Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment in a multipart series on Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Today we start with the early years, 1920-1960. Enjoy!
MIAMI — It did not take long after Municipal Airport (now Midway) opened on Chicago’s southwest side in 1926 for the city to realize that it needed more space if it was going to keep up with the growth of commercial aviation. Throughout the 1930s the city of Chicago looked for suitable locations for a second airport, but little progress was made until the beginning of World War II. After the war began, inland defense production facilities became a priority and the Army Air Corps was soon in Chicago looking for a site where the Douglas Aircraft Company could produce its C-54 Skymaster transport aircraft.
After examining numerous sites, the Army settled on Orchard Place, an area 18 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, well served by rail lines with plenty of open space for the plant and accompanying airfield. In 1942, work began on the factory and the first C-54 took flight in July 1943. In addition to the factory, four runways were constructed, each 5500 feet long and 150 feet wide. Runway placement was determined by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which wanted a main runway parallel to Municipal Field’s northwest-southeast orientation, resulting in the original 32-14 runway.
At the war’s end Douglas consolidated its operations to the west coast, having produced a total of 655 C-54s at the Orchard plant. With economic development now a high priority for Chicago, it soon returned to the question of how to increase its commercial aviation capabilities. Municipal Airport was near capacity and passenger traffic was expected to grow rapidly in the decades following the war. Because of the financial and logistical difficulties in expanding Municipal Airport the city returned to investigating locations for a second airport. In 1945, Chicago’s Mayor Martin Kennelly created an Airport Selection Board to choose a site on which would sit, “the best airport—the safest, the most convenient and with the most capacity of any airport on this continent.”
Many of the sites considered in the 1930s were reexamined, including building the airport on landfill in Lake Michigan. Ultimately, Orchard Field was chosen as other plans either proved too costly or created unacceptable logistical and safety concerns. In March of 1946 Chicago acquired approximately 1000 acres of the Douglas plant, at no cost from the federal government, on which to site the airport. The government retained a few hundred acres for military use.
Designing the Airport
Chicago hired engineer Ralph H. Burke, the man who designed Meigs Field and the Chicago subway, to design the master plan for Orchard Airport. Channeling Daniel Burnham’s admonition to “make no little plans,” the airport Burke envisioned was an audacious plan that, when the final stage was complete, would include 10 runways and a massive terminal complex to handle millions of passengers and visitors every year.
Burke’s plan called for a central terminal around which runways would be arranged tangentially. The terminal itself would consist of main concourse buildings with “fingers” spreading out into the apron area. During the design study, two types of terminal designs and two types of runway configurations were considered. Burke examined the feasibility of a “production line” terminal system where aircraft would be moved by mechanical means to separate areas for unloading, servicing, and loading. This plan was eliminated from consideration as “to radical a departure from present practice and too advanced for adoption at [that] time.”
The designers then turned to successive iterations of a stationary design, including the Circle, the Ellipse, the Cross, the Five-Loop, the Circular-Finger, and finally, the Split-Finger plan. Burke and his team arrived at the Split-Finger plan as the design that afforded the most room for terminal operations, parking, and future expansion. Burke also recognized the draw of the airport for spectators and visitors and planned a number of shops and restaurants. He also planned for a rooftop viewing area where passengers and spectators could watch aircraft arrive and depart.
Competing runway designs were also studied in great detail. Various parallel runway configurations were examined as well as a tangential runway arrangement. Burke’s final plan called for the eventual construction of 10 tangential runways, arguing that this configuration offered more room for expansion in the future. The new configuration would replace the existing crossing runways that severely limited operations during inclement weather.
Finding the Money
Burke delivered his initial proposal to the city in October 1947, providing a basic outline for Chicago Orchard (Douglas) Airport. Burke elaborated on his ideas in a Master Plan for the airport delivered in early 1948 and the city went to work finding the money for the new airport. While the federal government had been very helpful in securing the land, additional funds were more difficult to obtain. The Civil Aeronautics Association and the State of Illinois both made commitments to Orchard Airport, but when it was time to actually write the check, funds were far less than promised.
Lack of funding forced Mayor Kennelly to slow construction on the airport and to continue lobbying for additional money from Congress, the state legislature, and the airlines. The airlines agreed to the design of the airport for the most part, but were concerned about how its operations would be financed. The airlines had long held that they would not move traffic from Midway to Orchard Airport unless they had a contract regarding landing fees and terminal usage. Negotiations between the airlines and the city began in 1947 and continued over the better part of a decade. At one point in 1949, the city halted construction on Orchard Airport until an agreement was reached. This temporary agreement saw the airlines commit $60,000 per year during the airports construction phase.
Finding a Name that Sticks
That same year, Mayor Kennelly signed an ordinance officially naming the airport in honor World War II naval aviator Edward “Butch” O’Hare. Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, had put his support behind renaming the airport after O’Hare and the Tribune pushed for the change throughout 1948. Much like the construction of the airport itself, deciding on a name was not an easy task. Almost everyone had an opinion and many competing names were offered in addition to the existing Orchard Field, including Roosevelt, Fort Dearborn, and the plain “Chicago World.” McCormick’s bid for O’Hare won over the city council and in June 1949, the airport became O’Hare Field, Chicago International Airport.
The 1950s—A Decade of Challenges
If naming the airport wasn’t a simple process, why should any other aspect be easy? As 1950 approached, the airport was underfunded, underutilized, and issues with the design were cropping up. While the plans were there, very few of the pieces for a successful airport were in place. The 1950s became a decade of challenges for the city of Chicago as it sought to turn O’Hare Field into a model international airport. Much of the decade was spent redesigning the airport, dealing with neighbors—both inside and outside the airport fence, and convincing the airlines to move traffic from Midway.
Designing and building an airport is always a challenge but doing so at the advent of the Jet Age created a host of issues not anticipated in the original designs. Jet aircraft are larger and require longer runways, so the master plan was modified to account for such necessities. Out went the tangential runways in favor of a combination of parallel runways of various orientations and proposed runway lengths were extended and extended again.
To accommodate such growth O’Hare also had to deal with its suburban neighbors, something that would again play out in the early 21st century when O’Hare expanded once more. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the city of Chicago purchased over 5,000 acres, including 14 acres belonging to St. John’s Church. The St. John’s cemetery remained active on airport property, but a cemetery belonging to the Evangelical Zion Society was moved in 1951 in order to accommodate a runway extension. Many of the land acquisitions were contentious and involved protracted legal proceedings, but Chicago was able to procure the land that it needed for O’Hare.
Chicago also had to contend with opposition to its 1956 plan for O’Hare’s annexation. Suburbs that abutted O’Hare feared further encroachment by Chicago and proposed a municipal airport authority to run O’Hare. While Mayor Daley had no intention of giving up control of O’Hare, he did state that the city had no intention of annexing any further land than was necessary to connect O’Hare to the city proper. In March of 1956, the Chicago City Council voted unanimously to annex O’Hare, making it officially part of Chicago.
O’Hare’s problems with its neighbors were not just outside the fence. In its agreement with Chicago, the U.S. Air Force had retained rights to 25% of O’Hare’s operating capacity. The outbreak of the Korean War meant increased military aviation activity, but also more federal money for O’Hare. The Air Force spent about $5 million in improvements at O’Hare in 1951. Much of it went towards runway and taxiway expansion that also benefitted commercial aviation. Tension arose between the military and the city as Air Force use of O’Hare increased during the war. Many on the city council wanted the Air Force gone because they didn’t pay landing fees, while newspapers argued that the government should purchase O’Hare outright and turn it into a military base. With no time to construct a new base, the military considered taking O’Hare for its own, but the city and many state officials opposed such a move. The disagreement escalated until a compromise was reached that would see all military units except the city defense squadron removed as soon as possible to a new base to be built in the Chicago area.
While the Air Force was a problem for O’Hare, no other obstacle loomed larger than the lack of commercial traffic. A dangerous loop existed: a lack of commercial traffic meant a lack of revenue, which meant no facilities expansion, which meant little interest from airlines. The airlines were reluctant to bring commercial traffic to O’Hare, citing safety concerns about the military’s use of the field and the high price of O’Hare’s landing fees as major objections to further use.
Negotiations between the city and the airlines continued throughout the early 1950s as construction on the first phase of the airport proceeded slowly. By 1955, it seemed that Chicago and the airlines were finally ready to make a deal to begin the transfer of traffic from Midway to O’Hare. In May 1955, the airlines and the city signed an expansive contract providing the city with guaranteed revenue and the airlines with modern facilities. O’Hare Field, Chicago International Airport officially opened for business on October 30, 1955.
By the latter half of the 1950s, many challenges had been overcome, but many remained. The original design had not yet been completed and expansion already seemed inevitable. Over the next five years traffic would grow exponentially from a few hundred thousand passengers to over 5 million in 1960. International traffic was an important part of O’Hare’s growth, so in 1958 the city officially renamed the airport Chicago-O’Hare International.
As it grew in the late 1950s, O’Hare was “faced with the task of building a giant new airport on top of an old one without disrupting normal operations.” A top priority was the lengthening and strengthening of the 14R-32L runway, originally built with asphalt in 1956. The runway wasn’t long or strong enough to accommodate non-stop, transoceanic jet flights, so work commenced in October of 1959 to rebuild 14R-32L in concrete and lengthen it to 11,600 feet. Construction on the runway was completed in June of 1960, while Chicago also rushed to complete the terminal complex and passenger support facilities.
The transfer of traffic from Midway, along with the completion of the Northwest Expressway brought passengers to O’Hare faster than the airport could comfortably accommodate them. In 1961, over 9.6 million passengers made their way through the airport, a facility that wasn’t yet finished.
In 1962 the terminal and concourse buildings were mostly finished. In 1963 work was completed on the circular restaurant in between terminals. At the same time work had already begun on renovations to the original 1955 domestic terminal for use as the new international terminal. On March 23, 1963, dignitaries including President John F. Kennedy descended on O’Hare for the formal dedication. By then the airport had been open for eight years, but a passenger in from 1955 would hardly recognize the O’Hare of 1963. Countless improvements to the runways, taxiways, and terminals had grown O’Hare to the busiest airport in world. Over the next few decades O’Hare would continue to expand a rapid pace as the ever-growing passenger traffic pushed the airport to its limits and beyond.
Make sure to tune in again next Monday for the next installment in the series!