How Chicago’s Lakefront Was Saved (12-21-1910)

When Chicagoans want to show off the beauty of their city, they take visitors to the lakefront.  Most cities don’t have such a spectacular front yard.  That makes today an important date.

Back in 1836, Chicago was still a village.  The commissioners who were building the Illinois & Michigan Canal used their authority to make the lakefront public land.  They ruled that it would be “a common to remain forever open, clear, and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever.”

Montgomery Ward

The lake came almost up to Michigan Avenue then.  The order applied to the area east of the avenue, between Randolph and 12th Streets (Roosevelt Road).  In 1856 the Illinois Central Railroad built a trestle over the open water to a terminal at Randolph Street.

After the 1871 fire, the city started dumping debris into the space between Michigan Avenue and the railroad trestle.  This created a landfill officially known as Lake Park.  Squatters’ shacks sprang up, while the garbage mounds kept growing.  For a few years, the city’s National League baseball team even had a stadium on the site.

By 1890 Lake Park was an eyesore.  Montgomery Ward, the mail order tycoon, had his office directly across from it.  Citing the 1836 decree, he brought a lawsuit to have the area cleared and kept open.

Ward’s action was not popular.  He was standing in the way of civic progress!  Surely an ancient law enacted by a bunch of dead commissioners did not apply to modern conditions, and should be discarded!  The case worked its way to the Illinois State Supreme Court.  The court ruled in Ward’s favor.

Over the next twenty years, politicians and their allies tried various ways to evade the law.  Ward beat them in two more lawsuits.  Meanwhile, the park was renamed Grant Park and spruced up.  But except for the Art Institute, there were no new buildings.

1910 Grant Park Plan for the Field Museum

In 1910 the trustees of the proposed Field Museum of Natural History wanted to build in the park.  Ward sued again.  On December 21, he was upheld again, finally and definitively.  The museum was later erected on new landfill south of 12th  Street.

Montgomery Ward died in 1913.  Today he is looked on as a visionary who saved the lakefront for the people of Chicago.  But is there even a statue of him in Grant Park?


4 Responses to “How Chicago’s Lakefront Was Saved (12-21-1910)”

  1. 1 Kirk Mellish December 21, 2020 at 10:30 am

    There are modern pressures and threats to build up on or near the lake, we should continue to fight them all off. Leave it alone!

  2. 3 Garry December 21, 2020 at 2:53 pm

    There’s a bust of Ward in front of the Merchandise Mart, with all the other big retailers.

    • 4 J.R. Schmidt December 21, 2020 at 4:31 pm

      The busts at the Mart celebrate outstanding merchants. That’s fine, but Ward deserves a full-size statue for saving the lakefront.

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