What Happened To Chicago’s Meigs Field?

When thinking of airports in Chicago, O’Hare and Midway are likely the ones that come to mind. But there was once a regional and general aviation airport in downtown Chicago, only minutes away from the Central Business District. The airport was loved by aviation enthusiasts, business travelers, and presidents alike. But one fine day in 2003, the airport came to an abrupt closure. Here’s the story of Chicago’s Meigs Field Airport.

Chicago Meigs Field Airport Getty
Meigs Field Airport was shut down in 2003 in a dramatic fashion. Photo: Getty Images

Location, location, location

 Meigs Field first began operation in September 1948, following two years of construction after World War 2. The airport is named after Merill Church Meigs, a noted aviation advocate and the publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner.

Soon after its opening, the airport became popular thanks to its prime location on Northerly Island, just adjacent to downtown Chicago. Meigs Field was home to dozens of general aviation aircraft, corporate jets, and some passenger services. Travelers could move from the city center to the airport in well under an hour, beating out the distance to O’Hare and Midway.

Meigs Field Map
Meigs Field’s location right along the harbor and downtown made it a favorite for many. Photo: USGS via Wikimedia Commons

By the 1980s, the airport opened to commercial passenger flights as well. The expanded single runway at the airport was 3,900 feet, easily allowing regional aircraft like the de Havilland Canada DHC-6, Beechcraft 1900C and Model 99, and others. Airlines operating to Meigs Field included Air Illinois, United Express, Trans State Airlines (a subsidiary of Trans World Airlines), and other regional carriers.

Notably, President John F. Kennedy would fly into O’Hare in Air Force One before stepping onto Marine One and landing in Meigs Field, allowing less disruption to highways due to the Presidential motorcade.

Regional airlines like Air Illinois flew services to Meigs Field. Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia Commons

Seeing the airport’s popularity would make sense to keep it open as a secondary hub closer to the city (such as DCA in Washington). However, the 1990s saw the beginning of an abrupt end for the airport.

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Lease over

 In 1994, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced that Meigs Field would shut down operations and make way for a new park on Northerly Island. In 1996, the Chicago Park District, which owned the land, refused to renew the lease for Meigs Fields and threw the airport into crisis over its future.

Following closure from October 1996 to February 1997, pressure from the state legislature forced the airport to reopen, and in 2001 a deal was reached to renew the airport for 25 years. However, the deal reached complications and never passed the US Senate, once again throwing the airport’s future into jeopardy.

The airport has since become a park, as can be seen here. Photo: Shawn via Wikimedia Commons

The airport continued operating after 2001, but on March 30th, 2003, Mayor Richard Daley took a shocking decision. Overnight, he ordered crews to bulldoze Meigs Field’s runway and make X-shaped gouges on the tarmac to ensure no flights could operate. The decision left dozens of aircraft stranded at the airport since it was still in operation the day before.

Mayor Daley was rebuked by the FAA and ordered to pay a fine of $33,000, the maximum penalty at the time, for failing to give a 30-day notice before shutting down the airport.

However, the demolition ensured that Meigs Field would end operations for good and was subsequently converted into a park. Since then, there have been attempts to reopen the airport, but for the most part, it seems to be destined to remain a park.

Did you ever have the chance to see this unique airport? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!