December 21, 1910: Open, clear, and free

December 21, 2011

When Chicagoans want to show off the beauty of our town, we take visitors to the lakefront. Most cities don't have such a spectacular front yard. That makes December 21st an important date.

Back in 1836 Chicago was still a village. The commissioners who were building the nearby 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."

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

After the 1871 fire, the city started dumping debris into the space between Michigan Avenue and the railroad trestle. This created a landfill 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 played their games on a corner the site.

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

Ward's action was not popular. He was standing in the way of 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 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. Except for the Art Institute, there were no new buildings.

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

Montgomery Ward died in 1913. Today he's looked on as a visionary, who saved the lakefront for the people of Chicago. So why isn't there a statue of him in Grant Park?