How a Chicago airport was erased from the map 20 years ago

Two decades ago, bulldozers sent by Mayor Richard M. Daley destroyed the runway at Meigs Field. The move was seen then and now as an example of mayoral overreach.

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Meigs Field on the morning of March 31, 2003. Overnight, bulldozers gouged six Xs into the runway of the downtown airport that had been on Northerly Island for nearly 50 years.

Sun-Times file

When the sun came up over Chicago on March 31, 2003, it shone down on six large Xs that were bulldozed overnight into the runway of a small downtown lakefront airport.

Under the cover of darkness, Mayor Richard M. Daley made it clear who ran the city when he ordered the destruction of Meigs Field on Northerly Island without alerting the City Council, the statehouse or the Federal Aviation Administration. The former airport is now a park, which the mayor had wanted for years.

Daley defended the move the next day by citing safety concerns and told reporters it was a risk to have planes that close to skyscrapers in a post-9/11 world.

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Mayor Richard M. Daley at a City Hall press conference the day after Meigs Field was destroyed. The mayor cited safety concerns as his chief reason for closing the downtown airport.

Associated Press

“I am not willing to wait for a tragedy, as some have asked me to do, before making a very difficult and tough decision,” Daley said.

But even in 2003, when the country was still shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the mayor’s safety explanation didn’t hold up. The Homeland Security secretary told the Sun-Times he was “disappointed” Meigs closed and the agency wasn’t consulted.

A reporter pressed the mayor by asking, “Doesn’t good government function best in the light of day?”

Daley answered “yes,” but did not offer any explanation for the nighttime work order.

“It was seen as a dictatorial ploy by the mayor to get his way,” said former Ald. Dick Simpson, who is now a political science professor emeritus at University of Illinois Chicago. “This was the first big move of simply doing what he wanted to do.”

The destruction of Meigs was a brash stunt that epitomizes Chicago politics. Simpson equates it with similarly “autocratic” schemes by Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, such as ordering police to beat protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Twenty years after the overnight destruction at the airport, Simpson and others said it can serve as a reminder of the need to have checks and balances on mayoral power.

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Northerly Island pictured in 1953 when Meigs was an operating airport and again in 2012.

Calvin C. Oleson/Chicago History Museum; Sun-Times file

The Meigs Field land is now Northerly Island Park, which reopened in 2015 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that Daley didn’t attend. Situated off the lakefront at the edge of the Museum Campus, the human-made island was originally built in 1925 as part of Daniel Burnham’s “Plan of Chicago.” Burnham, the renowned city planner and architect, imagined a series of similar islands stretching from Grant Park to Jackson Park, but Northerly was the only one completed.

The 91-acre peninsula was home to Chicago’s second World’s Fair in 1933. In 1946, construction began to turn the land into an airport, which opened two years later.

The small airstrip was later renamed for Merrill C. Meigs, a Chicago pilot and newspaper publisher. A passenger terminal was added in the early ’60s, and by 1990 Meigs handled more than 61,000 flights a year — a number that fell to around 32,000 by 2002.

The airport by the lake mostly served small planes. Short-hop commuter flights were offered to Springfield, Indianapolis and the Twin Cities. Over the years, the airfield welcomed a bevy of notable guests, including a handful of U.S. presidents.

The idea to close Meigs was first floated in the ’70s because the airport was losing money, according to Sun-Times reporting.

Daley’s tactic of closing Meigs came as a shock to even close City Hall observers, but his desire to shut the airport was widely known. The mayor had for years made it his mission to close the runway and convert the land to green space.

In 1996, those efforts peaked when Daley closed Meigs for the first time by padlocking the gates, having unveiled his plans for a lakefront park on the site. However, then-Gov. Jim Edgar intervened. The two feuded over the field before eventually brokering a deal to keep Meigs open for five years.

By 2001, Daley was battling Gov. George Ryan over the airport’s future. This time, they reached an agreement to keep Meigs open for 25 years. In exchange, Ryan supported a proposed O’Hare Airport expansion.

But after the mayor released the bulldozers, no O’Hare bill cleared Congress, and Daley said the Meigs deal was off.

Michael Shakman, a lawyer who represented the Edgar administration in its Meigs legal battles with the city, said in 2003 that he was astonished the mayor reneged on the deal.

“I think it’s one of those things that in the long-term history of this mayor and his administration will be a significant black mark on his character,” Shakman told WBEZ the day after the demolition.

Twenty years later, Shakman stands by that assessment. He said the traffic in and out of Meigs was “valuable for the economy.”

“For the most part, they were business travelers who brought money into the Chicago area, and specifically to downtown Chicago, which could always use it,” he said.

Daley’s spokeswoman declined to comment on Meigs Field.

In the decades since, the lakefront property has struggled to become a popular park. Juanita Irizarry, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Parks, said a transformation plan “was never fully actualized” and the space is incongruous — especially with Huntington Bank Pavilion, a concert venue on the north end of the island.

“We don’t think it’s got the right set of components,” Irizarry said. “You know, if you really want it to be a natural area, you probably shouldn’t have these mind-numbingly loud concerts there.”

In 2010, the park district unveiled ambitious plans spearheaded by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang to convert Northerly Island into an urban oasis of sorts, with scuba diving and campsites. The city told Chicago Magazine in 2020 that Gang’s design remained an “active, long-term plan,” but was on hold because of lack of funding.

Now, with the Bears’ future at Soldier Field in flux, Northerly Island once again finds itself in a sea of potential change.

Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Museum Campus working group released updated renderings, which included calls to complete Gang’s designs for Northerly Island. Irizarry of Friends of the Parks said she’s hopeful the next mayor will follow through on those lakefront plans — and further the transformation of the land that once housed Meigs Field.

In a statement, the Chicago Park District called Northerly Island one of Chicago’s “most treasured natural gems” with a pond, trails, hills and more than 150 types of native plants.

“Over the past two decades, the Park District along with the Army Corps of Engineers have invested more than $10 million to develop a 40-acre, nature area on the island,” the statement reads. “Past proposals for more extensive developments at Northerly would come at great cost and further burden to taxpayers.”

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Today, the still-standing air traffic control tower is among the last relics of Chicago’s former downtown airport.

Sun-Times file

On a recent weekday afternoon, a few people biked or walked along a path at Northerly Island, but they were far outnumbered by geese and seagulls.

The private planes, the single airstrip and the giant Xs are all long gone, and the hilly landscape makes it hard to imagine they were ever here. But from the perch of the pedestrian trail, there’s a good view of the still-standing, yet shuttered air traffic control tower — the last real sign of Chicago’s downtown airport.

WBEZ’s Justine Tobiasz contributed to archival research.Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.

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