The End of Old Chicago (2-3-1986)

The dream ended today.  They began tearing down Old Chicago.

Was it an amusement park?  Was it a shopping mall?  No one could decide which it was.  Now it would be neither.

There had been such high hopes in 1973.  The concept was daring–build an amusement park, surround it with stores, and put the whole thing indoors.  That way it could operate the year ’round.  The investors tripped over each other racing forward with money.

The location for the project was a plot of farmland in Bolingbrook, just off I-55 at Route 53.  In a salute to Chicago history, the 11-acre building was to be topped off with a dome in the style of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  Planning and construction took over two years.  As the dome started to rise above the corn fields, a steady stream of curiosity seekers drove by the site.

Old Chicago officially opened on June 26, 1975.  The amusement park boasted 31 rides, including a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, and an old Riverview favorite, the Rotor.  Shopping was available in over 100 specialty stores.  Entertainment was provided by circus acts and a Dixieland band.

Over 15,000 people turned out on opening day.  During the first few months, massive traffic jams backed up onto the Interstate.  Then things began to go wrong.

There wasn’t any one reason.  Maybe the prices at the amusement park were too high–$2.95 for each of your kids was steep in 1975.  Maybe the shopping wasn’t attractive enough–Old Chicago had plenty of boutique stores selling candy and costume jewelry and t-shirts, but no major department store.  Maybe it was the tragic accident, when a trapeze performer slipped and plunged to his death.

Probably the biggest factor was the rise of a competitor.  In 1976 Great America opened in Gurnee.  This was a huge, full-scale amusement park.  Now the 31 rides under the dome in Bolingbrook seemed pretty dinky.

Business at Old Chicago fell off.  The schedule was cut back, with the park closing on Monday and Tuesday.  The Illinois Central Railroad, a major investor, took control.  Stores began leaving.  In 1980 the whole thing closed.

So on this date in 1986, the wrecking ball descended on Old Chicago.  When all is said and done, maybe it was just ahead of its time.  Six years later, the Mall of America opened in Minnesota.



14 Responses to “The End of Old Chicago (2-3-1986)”

  1. 1 Jack F February 3, 2014 at 12:28 am

    Actually it was the Illinois Central Industries (ICI) that owned Old Chicago. While at one time the Railroad was the major component of the Industries, it slowly fell out of favor as they expanded into Perfect Plus Panty Hose, Midas Muffler, Pepsi-Cola Bottlers, Pet Milk along with numerous other non-railroad related companies. The Illinois Central Gulf Railroad was spun-off by the Industries in early 1989, and returned to its original name Illinois Central Railroad.

  2. 3 benson February 3, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Let me throw this reason out for discussion: Is it possible Old Chicago was just too small a project? Mall of America incorporates some of the same concepts but on a much much grander scale.

    • 4 J.R. Schmidt February 3, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Benson– My understanding is that Old Chicago had plenty of room on the property, and was ready to expand if necessary. Of course, that never happened.

      • 5 benson February 3, 2014 at 5:54 pm

        We’ll it wouldn’t surprise me if investors and management took a wait and see attitude, and you and I have the benefit of 40 years hindsight. Seems your point of the lack of any major anchor stores might be the most telling. What was there to keep adults (parents) coming back?

  3. 6 Alzo February 3, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    As I recall, the amusement park was surrounded by ‘stores’ that were more like glorified kiosks. A prevailing sentiment was that the Energy Crisis (remember that one?) was to blame for no one wanting to fill the tank and drive out to Bolingbrook.

  4. 8 Michael Stichauf February 4, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    John, I’ve been following you for a while now and I’m curious about something. Can you please explain why there is always a “-30-” at the end of every story? It’s been driving me nuts! LOL. Thanks for your great “shorts”. Michael K. Stichauf

  5. 12 SWSIDEFAN February 5, 2014 at 12:47 am

    My recollection as a 10 year old when it opened is it was very cold and just weird to have it under a big concrete dome. The Old Chicago decor was tacky even then. It looked like it was lifted from the Main Street of yesteryear exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. One positive was the first Wendy’s we had been to in the Chicago area that was part of the food offering.

  6. 14 Laura October 9, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    I also remember many accidents happening there. My good friend worked there and I was there a lot! Plus I think part of the down fall was price, seeing that Woodridge,Lisle,Bowlingbrook and all the towns around did not have much for kids to do they went as often as they could afford to but price was going up and up to the point most of us stopped going.

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