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Navy Pier, 1914-1946



Inspired by Daniel Burnham's Plan for Chicago, Municipal Pier No. 2, as Navy Pier was originally designated, was built beginning in 1914 and opened to the public in 1916. The 293-foot wide steel and cement structure extended 5/8 mile from Grand Avenue into Lake Michigan and was designed to serve as a huge freight terminal to encourage lake shipping. On each side, it had two double-decked buildings, which housed launches for ships and warehouse space. A roadway that ran the length of the Pier separated the two buildings. On the shore end of the Pier, planners set up an open-air promenade where Chicagoans attended carnivals or even free lectures given by the City's Health Department. And on the lake end, the city built a concert hall which accommodated more than 3,000 people.

Festival at Navy Pier, 1931. Festival at Navy Pier, 1931. UIAA image.



Burnham's plan called for building five piers. However, lake shipping never became as important as city leaders hoped. Rather, manufacturers continued to give preference to the railroads. Added to this the cost of building and maintaining the pier, meant that the additional piers were never completed.
In 1927, to honor those who served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, Chicago changed the name of Municipal Pier No. 2 to Navy Pier. The facility went through several phases of use. During World War I, the federal government used it as a detention camp for draft resisters. In the years after, entrepreneurs set up honky-tonks and conventions in unused warehouse space, and local shippers and sightseers commandeered its mooring stations.

Aviation Machinists Mates training at the Naval Training School during World War II. Aviation Machinists Mates practicing at the Naval Training School. National Archives photo.

“Not until World War II,” as a supporter later wrote, “was the Pier restored to respectability.” In 1941, just months before America entered the war, the U.S. Navy transformed the Pier into a Naval Training School, building classrooms, laboratories, gymnasiums, a drill hall, and an aircraft hanger. The school, which Featuring instruction in diesel mechanics, aviation motor mechanics, radio, and advanced electronics, the school was the largest of its kind in the country.
Up to 12,000 sailors at a time were housed at the Pier, stacked in triple bunks. In all, about 60,000 men received their training on the Pier. The school also provided support for two aircraft carriers that had been converted from paddlewheel passenger cruisers, the USS Wolverine and USS Sable, which the Navy used for training aircraft carrier pilots. Flying from Glenview Naval Air Station, pilots would meet the carriers out on Lake Michigan for landing and take off practice. Among those who trained on these ships was future President George H.W. Bush. The Pier functioned as a Naval Training School until 1946, when the Navy turned control of the Pier over to the City of Chicago and the University of Illinois.

Navy Pier with USS Wolverine and USS Sable tethered nearby. Overhead view circa 1943 – note the aircraft carriers tied up to the south.

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