Wide angle photo of Chicago city skyline aerial panorama with Northerly Island and Lake Michigan in foreground

Neighborhood News: From Meigs Field to the Museum Campus’ Northerly Island

Wide angle photo of Chicago city skyline aerial panorama with Northerly Island and Lake Michigan in foreground

Northerly Island, 1521 S. Linn White Drive, is a 91-acre, man-made peninsula along Chicago’s Lake Michigan lakefront, as Wikipedia describes it. It’s probably best known as a summer concert venue (Huntington Bank Pavilion) after the demolition of Meigs Field, a landing strip/airport for small planes.

But there’s so much more to the story… 

Northerly Island was planned from the beginning 

According to Wikipedia sources, the idea for Northerly Island began with Daniel Burnham’s ‘Plan of Chicago’ which called for the creation of Northerly Island as a lakefront park at the northern end of a five-island, man-made chain between Jackson Park and 12th Street. 

Burnham passed away in 1912. By 1916, Edward H. Bennett, co-author of the Plan of Chicago, wrote that a lakefront location would be most suitable for an airport serving the central business district. By 1922, Chicago Mayor William Hale ‘Big Bill’ Thompson recommended locating the downtown airport at Northerly Island. 

Work on the island began in 1920 when Chicago voters approved a $20 million bond issue to create Northerly Island, with construction completed by 1925. 

Through the Roaring 20’s and Early 30’s, Northerly Island was part of the primary site of the Century of Progress World Fair in 1933. As for the airport… the Great Depression and World War II intervened, and Meigs Field wasn’t opened in 1946, with a 50-year lease. 

Northerly Island becomes Meigs Field

As the Meigs Field Wikipedia site tells it, numerous VIPs used the airport in order to maintain security and also to avoid inconveniencing the Chicago traveling public, including President John F. Kennedy. In a common pattern, Air Force One would land at a larger area airport, and the President would then take the Marine One helicopter to Meigs Field to avoid the complications of a Secret Service escort via Chicago’s expressways. For 50 years and more, numerous small airlines and the private planes of business executives made Meigs Field their home. 

It Happened One Night… back to Northerly Island

As the Wikipedia site mentions, in 1994, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans to close the airport and build a park in its place. Northerly Island, where the airport was located, was owned by the Chicago Park District, which refused to renew the airport lease in 1996.

Then, in 2003: “On the night of March 30, 2003, Mayor Daley ordered city crews to make the runway unusable by bulldozing large X-shaped gouges into the runway surface in the middle of the night. The stranded aircraft were later allowed to depart from Meigs’ 3,000-foot taxiway. “  

Mayor Richard M. Daley cited safety concerns, particularly in Post-9/11 America, as well as eliminating “needless contentions” by bulldozing the site outright. Naturally, there were outcries and legal actions taken.  But on September 17, 2006, the city dropped all legal appeals and agreed to pay the $33,000 fine and repay the $1 million in FAA Airport Improvement Program funds used to demolish the airfield and build Northerly Island Park, which featured a venue for concerts.

Today: Hiking, Walking, Nature-ing, Concert-ing

According to Choose Chicago, the majority of the space Is dedicated to nature, featuring a concrete trail for walking and bicycle riding, a 5-acre lagoon, casual play areas, landscaped wildlife habitats and a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline. Northerly Island’s nature preserve is meant to revitalize the environment that was originally there. The new park is now home to migratory birds and natural wildlife and to protect its new inhabitants, dogs are not allowed on the park. 

Calling All Pioneers-Polar Adventure Days await! 

Every winter, Northerly Island hosts two Polar Adventure Days, where families and friends can tour the Northerly Island Natural Area. The last one takes place  from noon-3pm on February 25. Some of the exciting events planned include: 

  • Husky teams sledding around the peninsula
  • Exploring the island on snowshoes (if there’s snow)
  • Watching  the Jabberwocky Marionettes
  • Making a nature-inspired winter craft 
  • Playing in the Nature Play Space
  • Listening to stories around a bonfire  
  • Enjoying a cup of hot cocoa

Best of all: All of these activities are FREE!

Happy February (Winter) Days, everyone! 

Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago