The story of Meigs Field in Chicago

Today, most of the 120 acres that make up Northerly Island, just south of Chicago’s Loop, are underutilized and under-appreciated. However, despite its lack of use today, Northerly Island used to be home to one of the world’s most unique and beloved airports: Merrill C. Meigs Field.

In 1925, Northly Island was constructed, as first suggested by architect Daniel Burnham in his “Plan Of Chicago”. The plan outlined several proposals to bring more beauty to the city, including a man-made island connected by a land bridge that would be used as a space for a large park. However, as the aviation industry grew, some within the city, including the head of the Chicago Aero Commission, Merrill Church Meigs, suggested that the space be converted into an airport that would allow for quicker access to downtown.

Calls to use the peninsula as an airport continued and, in 1946, construction of a new airfield located on Northerly Island began. To accommodate the nearly 3,900 feet of runway required, the city deeded an additional 24 acres of lake bottom to be added to the island. In just 2 short years, the Northerly Island Air Strip was completed and aptly renamed “Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport” soon after.

The lakefront airfield quickly became the preferred landing strip for many dignitaries arriving in Chicago and, by 1955, was the busiest single-runway airport in the country. In its infancy, Meigs Field solely operated as an airport for private and regional charter flights, but over time, expanded its operations to accommodate a variety of uses. Northerly Island became a crucial location for aeromedical transport thanks to its vicinity to many large hospitals and by the 1980s, had evolved into a hub for several commercial airliners such as Air Illinois, United Express, and Ozark Air Lines. All of the services Meigs Field provided were of great value to the city, but the airport was equally valued by aviation enthusiasts. Being located on a peninsula with great visibility, the airport was the preferred training ground for many rookie pilots. Chicago-area Tuskegee Airmen used the airfield to offer free flights to children interested in aviation. The Boeing 727 found at the Museum of Science and Industry made its final landing on Northerly Island, despite being allotted just half of its required runway length. The history and memories created at Meigs Field combined with its incredible location made it a fan-favorite amongst airport aficionados across the United States.

Meigs Field saw continued success well into the latter half of the century, facilitating over 60,000 flights per year by 1990. Even so, the utility and convenience that the airport provided were not enough to satisfy everybody, especially city officials. In the mid-1990s, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley began expressing his desire for Northerly Island to revert to being a park and temporarily closed the airport for several months. Certain agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration fought back, citing that the airport received agency grants and as a result, could not be shut down.

Despite efforts at the federal level to keep the airport alive, Mayor Daley’s distaste for Meigs Field and engrossment with having a park on Northerly Island drove him to shocking lengths. On May 30, 2003, under the cover of night, Mayor Daley orchestrated the unforeseen and unlawful demolition of Merrill C. Meigs Field. Just before the clock struck 12, several bulldozers escorted by Chicago Police cruisers made their way onto the airstrip and dug six ‘X’ shaped craters into the runway, violating multiple FAA regulations and leaving more than a dozen planes stranded. The following morning, Mayor Daley held a press conference where he would attempt to vindicate the brash decision. With the horrific attack on the World Trade Center fresh in the minds of every American, Mayor Daley justified his “Midnight Raid” by claiming Meigs Field would be an opportune airport to recreate a similar act of terror. When the Department of Homeland Security refuted the claim, Mayor Daley quickly changed his reasoning, stating that the airport was demolished to avoid unnecessary legal battles between the city and federal agencies. Despite the Mayor’s best efforts to defend the rogue operation, the city was fined $33,000 and forced to repay the $1,000,000 it was granted through the Airport Improvement Fund.

While there was no shortage of pushback from government agencies and fans of Meigs Field following the demolition of its sole runway, Northerly Island’s famed airfield never saw another arrival or departure. Today, the land the airport once operated on is occupied by Northerly Island Park and Huntington Bank Pavilion. Though Meigs Field is no longer in operation, its control tower still stands tall and serves as a reminder of the once-great airfield. The phrase “Remember Meigs Field” can still be heard in aviation enthusiast circles today.