A History of Chicago's O'Hare Airport

A History of Chicago's O'Hare Airport


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In 1942, a stretch of Illinois prairie that had served as a battleground and a railroad depot became the site of a major manufacturing plant, producing Douglas C-54 Skymasters for World War II. Less than twenty years later, that plot of land boasted the biggest and busiest airport in the world. Many of the millions who have since passed through it have likely only regarded it as a place between cities. But for people like Michael Branigan, who has spent years on its tarmac, they know that O'Hare is a city unto itself, with a fascinating history of gangsters and heroes, mayors, presidents and pilots.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609494346
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 10/27/2011
Pages: 157
Sales rank: 1,189,935
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Michael Branigan was born and raised one block away from Chicago's Midway Airport and has been involved with both Midway and O'Hare International Airports in some way since a very young age. In grade school, he started off at the Midway terminals as a self-employed shoeshine boy, later transitioning into an aircraft fueler, customer service agent and ramp service agent before completing technical training in aircraft maintenance, where he graduated from the American Airlines Maintenance Academy in 1992. Branigan has worked in the maintenance field since then at both airports. He also holds a private pilot license and has earned multiple FAA safety awards. Still residing in the Chicagoland area, Michael may be contacted through his website at www.oharehistory.com.

Read an Excerpt




Some of the people cursed.
They cursed a present which desperately Is trying to catch up with the future,
A future that just won't wait.

— Jim Ritch, "Chicago Catching Up With the Jets"

Northwest Chicago is a land much transformed in the last two centuries. At one time, the untouched prairies, bordered by Indian trails, seemed as vast as the ocean. Overhead, robins, pheasants and the occasional stray seagull dominated the air traffic. Mallards and drakes would pause in their travels here to stay a night or two in one of the nearby ponds. Over two hundred years later, this region still plays host to those who prefer to travel by air. Instead of flocks of birds nesting along the rivers and trails, though, here exists what has been many times called a city within a city: Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

The transition from peaceful prairies to one of the most renowned airports in the world was an uneasy and occasionally violent one. In 1832, the land served as a battlefield for the United States Militia and the Sauk Indians, along with the tribe's allies from the Maskwaki and Kickapoo. What had started as a standoff quickly deteriorated when a Sauk emissary, white flag of truce in tow, was shot and killed by a militiaman. In return, the Sauks, led by the fearless Blackhawk, stalked the militia by night, striking back with frightening patience and precision. The Sauks were eventually forced to retreat to what is now southern Wisconsin. This battle had proven to Blackhawk that the promises from American mouths did not match the promises on paper.

In 1833, after a year spent in raids against the American settlers in retaliation for the government's broken promises, the Blackhawk War ended. This was mostly due to the efforts of Che-Che-Pin-Qua, also known as Alexander Robinson, a Scottish-Ottawa interpreter and Indian chief. Che-Che-Pin-Qua had helped many settlers escape the Fort Dearborn Massacre and in the process became known as an advocate for peace. He persuaded the peaceful Potawatomies to move west of the Mississippi, and the other tribes, weary from battle, followed suit. By 1836, the land had become open for settlement.

The primarily German settlers first made their mark on that land by establishing a small, orchard-farming community in the early 1840s. Looking at a map of this farmland today shows that the community was located at what is now the approximate corner of Higgins and Manheim Roads, the northern boundary of O'Hare airport. At the same time in 1842, the southwest quarter of the land was auctioned off for $480 to a man named Edward Higgins. The northern region remained unincorporated and was eventually named Orchard Place by the Wisconsin Central Railroad. In fact, even after all these years, Orchard Place remains a part of O'Hare in the form of its three-letter airport code: ORD.

With the beginnings of a transportation industry forming around it, the small village known as Orchard Place began to grow into an actual town. With over a dozen homes, two general stores, two lumberyards and a post office, it no longer resembled the land upon which Blackhawk had fought so bravely. As the town grew, so did the workers' need to unwind after a long day of work. A saloon and two dance halls were quickly established, giving the farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters and cobblers a way to drink, dance and socialize. Undoubtedly, this aspect of the town helped to increase the number of families establishing themselves in the rapidly growing town. By 1849, a church and two cemeteries had been established. (At the time of this writing, those two cemeteries, called St. Johannes and Rest Haven, are still active and located within the controlled grounds of the Chicago O'Hare International Airport, which bled slowly into these areas after sixty years of continuous growth.)

By 1854, the Illinois and Wisconsin Railroad, a precursor to the Chicago and Northwestern Railway system, was established. Within two years, Chicago had become the hub for ten different trunk lines with nearly three thousand miles of track. Fifty-eight passenger trains and thirty-eight freight trains moved in and out of Chicago daily. It had taken only ten years for the young metropolis to evolve into the world's largest railroad center.

However, when the atrocities of World War I spread across the globe fifty years later, the region, along with the rest of the world, was forced to adapt. In order to help with the war effort, in 1916 the federal government took over the railroad. Happily, this actually led to a small boom for the railway industry, as passenger travel had increased by 12 percent, and cargo freight had gone up by 9 percent in ton miles. Soon, though, the freight cars were booked beyond capacity, unable to keep up with the nation's shippers. Through the government's reliance on the railroads in conjunction with war orders, the eastern part of the country became heavily congested with traffic until November 11, 1918, which was the end of World War I.


War, children, it's just a shot away It's just a shot away.

— The Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter"

Now war has come and we must meet it as united Americans, regardless of our attitude in the past toward the policy our government has followed ... Our country has been attacked by force of arms, and by force of arms we must retaliate. We must now turn every effort to building the greatest and most efficient Army, Navy and Air Force in the world.

— Charles Lindbergh

On December 8, 1941, at 12:30 p.m., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt somberly addressed the American people about the events of the day before, "a date which will live in infamy" regarding the Empire of Japan's brutal attack on Pearl Harbor. The speech, some of the most important words from an American politician, was heard by over 80 percent of the country, the largest audience in U.S. radio history.

By 1:00 p.m. on December 8, Congress declared war on Japan. America had entered World War II.

Prior to these world-changing events, the city of Chicago had been busy planning its future in aviation. In May 1926, the Chicago Municipal Airport had opened on the south side at Sixty-third and Cicero Avenue. Spanning roughly four square miles, it was soon realized by aviation enthusiasts and journalists that the airport was much too small for Chicago's rapid growth. With this in mind, the people began to call for both the acquisition of more land and the construction of newer buildings. Chicago alderman John J. Coughlin of the 1 Ward had declared in the January 1, 1929 edition of the Chicago Tribune that "Chicago is destined to become the air center of the United States, and adequate facilities should be provided without delay." The city rallied behind these words, and by November 1931, Mayor Anton Cermak presided over the dedication of a $450,000 expansion.

Negotiations for new land to house this bigger airport, having been a concern since the '20s, a decade and a half later, every local official with an interest in the future of Chicago's aviation began to hunt for the most suitable site for the second, more expansive airport. At this time, the site where O'Hare resides today was not actually a consideration.

Despite the support from the local politicians, the federal government was not as in tune with these plans as Chicago had hoped. Leverett S. Lyon of the Chicago Association of Commerce had even suggested three possible sites for a large plane assembly plant to Washington: Ford Airport in Lansing, Illinois; Rubinkam Airport in Harvey, Illinois; and a tract of land in St. Charles. Illinois senator C. Wayland Brooks, a strong supporter of Chicago's future in aviation, had sent Major General George H. Brett of the Army Air Corps an offer to consider building an air base in Illinois. In response to the missive and the geological surveys from the Chicago Association of Commerce, General Brett's simple response was that the "Air Corps does not contemplate the establishment of an air field in Illinois at the present time."

That letter was dated November 6, 1941. A month later, Pearl Harbor was in flames and the United States entered World War II. Government planners quickly recognized the advantages of placing a defense manufacturing plant in the center of the country, far away from potential foreign attacks on the coasts. Immediately after Roosevelt's declaration, locating sites for airfields and a new defense plant in the Midwest was moved to the top of the priority list.

When war was declared, E. Paul Querl, the director of industrial and aviation development for the Chicago Association of Commerce, insisted that Chicago was the ideal location for the Douglas Aircraft Company's aircraft manufacturing war plant. His choice for the future site was the 1,430-acre site northwest of Chicago, near the community called Orchard Place.

It is said that Querl "cornered" the air force at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio and convinced those in charge that the area was rich with water, coal and electricity. He also pointed out that that the area was being served by three railroads, emphasizing its importance due to the wartime rubber and tire shortages. Sweetening the deal even more, he suggested that they would even be able to easily acquire the necessary labor from Chicago's growing population.

Taking Querl's recommendation to heart, a forty-mile radius aerial survey around Chicago was conducted. It was clear that Chicago Municipal (Midway) Airport, despite being an established travel hub with paved runways, would be too small for the intended purposes. Other possibilities included the Ford site in Lansing, Orchard Place, Rubinkam, St. Charles Airport, Aurora Airport and Joliet. It was quickly realized, though, that several of the sites lacked the necessary resources and railroad facilities or were too close to Midway Airport. The choices were then quickly narrowed down to Lansing, Rubinkam and Orchard Place.

The three remaining areas were subjected to numerous soil and drainage tests from the War Production Board, along with numerous constructions crews. The crews investigated every possible obstruction that could interfere with the clear zones for aircraft operations. Even the speed and direction of the wind were monitored.

Rubinkam's disadvantages were quickly uncovered: the drainage was poor and the potential for expansion was incredibly limited. Adding to these negative aspects with the site at Lansing, the board reported that these areas had poor housing, preexisting air travel that would interfere with the new airport's traffic and a severe lack of railroad transportation.

Aside with these tests, Robert Kingery of the Chicago Regional Planning Association conducted an intense meeting that examined the pros and cons of each site, as well as the technical and political advantages each possibility offered. This meeting included representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, including civilian consultant Ray W. Hazekamp; the Chicago Association of Commerce; the Douglas Aircraft Company; and the Chicago Regional Planning Association.

Taking into consideration the city of Chicago's offer to extend water lines to Orchard Place, as well as the Douglas Aircraft Company's analysis that the area would "draw the best qualified factory personnel along with plenty of open space for future expansion into an international airport for Chicago," Orchard Place became the clear choice as the site for the future war manufacturing plant.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers were appointed to supervise the erection of the Douglas plant. The Douglas Aircraft Company's plant in Oklahoma City, established earlier in 1942, had already produced its largest plane: the four-engine C-54 "Skymaster." But with the new developments regarding the country's involvement in the war, the need for military transport became more urgent. It was then decided that the Oklahoma City plant would be in charge of producing the smaller, two-motored C-47, while the Chicago plant would take over productions on the C-54, which at the time were being constructed in Santa Monica, California.

In June 1942, Merrill Meigs, chief of the War Production Board's aircraft section, approved the selection of Orchard Place. A local newspaper was quick to the headlines with this momentous news: "$20 Million War Plant for Bensenville Area" and "Army to Buy 1,300 Acres for Douglas Aircraft and Airport." Despite the deal winning approval from Chicago, the people of Orchard Place were hardly enthusiastic. The local residents objected to losing their rural land to the heavy industrial needs required by the aircraft plant. By June 18, 1942, Park Ridge City Hall scheduled hearings about the intended rezoning of Orchard Place for the benefit of the public. But after the meeting, Judge William J. Campbell signed an order that condemned the property for the government's use. The 1,460 acres of land now officially belonged to the air force.

By July 1942, the government-owned property was being cleared of all fences and buildings, while the architects and engineers in the Douglas Aircraft Company and the Army Corps of Engineers began to plan. The Douglas facility was well on its way.

Due to expenses and the steel shortage, the runways required modifications to their usual design. The four runways were made thicker than what had been customary at the time. At 5,500 feet apiece, each was 150 feet wide and had a base of stone 15 inches thick that was covered by an additional 7- to 10-inch layer of concrete. (The challenges of the wartime shortages continued well past the opening of the Douglas plant. One union had even asked that the guards and watchmen there to use roller skates and motor scooters to help conserve shoe leather.)

The war had made completion on the plant urgent, and thus, construction crews reached up to 8,500 strong. By June 30, 1942, construction had started on the first building, and by August 24, the crews started in on the main factory building. The latter would cover about two million square feet. With the steel shortage, a great deal of the building had to be constructed out of wood and other nonessential materials. Quality, however, suffered. Due to the high maintenance costs, these short-lived materials were more than detrimental to the company. Nevertheless, concerns were put aside, as the plant was meant to be in use just for the duration of the war. When completed, the building was not only the largest plane manufacturing facility but was also the largest wooden structure in the world.

Built with enough lumber for 4,500 houses, it is claimed that the Douglas manufacturing plant had saved enough steel to build a battleship. Along with the massive amount of lumber used, the building also had required 250,000 cubic yards of concrete. About 500,000 square feet of windows were in place, while more than 1 million gallons of water, 20,000 watts of electricity and 576 tons of coal was consumed by the day.

While the construction crews worked around the clock on the personnel and the administrative buildings, the Douglas plant personnel had, in the meantime, set up camp in the old Fleischmann pickle factory on Weed Street, which today is near Halsted in the city. Whether the plant was in operation yet, the war dictated that all work and training continued. Along with constructing the main factory building, the administration building, boiler house, garage, cafeteria, health center, paint shop, airfield and hangar were awaited with eagerness. When it was finally finished, the paved service area by the hangar measured at 1.3 million square feet, and the parking area could hold nearly seven thousand cars.

The first section of the factory was turned over to Douglas for operation by November. Work crews toiled twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week throughout the harsh Chicago winter, aiming to finish by the contract's stated deadline of April 30, 1943.

When it was done, nearly 31,750,000 feet of lumber had been used. Completed ahead of schedule at a cost of $40,500,000, merely ten months after construction began; the main factory building was ready for operation. This structure, nearly a mile in length, was described as one of the largest, single aircraft factories in the world.

On July 23, 1943, the Roselle Register reported that not only was the first plane ready to fly, the plant was also to be dedicated on July 30. The main speaker was Major General Harold L. George, the commanding general of Air Transport Command from the Army Air Corps.


Excerpted from "A History of Chicago's O'Hare Airport"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Michael Branigan.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Christopher Lynch,
1. 1800s–1946,
Farmbirds to Warbirds,
The United States Enters World War II,
The Douglas Plant,
2. 1946–1961,
The Birth of O'Hare,
The Ralph H. Burke Era,
Edward "Butch" O'Hare,
The First Flights,
The Legend of O'Hare Begins,
3. 1961–1970,
The Jet Age,
The Aviation Crossroads of the World,
Only the Best for O'Hare,
O'Hare's Stake Planted Deep,
A Decade of Growth,
4. 1970–Present,
The Jumbo Jet Age,
O'Hare Mods Out,
O'Hare's Friendly VIPs,
End of an Era,
5. Trials and Tribulations of a World-Class Airport,
"The Sky Lit Up around Us, Bright Orange",
Flight 191,
Encounters of the Wrong Kind,
About the Author,

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A History of Chicago's O'Hare Airport 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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dax8 More than 1 year ago
If you are an afficianado of airports and airport information, this is your book. It is full of early information on the building of a great airport. There are many photos included.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago