Photos: The New Northerly Island Park's History of Power Grabs

By Kate Shepherd in News on Sep 2, 2015 7:23PM

When Northerly Island Park opens to the public on Friday, it will mark a new chapter in the long, controversial history of the island and the former downtown airport Meigs Field.

First designed in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, Northerly Island is a man-made peninsula connected to the city through an isthmus near the Adler Planetarium. Construction on the island was completed in 1925, just in time for it to become the center of the 1933-34 "Century of Progress" World’s Fair.

The idea to build a small airport on the island was first proposed in 1916 by Burnham's co-author Edward H. Bennett, but construction didn’t begin until 1946, when World War II and the Great Depression were over.

The airport opened in 1948 and was renamed Merrill C. Meigs Field after the publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner newspapers in 1950. The airport's proximity to downtown was very important for many reasons: Presidents including John F. Kennedy landed there when visiting Chicago, hospitals used it to transport critically ill patients and organs by air and airlines such as Air Illinois and Great Lakes Airlines ran regular flights out of Meigs. When United Airlines donated a 727 to the Museum of Science and Industry, it landed at Meigs before heading to the museum for display.

Sen. Dick Durbin once described it as "Springfield’s personal airport" when he visited the new park because so many legislators flew back and forth between Chicago and Springfield via Meigs, according to the Tribune.

The Meigs Massacare

When Mayor Richard M. Daley took office in 1989, he was already planning to turn Meigs Field into a park, reportedly at the insistence of his wife Maggie, according to the Tribune. He closed Meigs for the first time in 1996 until then-Gov. Jim Edgar and the legislature authorized a state takeover of Meigs Field and it reopened in 1997.

Daley struck a deal with then-Gov. George Ryan in 2001 to keep Meigs open until 2006 and later agreed informally that it would stay open until 2026. Obviously, Daley did not keep his promise.

Around midnight on March 31, 2003, police-escorted bulldozers rolled into Meigs Field and dug X-shaped trenches on the runway and cut off access to taxiways. Opponents of this move said it was like an invasion. In order to prevent any footage of the destruction, a firetruck trained a spotlight on an Internet camera at the Adler Planetarium, according to the Tribune.

Surprisingly Daley didn’t use the long-planned park to justify his overnight operation. He leveraged the uncertain national security climate of 2003 instead and claimed it was to reduce the threat of terrorist flying planes into downtown skyscrapers.

Some labeled Daley as a criminal and said he should be prosecuted in court, but the city owned the airport after buying it from the Chicago Park District.

"I still have members come up to us and ask, 'Why did you let Meigs Field close?'" Bill Dunn, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association vice president for airport advocacy, said in an interview with the Tribune in 2013. "I would argue that what Daley did wasn't ethical, doing it at 1 or 2 in the morning to make sure no one would interfere. And he violated FAA regulations by diverting revenue from O'Hare to pay for the demolition of Meigs. But it was property owned by Chicago."

Northerly Island was quickly landscaped with a few trees and prairie grasses, and the old airport terminal was turned into a visitor’s center. In 2005, Live Nation built Charter One Pavilion on the northern half of the island, which has turned into a popular summer music venue.

For years people have thought the city could make better use of the land. With the opening of the new 40-acre park with man-made hills, a lagoon and bike and pedestrian trails, some of the old controversy could be overshadowed for good.

Some still haven’t given up hope of reopening Meigs Field. Friends of Meigs Field had about 6,800 members in 2013 and once conducted a missing man formation flyover over Northerly Island to commemorate Meigs’ destruction.

And former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson tried to win the votes of Meigs Field supporters by promising to reopen the airport. Clearly that won’t happen now.

Check out this video depicting the history of the Century of Progress World's Fair on Northerly Island (and watch an automobile go "45, 50, 60 miles per hour!" around a small race track on the island):