses move up from the Gulf
of Mexico, and the weather is often hot and muggy. Lake Michigan
tempers the summer heat somewhat for Chicago and other cities along
its shores and also delays the date of the first fall frosts nearby.
Average July temperatures increase from about
75° in northeastern Illinois to more than 79° in the south, which
is the hottest part of the state. During the summer, daytime highs
average about 86° at Chicago and about 90° at East Saint Louis,
where a temperature of 117° has been recorded. Summer nights are
usually warm throughout the state, ranging from about 66° in the
north to about about 69 in the south.
January averages range from less than 24° in the
northwest to more than 34° in the south. Chicago has an average
January temperature of 23°. In the north freezing temperatures
occur 140 to 145 days a year.
Precipitation (rainfall and snowfall) generally
increases from north to south. Average precipitation for the state
as a whole is about 37 inches a year. The south is the wettest part
of the state, with about 48 inches of precipitation a year in
places. The driest sections are in the north, where a few places
average 32 inches. Most precipitation falls in the form of rain,
especially thundershowers, in late spring and summer, when it is
most needed for crops. Damaging hailstorms sometimes occur in
summer, and violent windstorms occasionally sweep across the state
during the early spring months. Tornadoes may occur in any time of
the year. Snowfall is often heavy in the north but is usually light
in the south.