The Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront is a grassroots coalition to remove Lakeshore Drive from Grant Park, and eventually the entire Chicago shoreline.

History of Lake Shore Drive

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by Payton Chung

Long before Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable built his home on the north bank of the river, the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans occupied the lands at the mouth of the Chicago River. The fertile alluvial plain offered ready access to woodland hunting, lake fishing, agricultural fields, and both land and water trade routes. One trade route in particular interested both the natives and European explorers: the portage across Mud Lake that linked the Chicago River to the Illinois and ultimately to the Mississippi. When an opportunity arose in 1795 for the United States government to secure title to this land, the young government, realizing the strategic importance of the marsh, acquired the Chicago portage. Eight years after the Potawatomi had ceded the Chicago portage to the United States, construction began on Fort Dearborn. The small outpost offered a modicum of military protection — most spectacularly transgressed in the War of 1812, when British-allied natives massacred the town and its fort during a retreat — to the few hundred residents of the trading community that had risen there.

Permanent settlement at the mouth of the Chicago River only became possible when the federal government removed the native tribes in 1835, in preparation for the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal to link the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers (and hence the Mississippi) to the Chicago and thus to the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence trade route. Once the area was secure from hinterland threats and once the I&M opened, trade and population boomed. Land prices in the small town were increasing at phenomenal rates — speculators who held lots for only a few days in 1836 could easily make a 25% profit. (Strangely, many of the streets on the Near North Side today were named after these early speculators.)

The land that is now Grant Park was deeded to the citizens of Chicago in two phases. Roughly half of the former Fort Dearborn — bounded by Michigan Avenue, the river, the lake, and Madison Street — was deeded on 2 November 1835 for “all time to come for a public square, accessible at all times to the people.” This land included the current site of the Chicago Cultural Center (the former Dearborn Park and original Chicago Public Library) and what is now Grant Park between Randolph and Madison streets. The exact boundaries weren't determined until April 1839, when the rest of the Fort Dearborn tract went on sale.

More importantly, the 1836 plat of the State of Illinois' land grant for the I&M canal, supervised by Gurdon Hubbard, William F. Thornton, also included a public ground. On their plat map, they marked the lakefront property east of Michigan, from Madison south to 12th Street (Roosevelt Road) “Public Ground — Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstruction Whatever.”

The land that the federal and state governments deeded to the young city as public grounds were, at the time, not of terrible commercial importance to the city. Most commerce tended to congregate near the river's mouth, and the thin, muddy strips of shoreline now in the city's possession were growing thinner and muddier by the year as erosion washed away the sand. City residents were soon requesting a breakwater to protect them from the encroaching lake, and the Illinois Central railroad — eager to connect central Chicago to the southern part of the state — drew up plans for a breakwater and trestle in the lake, along the shore. After a short legislative battle in 1852, the railroad quickly began construction on a new terminal (sited on the remainder of the Fort Dearborn property) and on a trestle that would shut the south side of Chicago off from its lakefront.

The Illinois Central proved a bad precedent for the development of parks along Chicago's lakefront. From 1890 to 1913, retail ogul Aaron Montgomery Ward went to court several times to prevent construction of various structures, from armories to a natural history museum, within the confines of Grant Park. In 1894, his pressure forced the City Council to turn over the Lake Park lands to the South Park Commission, which had been in charge of developing the World's Columbian Exhibition in Jackson Park and the adjacent parklands and set about developing the park. His actions also stopped cold Daniel Burnham's plans for a cultural campus in Grant Park; the museums planned for that site, including the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium, were eventually built on new fill east of the Illinois Central tracks and south of Twelfth Street.

The precedent for Lake Shore Drive was set in 1896, when the Commercial Club asked Daniel Burnham to present some schemes he had been working on for the south lakefront. The areas west of the IC tracks were terribly congested and crowded, despite the new parkways. Burnham planned to fill in vast lakefront areas and to create a network of lagoons, sheltered by offshore islands, along the city\u2019s entire lakefront. A scenic “Outer Park Boulevard” would connect north and south lakefronts, offering a pleasurable Sunday drive for the city's residents. The Commercial Club was so impressed by Burnham's scheme that they commissioned the famous Plan of Chicago, completed in 1909 and widely publicized ever since. Burnham centered the grand plan around the lakefront park and pleasure drive, writing

“First in importance [to the city] is the shore of Lake Michigan. It should be treated as park space to the greatest possible extent. The lakefront by right belongs to the people… not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”

The plan inspired the City Council to pass a lakefront ordinance in 1919, calling for construction on the islands and lagoons, beaches, and a new sports stadium (Soldier Field). The Illinois Central cooperated by electrifying and depressing many of its tracks on the South Side, but progress remained slow due to the intervening Depression and World War Two.

Although the “clear and free” prohibition technically only covered Grant Park, many took the words to cover the entire lakefront park system. To this day, Chicago has a waterfront park system almost unparalleled among major cities worldwide, largely thanks to the vision of its forefathers.