Grant Park, Chicago
by: chicago designslinger
[Grant Park (1901-1930) South Park Commissioners, Chicago Plan Commission, Chicago Park District, Frederick Law Olmsted, Daniel H. Burnham, Edward S. Bennett, Bennett, Parsons & Frost, et.al, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Grant Park, familiarly referred to as Chicago's front yard. Three-hundred and forty-three acres, give or take a few, sitting at the eastern edge of the city's historic commercial core where it meets Lake Michigan. Every year millions of visitors stream in and out of the park in summer, and crazily enough in the depths of winter, to enjoy the variety of activities that the park has to offer, always accompanied by stellar views of one of the world's most spectacular skylines. Of course it wasn't always like this.
[Grant Park, Chicago, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
"Public Ground - A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free of Any Building or Other Obstruction Whatever." There it is, on one of the first maps produced by the Illinois & Michigan Canal Commissioners in 1836 when they were laying the groundwork of the waterway that would connect Lake Michigan to the mighty Mississippi and put Chicago on the map. The public ground consisted of a sandy plot of land that stretched from the western edge of State Street out to the lake's edge where Michigan Avenue sits today. The land was federal reservation property and stretched from Fort Dearborn at the river and extended south to what would eventually become Roosevelt Road. Over the next 20 years, the feds pulled back and the city grew out over the sandy reservation. By the 1840s some of the city's finest homes lined the recently platted Michigan Avenue, where lake water lapped-up against the street's eastern edge. Then in 1852, residents watched as wood pilings were driven into the water off-shore for a train trestle bridge bringing the recently incorporated Illinois Central Railroad into Chicago.
[Grant Park, Chicago /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
It's that 1850-era right-of-way that you still see slicing through the park today. The landscaped landfill that we call Grant Park grew in an easterly direction to meet-up with the tracks that once bridged the water. When Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas got the feds to grant the Illinois Central a 300 foot wide right-of-way in 1850, the bridge spanning the water sat several hundred feet from the shore line of the lake at Michigan Avenue, which by-the-way was eroding. So, as part of the sales pitch to allow the trestle to be built was the notion that it would automatically create a breakwater, stopping the lake from reclaiming sandy Michigan Avenue.
[Grant Park, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
It did it's job, but unfortunately it caused another problem. Because the lake's waters broke off-shore, the naturally flowing give and take of re-freshened liquid no longer drew the flotsam out into the larger body of water away from the city, and the area became a stagnant pool of muck providing a steady stream of floating trash and unpleasant smells. In 1869 the government sold off another huge chunk of the old reservation property to the railroad from Monroe Street north to the river, because the citizenry wasn't interested in using the unsightly and odoriferous lake front promenade. City residents were much happier that the money the Illinois Central paid for the land would be used for improvements in other city parks located in more desirable settings. But big changes were on the way, and it all began on an unusually warm and dry Sunday night in October 1871, where we'll pick-up our story tomorrow.