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Robert M. "Moose" Hill, charter member of the Midway Historians:

The Magic Mile

Bob It is again time to turn our attention to that magic mile of Long John Wentworth, of Lyons and Stickney Townships, of airports, schools, farms, railroad tracks and a little golf course.

It is 1941. A special Belt train is plying the old road bed which divides the nation's busiest airport from its unused half. Watching its progress are officals from the city and Belt R.R. Mayor Kelly and Judge Boyle are there; so are John Casey and Mike Berry. Camera men from well known and soon to be forgotten newspapers scurry to get a good photo of the last train to transverse the airport mile. 

The Belt's old western lead from its yards to its main line was here first and most likely represented a perpetual right of way, but the Roosevelt Administration was now painfully aware of what the average citizen was only beginning to guess. War was imminent. The two halves of the airport had to be joined. By the same token, these vital tracks from the world's largest freight yards had to remain unobstructed, for they were just as important to the national defense. The solution was simple. They were moved to their present location north of
55th Street to parallel the Indiana Harbor Belt's main line. 

Some Chicagoans took the occasion to view the nationally known airport, the long lines of freight cars that would never jam
Chicago, thanks to the world's busiest little railroad, and the powerful, yet diversified, industrial district south of 65th Street. It was said that some of the sightseers were surprised to find a quiet little residential section in the middle of all this activity. Its school was on the airport mile and it was inhabited by friendly folks who called themselves Clearingites. Will wonders never cease! 

With the final obstacle to its full utilization out of the way, the
Chicago Municipal Airport reached out for her full destiny. 


The 59th Street runway was laid over the old road bed which still remains beneath it today. It ran the length of the field to give the facility two east-west runways (59th and 61st Streets). It also linked the two halves of the Laramie and Lavergne runways. All four of them were nearly a mile long. The new cement strip also linked the four diagonal runways, each of which were well over a mile long. 

A 1942 source stated "the whole field is in the process of development." Also the premature statement that "a new terminal is in project." Indeed, it had to be, for the old single main runway (4,742 feet long) was now joined by the seven new ones just described, the longest of which was 6,519 feet. Municipal could now handle a volume of flights undreamed of by the old facility. Even the largest land based planes of the day, such as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress could be handled safely and rapidly.

B-17s were not common to Municipal, so every time one was parked by the U.S. Army Transient Aircraft Hangar (60th Place and Central) we kids from Hale School would claw away at the diamond link chain fence on the north side of our crushed stone playground to get a better look at America's biggest and best bomber. A story recently told me by one of my friends who served on these bombers, first in the U.S. and then in England, brought back memories. It also added something that few at the time knew about. 

He related that before going to
England he was assigned to that same craft which we used to marvel at. Some of its missions were to pick up civilian personal at military bases and fly them to that army hangar. Many of these special passengers were chained to their small suitcases and given an escort of armed military police on motorcycles to the campus of the University of Chicago. 

December 2, 1942. Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi and others waited with bated breath as the last control rod was withdrawn from what they termed an "atomic pile" beneath the west stands of Stagg Field. For the first time since the beginning of time, man had created a self sustaining nuclear fire. The critical experiment in which the nation had staked an initial $2,000,000,000 was a success.

Dawn of the atomic age. An age of bombs and missiles, of space travel and medicine, of power plants and unlimited energy for the future; from a lonely B-17 and rides down Central Avenue. Another little known story from the magic mile. 


During the new construction, both aircraft and passengers continued to land in an unbroken string. In the first full year that the expanded facility was in full operation it welcomed an additional 30,128 aircraft operations to swell the total to 118,477 for 1943. All through the war years, Municipal would continue to launch more aircraft and passengers into the skies of mid America to topple its own world records. 


Accelerated wartime technology had advanced aviation to the point of competing with conventional forms of transporation. If there was any doubt about the efficiency of aircraft to deliver cargo it was expelled by the "Berlin Blockade", where American and British aircraft routinely delivered 2,343,315 tons of food and coal to West Berlin over an 18 month period of diverse weather and political conditions.   


Many folks were first forced to fly during the fast moving conflict, but after the war were convinced that flying was the only way to go. Why take days to travel overland to visit a relative in Los Angeles when you could reach them in a few hours by air? For businessmen, journeying from one distant city to another, time was money. The crack streamliner passenger trains as well as the ocean luxury liners were rapidly becoming things of a slow moving leisurely past, when a guy who saved up a few bucks could be treated like a king. He could enjoy the trip every bit as much as arriving at his destination. Now everyone wanted to get there fast and return fast. The air age had arrived!  


The focus of the new air age was the United States of America. Her hub of commercial aviation was Chicago Municipal. Municipal was ready, willing and able to handle it. In the first full year after the war (1946) aircraft operations increased by 37,331 for yet a new yearly record of 190,338 flights, while passengers increased by 1,101,784 to push the yearly total to 2,598,418. Needless to say, the old terminal on 62nd Street started to take on the appearance of a crowded chicken coop with fox from the railroad yards 'nature preserves' pawing at the wire.  


The new north terminal was started in earnest in 1947 and opened to the public on Jan. 9, 1948. It was a far cry from the old 1931 facility and took the form of a long narrow building which stretched from 56th Street to 58th Place. Its extremities were angled toward Cicero Avenue to enclose the half block deep parking area between it and that street. Inside, its western half was lined with the ticket and baggage counters of eleven major scheduled air lines, while the rest of it served as a waiting room for the new horde of passengers that year would bring.  


Did our old terminal pass into history? Heck no! It now became the International terminal, to serve flights originating or terminating in foreign countries. Many languages were now spoken atop the soil of Charles Buckmeier’s old farm.  

Hangar building was almost stagnant from the late 1930's until around 1947 when both the time and money for them were available. The slack was taken up when the new teminal was started, as 55th Street received its first hangar while others would slowly spread around the airport fences.  


This decade dwarfed the previous one in activity. Let the figures tell the story. Flights, 1939 — 79,350,1949 —223,493. Passengers, 1939 — 501,164,1949 —3,246,693. Of great significance was the fact that although flights were increased by 281%, passengers increased by 648%. Since not all flights carried passengers, the figures clearly show the impact the large commercial airliner was beginning to have.  


The last change to take place during this period involves the tucking away of another name in our history, that of "The Chicago Municipal Airport". In 1949, veterans groups asked the city to rename the facility in honor of what has been termed "one of the most decisive battles in Naval history", the Battle of Midway. After all, the name "Municipal" was common to many airports and a little dull, while that of Midway was lively and patriotic.


The new name of Midway Airport was an instant success with the public, while that of Municipal gracefully bowed out as it had come in 21 years ago, with the title of the world's busiest airport.  


One new name sometimes leads to others and so it was with "Midway". The news media proceeded to create a handy new name for the lands surrounding the airport. Clearing, Chicago Lawn, Stickney, Forest View, Bedford Park and other were combined to be called the "Midway Area". Yet, if one listens to the news closely enough (and long enough) they might still hear the names that were familiar to everyone in the 1940's.  


Municipal had been the birthplace of many new airlines, systems and methods that would spread throughout the world. It was also the birthplace of a distinguished group of young men who were destined to write a history of their own. They can best be described as Clearing's Warriors.


Midway 1958Excerpted from Robert M. Hill's 1983 book, A Little Known Story of the Land Called Clearing, a history of Clearing dating back to the 1700s, and the first definitive account of Chicago Midway Airport.

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