History of Northerly Island and Meigs Field
Airfield's roots go back to the beginning of Aviation
Meigs Field is an important part of Chicago’s history. Daniel J. Burnham and Edward Bennett, creators of the 1909 Plan of Chicago and designer of much of the city’s lakefront park system, realized the importance of traffic management and the need for balance between commons and commerce.
Many Chicagoans are not aware of aviation's long and colorful history on Chicago's lakefront. The very earliest flights in Chicago took place in Grant Park, adjacent to Meigs' present location. In 1910, Walter Brookins made Chicago's first flight from the park.
The very next year Grant Park hosted the International Air Meet of 1911, at which numerous records for duration, altitude and speed were set. Over 600,000 attended the event daily.
Cal Rogers flies over the Chicago lakefront during the 1911 International Air Meet in Grant Park.
In 1918, the first air mail flight to Chicago landed in Grant Park. The following year, Grant Park became the site of the first scheduled flights to and from Chicago as regular air mail service was instituted.
Air mail pilots Ed Gardner and Max Miller inaugurated air mail service between New York and Chicago's Grant Park in 1918.
The same year, City fathers, realizing the need for convenient air access to the downtown business district began to debate possible locations for a downtown airport. Grant Park was less than suitable, not only because an airport would usurp its role as the City's premiere park, but because the proximity of buildings would make approaches and departures difficult as larger and faster aircraft became common.
On July 4, 1909, Daniel H. Burnham and Edward Bennett presented their MASTER PLAN of Chicago to the City of Chicago.
Burnham's plan called for 4 outlying recreational islands and 2 1 mile long piers. These would welcome people coming into the city by boat as well as provide recreation facilities for Chicago's inhabitants.
The Plan of Chicago--authored by Daniel H. Burnham, and Edward J. Bennett and published in 1909 by the Commercial Club of Chicago--became the blueprint for Chicago's wonderful existing string of lakefront parks and beaches. The Plan contained no mention of airports--they had not yet been invented--but it did include lakefront transportation facilities, including what is now Navy Pier.
"The lake front appears to offer a site naturally adapted for [airport] terminal facilities," a 1916 Bennett letter is quoted in the Chicago Tribune on July 13, 1919. "A site on the lake front would appear also to be more conveniently placed than any other large area available within a short distance of the central business district."
In 1920, the Chicago public approved a bond referendum to pay for construction of Chicago's lakefront. Construction began on Northerly Island in 1922, the same year that Mayor William Hale Thompson advocated locating the downtown airport there.
By the late 1920's consensus had grown. The South Park Commission had voted to place Chicago's downtown airport on Northerly Island.
The business community concurred. The Chicago Association of Commerce, in it's 1928 publication "Chicago--The Aeronautical Center" declared that:
"The city of Chicago has recently taken steps that are expected to lead to an early agreement between the city, the South Park Commissioners and other parties to the Lake Front Improvement Ordinance of 1919 which will make it possible for the South Park Commissioners to proceed with the actual construction of the airport."
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, many grand civic plans were put on hold. The plan for Chicago's downtown airport was postponed but construction began on the first island, named Northerly Island. A Planetarium was to be constructed on this island as well as an Aquarium on the Shore. Today we know these as the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium.
Then, in a bold move to pull itself up by its bootstraps, Chicago decided to host a world's fair. In 1933, the Century of Progress fair opened on Chicago's lakefront, built on Northerly Island and the south lakefront. The World's Fair titled A CENTURY OF PROGRESS celebrating Chicago's 100th birthday and received more than 39 million visitors during its two years of activity. This was a giant success just as the previous World Fair of 1893, THE COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION.
Aviation was a theme of the fair, with aircraft of all types featured. The arrival of Italo Balbo's aerial flotilla to the fair was commemorated with a monument that still stands in Burnham Park across the harbor from Meigs Field.
Blimps and airplanes plied the skies over the fair; one attraction featured seaplane rides in Sikorsky S-38's owned by Pal-Waukee Airport.
Shortly after the fair closed in 1934, plans were made for a lakefront airport. The Chicago City Council and Illinois State Legislatures passed resolutions to create the airport and plans were advanced for as many as 3 runways for the airport. Yet the combination of a poor economy, uncertainty over world events, and mixed civic feelings over the use of the lakefront for an airport delayed construction.
In 1941, a report of the Chicago Aero Commission recommended once again that the downtown airport be located on or near Northerly Island.
Finally, in 1946, the years of waiting ended. The decision to build an airport on Northerly Island was finalized, a long term lease with the Chicago Park District--successor to the South Park Commission--was signed, and construction begun.
The size of Northerly Island in 1946 was not sufficient to accommodate the advances in aircraft and airport designs since construction of the original landfill, so the Illinois state legislature granted an additional 24 acres of lake bottom, nearly 1/3 of Meigs' current area, specifically for construction of an airport.
The construction took over two years, culminating with a grand opening on Friday, December 10, 1948. Despite sub-freezing temperatures, the opening was attended by nearly 100 aircraft, including over 75 Flying Farmers.
The celebration was attended by many city and aviation leaders, including Mayor Kennelly, Merrill C. Meigs, and W. Stuart Symington, Secretary of the Air Force. Festivities included the dropping of 51 glass bottles containing store gift certificates into Chicago's harbor from a Cessna 170 flown by Mr. & Mrs. John Wilson of Lockport, IL.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the best speech of the day was made by Lee Talladay, a Flying Farmer from Milan, MI.
"I didn't expect when I got up and milked the cows at 4 o'clock this morning to be rubbing elbows over lunch with the brass hats from Washington and the tycoons from Chicago's State Street stores. But that just shows what can happen when aviation really comes into its own as it has in this small instance of Chicago's lake front strip," said Talladay.
Years later, after the senior Burnham's death, his son, Daniel J. Burnham, Jr.--a well-known city planner of his own right--included Meigs Field as a comprehensive regional airway structure in his 1956 Planning the Region of Chicago.
In later years, the runway was lengthened to its present 3,900 feet. The present passenger terminal was added in 1961. Today, it is estimated that Meigs Field contributes a minimum of 1,500 jobs and $57.3 million annually to the local economy.
Meigs Field, which temporarily closed in 1996, was reopened in early 1997 thanks in large part to efforts by the Friends of Meigs Field. An agreement, between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Illinois Governor Jim Edgar preserved the airport for five years, until the year 2002, at which time the City was to once again revisit the issue.
Then, in 2001, with regional airport congestion and flight delays at an all-time high, after a series of major public hearings, Mayor Daley and then-governor George Ryan reached a comprehensive agreement to expand O'Hare airport with 4 new runways, build a new airport in the south suburbs, and preserve Meigs Field for 24 years until 2026 (unless the state legislature voted to close it earlier after 2006.)
Airport supporters rejoiced.
Yet, just a few weeks after being re-elected, Mayor Daley ordered an illegal midnight bulldozing of Meigs' runways, failing to give proper notice and even stranding over a dozen aircraft on the ground at the airport. As of this writing, the mayor and the City of Chicago are under federal investigation for misuse of federal aviation funds for the demolition.
The mayor's announced reasoning for the closure was to somehow prevent terrorists from mounting an attack on downtown Chicago, but the true reason was to fulfill his long dream of converting Meigs to a park.
When it was announced that the Chicago Park District would seek public input into developing the Meigs property, the Friends of Meigs Field created a proposal, "Parks and Planes", a compromise proposal that would return aircraft to the lakefront, add 18-25 acres of parkland, create a new air museum for the Chicago Museum Campus, and provide millions of dollars for parks across the city.
To date, the Chicago Park District has ignored and suppressed this proposal, despite public opinion polls that consistently have supported Meigs Field over a park since 1996.
Time to forge a compromise that cherishes parks AND
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