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Northerly Island Reimagined As Urban Camping Destination

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Northerly Island Plan

A rendering of the plan for Northerly Island (Courtesy: Chicago Park District)

Susanna Song Susanna Song
Susanna Song serves as a general assignment reporter for CBS 2...
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UPDATED 08/16/12 10:46 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Construction will begin this fall to turn Northerly Island – the onetime site of Meigs Field – into a new hub for urban camping.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Park District General Supt. Michael Kelly announced plans to turn part of the peninsula alongside from the Museum Campus, Soldier Field and McCormick Place into a camping area for families, children, and at-risk youth.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports


“Northerly Island is undergoing a tremendous transformation to reflect the natural coastline of Lake Michigan, and as part of that transformation, we will be providing families and children with more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and the park with onsite camping,” Mayor Emanuel said in a news release. “We will also exclusively reserve opportunities for at-risk youth to participate, giving children who grew up in the city and likely never camped, the chance to learn outdoor skills and new responsibilities while having fun.”

The budget for the restoration project is $4.3 million, with $2.8 million covered by a federal Great Lakes Fisheries Ecosystem Restoration grant. The Chicago Park District is also kicking in $1.5 million from revenues generated by the Charter One Pavilion concert venue at Northerly Island.

The new programs will allow 900 people to go camping at Northerly Island every year. Six hundred slots are for family campers, and 300 are for youth ages 12 to 15 who are part of the Wilderness Camping program.

The program will provide young people with two weeks of sailing, adventure courses and survival skills lessons – including shelter-building, flint-knapping and fire-building. Participants will also go home with their own fishing poles, compasses, and sleeping bags to encourage future camping excursions.

Meanwhile, the Nature Oasis Family Camping program will provide activities such as fishing, bird watching, kayaking and stewardship hikes six times a year throughout three seasons at Northerly Island. Experienced campers will be allowed to bring their own tents and equipment.

The Field Museum of Natural History, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium will all be involved in the Northerly Island project. Field Museum scientists will help campers identify birds and mammals, Adler staff will assist in stargazing, and the Shedd is creating a habitat for mudpuppies – a kind of salamander that will live in a pond that is connected to Lake Michigan, but fenced off to keep out larger fish.

The camping will begin once the Army Corps of Engineers completes the first phase of the restoration project at Northerly Island. The phase will involve turning 40 acres on the southern end of the Island into six interdependent ecosystems – including the pond, a marsh that will host crayfish and turtles, a prairies, and a savanna that will attract migratory birds, according to published reports.

And that is only the first phase of the restoration and renovation project at Northerly Island. The lager plan for the peninsula calls for importing a sunken ship that divers can explore, and a new concert venue that will hold as many as 14,000 people.

Back in December 2010, Chicago Park District Planning and Development director Gia Biagi said the amphitheater would remain close to Adler Planetarium, and would be designed in such a way that it can be used for star-gazing and Adler programs on nights that it is not in use as a concert venue.

The plans call for ferry service in the summer and a pontoon bridge in the winter that would provide a second access point, roughly at the point where the old Meigs Field terminal building still stands.

The Meigs terminal building would be gutted, stripped down to its frame and transformed into an open-air pavilion.

Also planned is a chain of reefs around the peninsula, which would protect a deep-water lagoon where patrons may swim, scuba dive, canoe and kayak.

The Complex History Of Northerly Island
Northerly Island was envisioned in the 1909 Plan for Chicago by Daniel Burnham, as one of the northernmost points in an archipelago of manmade islands along the lakefront. But none of the others were ever created.

The peninsula was constructed in 1925, and was in the world spotlight as the site for Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition.

In 1947, the single-strip Meigs Field airport opened at Northerly Island. For the next 56 years, the airport was used largely for commuter flights to and from Springfield and other nearby locales.

But plans to do away with the airport were under consideration as long ago as the early 1980s. At that time, the city was planning a 1992 World’s Fair to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing, and the plan called for closing Meigs Field and using Northerly Island for an assortment of amusement park rides, live entertainment venues, a water park with a Great Lakes theme, and other delights.

The World’s Fair Plan, which dominated the headlines in Chicago in 1982, also called for a chain of new manmade islands along the lakefront between Balbo Drive and 31st Street.

But Mayor Jane Byrne, the chief backer of the World’s Fair plan, lost her bid for reelection to Harold Washington in 1983. Mayor Washington lacked Byrne’s enthusiasm for the World’s Fair plan, and by 1985, the planned World’s Fair had been called off.

Meigs Field remained in operation when Mayor Richard M. Daley took office in 1989, and Daley made no secret of his desire to close it and turn it into a park. Daley did close the airport and had X’s painted on the runway on Sept. 30, 1996, sparking a fight with then-Gov. Jim Edgar and the city’s business community who wanted to keep it open.

In January 1997, Daley and Edgar struck a deal to reopen Meigs Field and keep it open for five years.

But much to Chicagoans’ surprise, on March 31, 2003, Daley closed the airport again — and this time, the X’s weren’t merely painted. Private bulldozer crews tore giant X’s into the runway in the dead of night.

At the time, which was only about a year and a half after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mayor Daley said the threat of terrorism from the presence of a lakefront airport was enough of a reason to close it. But the move drew widespread fury, particularly from the owners of 16 planes that wound up stranded at the airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration fined the city $33,000 for the move.

But Mayor Daley has always defended the decision. In a 2009 interview with former CBS 2 Political Editor Mike Flannery, Daley said the airport was a “losing proposition.”

“You couldn’t expand the airport. And so, in the long run, it was all part of the (Daniel) Burnham Plan originally, is to build islands. And that was part of the islands, the peninsula, for open space,” he said.

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