The speed at which Chicago rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871 is still the stuff of legend 150 years later. Like a phoenix, the city rose from the ashes. Less poetically, parts of it rose more like a seagull — from the fire’s trash.
All that scorched debris from houses, shops and offices — the lumber, broken glass, ruined furniture and tchotchkes — had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was Lake Michigan.
The rubble was dumped off the open lakefront east of Michigan Avenue, roughly between present-day Randolph Street and Roosevelt Road. If that sounds like the location of Grant Park, it is.
Yep, Chicago’s “front yard” — the scene of Barack Obama’s historic election night victory lap and the Cubs’ jubilant World Series celebration — is a dump.
But at the time of the fire, the space was known as Lake Park, which, apart from its address, bore little resemblance to the Grant Park of today (the name switch was made in 1901).
The land was so heavily eroded by Lake Michigan’s steady pummeling, city officials gladly cut a deal in the 1850s with the Illinois Central Railroad that boiled down to: You build a breakwater to protect the shore and we’ll let you put up an offshore trestle and run trains along some of our most prime real estate.
The breakwater did the trick in terms of stabilizing the shoreline, but it also created a stagnant sort of lagoon. This is where the fire debris was dumped, and the trash heap was eventually covered in soil. Voila, new park land. Grant Park would be further expanded in the next 50 years by multiple landfill additions and today encompasses more than 300 acres.