Miegs Field: Chicago’s Third Airport
When a city reaches the size and level of recognition as Chicago has, its airports become just as much a landmark as the city itself. Anyone who has flown in and out of the city can tell you about Midway and O’Hare airports; they are almost as synonymous as La Guardia and JFK. However, in the latter half of the last century there was another airport that had Chicago making headlines for flight enthusiasts. Miegs Field was a single strip airport located on Northerly Island (right next to the Adler Planetarium) that operated from 1948 until its untimely demise in 2003.
Northerly Island was the only structure detailed in Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago to be completed. However, since the plan was written in 1909, there were no plans to place an airfield there. After the first airplane flight in Chicago took place in Grant Park in 1910, technology quickly caught up with the Chicago Park District and the idea to make Northerly Island a public park were quickly scrapped. Northerly Island was completed in 1925, but the Great Depression put the planned airport on hold. Grant Park continued to provide the city with a functional downtown airstrip, but the traffic soon became too much to handle.
After the 1933 World’s Fair became a successful endeavor on the newly completed island, plans for the airport continued. Nonetheless it took the passing of World War II for the airport to finally open on December 10th, 1948. A short two years later the unnamed airstrip was christened the “Merrill C. Miegs Field” in honor of the aviation enthusiast and publisher of the afternoon newspaper Chicago’s American.
Over the next 30 years, Miegs Filed continued to receive technological improvements. In 1952 an air traffic control tower was built, followed by the new terminal building dedicated to Richard J. Daley in 1961. The field was mostly used by those commuters lucky enough to have a plane and learn to fly it, yet various VIP’s used it as a safe way to get in and out of the city without the crowds often found at the larger international airports. The ill-fated airline Air Illinois also flew out of Miegs and delivered passengers to the various Chicago suburbs. The famous Boeing 727 on display at the Museum of Science and Industry made its final landing at Miegs Field.
Tragedy struck the famed airstrip at the turn of the century. By 1994, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley spoke of closing down the airstrip and building a park in its place. Nonetheless, the Chicago Park District declined and a decade of court battles ensued until an agreement was made in 2001 between the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois and other interests to keep the airport open for another twenty-five years. However, the deal never passed the U.S. Senate and on March 31st, 2003, Mayor Daley shut down the airport by destroying the takeoff/landing strip with bulldozers. Sixteen planes were stranded, and the entire city was appalled that such an act could occur without their consent. Mayor Daley defended his actions by claiming that he saved the city expensive court charges that would have come from shutting down the airport in a normal fashion and he made the skyline safer considering the terrorist threat poised by the 9/11 attacks. By 2006, the City of Chicago paid the $33,000 dollar fine placed by the FAA and paid back the one million dollars it illegally used to shut down the airport. Miegs Field was never used again.
Today, Northerly Island is home to Charter One Pavillion, a small concert venue on the lake. There are still a few efforts in place to bring back Miegs Field, but from the looks of it, it’s doubtful we’ll see another plane take off from there.