Lost Chicago: The Surprising Past Behind Our Beautiful Lakefront

January 4, 2019

When Chicago’s Lakefront Wasn’t So Green

Only on rare occasions is a first-time visitor not impressed by Chicago’s 22 miles of shoreline. In addition to the beauty and grandeur of the sparkling blue water, virtually the entire stretch is free and clear of commercial construction. It consists of nothing but open space — parks and beaches — and is always open and accessible to the general public.

It wasn’t always that way, however. During the past century, Chicago’s lakefront served as the home for facilities and installations that emphasized weaponry — something that is difficult to imagine in today’s sensitive and politically-correct times.

Chicago Lakefront

Nike Missile Sites

From the early 1950’s until 1974, Chicago’s lakefront hosted Nike Missile installations (missiles, missile launchers and radar facilities) at three locations — Belmont/Montrose harbor, Burnham Park and Jackson Park/Promontory point. The sites were built by the U.S. government as part of a Cold War defense system and a deterrent to possible aggression from the Soviet Union. Though not usually visible to the general public, the missiles were occasionally unveiled so that citizens could see for themselves that the U.S. was prepared to defend the homeland and also as a propaganda tool to show the Soviets that the U.S. was “armed to the teeth” in case they were considering an attack. By the early 1960s, the sites became obsolete when intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) became the new offensive/defensive missiles-of-choice by both the Soviet Union and U.S. governments. As a result, the sites were dismantled.

Lincoln Park Gun Club

From 1912 until 1991, members of a private gun club founded by such prominent Chicagoans as Oscar F. Mayer, W.C. Peacock and P.K. Wrigley, were allowed to shoot traps and skeet that were launched over Lake Michigan by hurling devices operated by the Club, which was located near Diversey Avenue and the lakefront. In addition to the ubiquitous “pop-pop-pop” of gunfire echoing across the lakefront, lead shot from spent shotgun shells continuously emptied into the Lake and, over time, became a significant environmental hazard and pollutant. The Club, which leased its facilities from the Chicago Park District, decided to shut down in 1991 when then-Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris sued it for allegedly polluting Lake Michigan. When the Club’s countersuit against the Park District was dismissed, the club’s buildings were demolished by the Park District.

Today, the former Nike Missile sites and the land once occupied by the Lincoln Park Gun Club have been reclaimed as green space by the Chicago Park District and are open and accessible to all. The lake bottom at and around Diversey Harbor has been dredged many times in ongoing efforts to removed lead from the water.

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