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When shooting guns in Lincoln Park was authorized recreation, and how it stopped

Hard to believe now, but, from 1912 until its demise 30 years ago, the Lincoln Park Gun Club occupied a choice lakefront locale just north of the mouth of Diversey Harbor.

From 1912 to 1991, the Lincoln Park Gun Club occupied the Chicago lakefront just north of Diversey Harbor. Here, Robert Jacobazzi waits for his target and the right moment.
From 1912 to 1991, the Lincoln Park Gun Club occupied the Chicago lakefront just north of Diversey Harbor. Here, Robert Jacobazzi waits for his target and the right moment.
Sun-Times file

Walking the beach, I spotted plastic wadding from a shotgun shell and realized I hadn’t seen one of those in a long time.

Some of you will remember when most of Chicago’s beaches were littered with shotgun wadding, their distinctive splayed shape like toy squid burrowed into the sand everywhere you went.

Then again, some of you probably never have seen one at all. Which made me realize there must be a whole generation of Chicagoans at this point who know nothing about the Lincoln Park Gun Club.

Let’s remedy that.

From 1912 until its demise 30 years ago this month, the gun club — formally known as Lincoln Park Traps — occupied a choice piece of lakefront real estate just north of the mouth of Diversey Harbor.

The club’s name came from the trap and skeet shooting conducted there. Members had their own clubhouse, and every day the pop-pops rang out in Lincoln Park as shooting enthusiasts fired at clay targets flung over Lake Michigan.

In the early years after the club was formed by such luminaries as Oscar Mayer and P.K. Wrigley, they shot at actual live pigeons before that became unfashionable.

The debris landed in the water, where most of it remains today, except for the plastic wadding that would wash up on the beaches.

And here’s the thing to understand: It was just an accepted part of life in the big city, beloved by some, despised by others, ignored or tolerated by most.

By today’s standards, the whole notion sounds bizarre and anachronistic. If a lakefront gun club were proposed today, it wouldn’t even receive serious consideration.

But at the time, which to my mind is not so very long ago, booting the club was a very controversial matter that took years to accomplish. And many people remained bitter about the closing even years later.

In the end, it was closed by the Chicago Park District on the basis of environmental concerns over the lead shot, plastic litter and pollutants from the clay targets — more to the point, the potential legal liability they posed, said Nancy Kaszak, who at the time was the park district’s general counsel and later was elected to the Illinois Legislature.

Shotgun shells and plastic wadding littered the grounds of the old Lincoln Park Gun Club, but a bigger problem was the wadding that washed up on Chicago’s beaches.
Shotgun shells and plastic wadding littered the grounds of the old Lincoln Park Gun Club, but a bigger problem was the wadding that washed up on Chicago’s beaches.
AP

Some of the club’s supporters always maintained the dispute was really about guns and people who don’t like guns.

In retrospect, it probably was about a lot of things.

“It didn’t fit with what a majority of Chicagoans wanted with their lakefront,” said Cam Davis, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago commissioner who, as a young environmentalist, opposed the gun club.

Erma Tranter, former president of Friends of the Parks, which led the fight to close the club, said “it’s so obvious now” that the gun club was an inappropriate use of lakefront parkland.

“It was just wrong for a Chicago public park,” Tranter said, citing the pollution, private use of parkland and “cacophony” of the gunfire.

Christopher Cohen, a former 46th Ward alderman who was the club’s lawyer during its early days of fending off the park district in 1988, concedes the club could not be in the same location today.

“Lifestyles have certainly changed, and the public’s point of view has changed,” he said.

Cohen said he fought the perception that the gun club was exclusive by pointing to its diverse group of users, including its African American president, and having a woman on its board.

John Gray, former board chairman of Hart Schaffner & Marx, was the type of skeet shooter who gave the Lincoln Park Gun Club an exclusive image. But supporters said the club had a diverse membership.
John Gray, former board chairman of Hart Schaffner & Marx, was the type of skeet shooter who gave the Lincoln Park Gun Club an exclusive image. But supporters said the club had a diverse membership.
Chicago Daily News

The aggressive pushback, which included a Chicago City Council resolution unanimously supporting the club, succeeded in delaying the closing for a few more years.

But, in 1991, then-Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris sued the club for polluting the lake, prompting the park district to finally halt its operations.

Burris, who would go on to be appointed to the U.S. Senate by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said it was a tough decision.

“The club had a lot of clout,” Burris said. “They had a big following. It was not an easy situation to go after.”

The clubhouse was torn down in 1997.

It’s true that lifestyles change. And the public’s point of view changes. Often, as in this case, it changes for the better.