Midway is the little airport that could.
Despite numerous hurdles, it managed to become the busiest airport in the world, a title it held for at least 15 years. Don't remember the golden age? The little airfield on the city's Southwest Side understands that. It has battled low expectations and self-esteem issues since its birth in the 1920s.
Midway has had many lives, and it appears another may be making its approach as the city considers turning over the airport's operations to a private company.
The early years
In the mid-1920s, flying was still a relatively new idea. Consider that when city officials worked out early leases for the airfield that would become Midway, they insisted on 10-year, early-out clauses because they thought the flying machines might just be a fad.
City planners envisioned more than one "sky port" for Chicago. In June 1924, they outlined two near the lake — south at 18th Street and north at Grace Street — and the third "on the west side on Cicero avenue." But the airport's birth lacked much fanfare. On April 4, 1925, on page 6, the Tribune reported the news: "Chicago this morning has a municipal airport." Leased from the school board, the 75-acre site would expand to 300 acres in short order, officials hoped.
Growth was quick, and with it came growing pains. Already in 1929, aviation officials warned the city the airport was too small, too crowded and bordering on unsafe. "It is a crime to operate in the area with full loads and it will be nearly impossible to have the new thirty-two passenger planes land there," complained an executive of Universal Aviation Corp. Another big concern were the numerous student pilots buzzing around the same airspace, he said. In 1931, the Tribune reported a quarter of the nation's airmail carried annually by airlines passed through Municipal Airport.
Railroads fight back?
A major sticking point in the airport's growth was the little problem of the railroad tracks running across the property at 59th Street, a ribbon of steel curtailing further expansion as effectively as a bird cage. In 1936, as "great 50 passenger, four motored airliners" were on the horizon, the airport was warned again of its limitations, this time by an infant United Air Lines. The sensible suggestion that the tracks be moved north of 55th Street would prove a herculean task involving the City Council, state legislature, Illinois Supreme Court and the federal government. It took more than five years. Indicative of the process: Even after the new tracks were laid, the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad refused to tear up the old tracks until the city paid money into an escrow account to cover a piddling $10,627 it felt it was still owed.
What about the school?
If railroad tracks running through an airport weren't odd enough, there was also the matter of an elementary school at the southwest corner — just feet from one of the runways. Maybe that shouldn't be considered an odd pairing given that the land was being leased from the school board, but this wasn't a case where the airport grew up around the school. Hale Elementary School was built in 1925, the same year the site was declared the official city airport and years after the airstrip had become a busy airmail center and home to many pilot schools. Further, the building was condemned just four years later because of shoddy construction. Students were taught in poorly heated portable classrooms for the 1929-30 winter. Classes continued despite Municipal Airport being described in 1929 as the nation's busiest and the school's construction problems.
In the late 1940s, the issues of noise and safety made headlines. In 1947, the principal said that idling planes warming up before takeoff rendered instruction impossible numerous times an hour. Flashback reader Noreen Johnson Becker recalled recently that when the planes taxied by the school and revved their engines, the students would often "scream and holler because the teacher wouldn't know the difference."
A year later, prompted by a runway accident and other "close calls," officials finally talked about relocating the school. Amazingly, that was shelved Jan. 27, 1949, when it was announced that the airport would limit usage on the two runways near the building during class hours instead of closing the school.
The school and airport coexisted for about two more years before ground was broken on a new Nathan Hale School nearby, though the old building wasn't demolished until 1955.
The Glory Years (aka Life Before O'Hare)
On Feb. 24, 1929, the Tribune reported Municipal Airport handled more than 30,000 passengers and was home to 10 airlines. It handled more than 1.6 million pounds of airmail. So would begin a parade of stories boasting of the little airport's productivity. In 1949, there was one landing or takeoff every 2 minutes. But even as the newly renamed Midway was sitting atop the aviation world, Tribune editorial writers were pining for the upstart O'Hare and its "super air terminal." Midway traffic peaked in 1959 when it handled one landing or takeoff every 51 seconds. That equated to more than 10 million passengers.
The fall was sudden. By early 1962, Midway was an "aviation backwater" as the major airlines switched their main service to O'Hare. Predictions that both could thrive proved inaccurate. A 1962 story already referenced the need for a "comeback" and the airport's dreary "ghost terminal." Midway was relegated to freight until it received a much-needed lifeline with the 1964 opening of the Southwest Expressway (later renamed the Stevenson), which cut the drive time to the Loop in half. That same year, commercial air service returned when United started offering two daily flights to New York. The airport's rebirth had begun.
About that name
Municipal Airport was renamed Midway Airport in December 1949 to "emphasize Chicago's position as the center of aviation and also honor heroes of the battle of Midway," the Tribune reported. The famous clash near Midway Island in early June 1942 had turned around the war in the Pacific when a much-smaller U.S. fleet sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and numerous other ships and downed hundreds of airplanes.
A wonder to behold
The airport very much shaped the neighborhoods around it. When retired Chicago police officer Martin Bilecki was growing up near the airport in the late 1930s and early 1940s, there was plenty of room to roam — as in open prairie. Bilecki, who now lives in Morris, Ill., said he and his friends would hunt snakes and shoot rabbits and other small wildlife. It wasn't until World War II that the airport drew their interest, he said, when military planes — fighter planes and B-24 and B-25 bombers — were using the airstrip regularly.
He wasn't alone in his attraction to the airport. The Tribune reported in February 1952 that millions of people came to watch the action from the terminal promenade, dine at the Cloud Room restaurant or peer through the airport's perimeter fences. No small part of the appeal was the parade of movie stars, entertainers, politicians and the otherwise famous who came through the airport. It was a tradition that started with Charles Lindbergh's visits in 1927 and Amelia Earhart's in 1928.
Marion Kowalski of Chicago Ridge grew up near the airport. He recalled how planes would fly so low near his house that he "could see people in the plane windows."
Kowalski and his friends would hang out in the terminal in the 1950s watching the different airplanes come and go. He said the flight attendants would invite them aboard and give them postcards, pins, plastic toy planes and other mementos. "It was very interesting," he said. "We spent most of our childhood at Midway."
Editor's note: Thanks to J Halfpenny, of Villa Park; Noreen Johnson Becker, of Romeoville; Chuck Haeflinger, of Chino Hills, Calif.; Marion Kowalski, of Chicago Ridge; Martin Bilecki, of Morris, Ill.; and Al Krol, of Brookfield, for suggesting different aspects of this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun