Navy Pier turns 100: a look back and ahead

Navy Pier turns 100: a look back and ahead
The Ferris Wheel and bronze statue of the Captain On The Helm located just south of the entrance to Navy Pier. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Chicago’s Navy Pier officially hits the century mark on Friday, July 15, 2016. The 100-year celebration will kick off at 10 am. featuring a day filled with fun events, special activities and free giant slices of Eli’s cheesecake.

Workers at Eli's getting the 1000lb. Cheesecake ready for Navy Pier's 100th Anniversary

Workers at Eli’s getting the 1000 lb. Cheesecake ready for Navy Pier’s 100th Anniversary

At 6:30 pm. Chicago Shakespeare Theater will perform the Bard’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night,” for free, on an outdoor stage on Navy Pier’s East End Plaza.

The grand finale for the day’s events will take place at 9:25 pm. with a special birthday toast to Navy Pier’s second century followed by a spectacular 100th Anniversary Fireworks show at 9:30 pm. (see bottom of post for full schedule of events)

Navy Pier, as we know it now is the largest tourist attraction in the entire Midwest attracting nearly nine million visitors yearly. But that wasn’t always the case.

The Pier has had many faces and has many stories to tell. Let’s take a look.

It’s 1914 when construction begins on what is to become Navy Pier at an estimated cost–at the time–a mind-boggling $4.5 million.

The facility, designed by architect Charles Sumner Frost is built in two years. It was part of the 1909 “Master Plan” of architect and city planner Daniel Burnham.

Municipal Pier. Photo: Chicago Historical Society

Municipal Pier. Photo: Chicago Historical Society

In 1916 Navy Pier is officially opened to the public as “Municipal Pier No. 2.”

Why, No. 2?

Because it is one of five piers that Burnham had envisioned in his Master Plan for the Chicago lakefront. Of course, as we know now, it was the only pier built.navypier1000municipalpier

Built at the same time that the US became involved in World War I in 1917, the Pier became an integral part of the war effort, housing several regiments of soldiers, the Red Cross and Home Defense units. It also served as barracks for recruits, and even as a jail for “draft dodgers.”

After the war ended, America was in a celebratory mood. In the 1920s it became a site for both shipping commerce and entertainment, even holding dance marathons–that were popular at that time.

In 1927, the pier officially became Navy Pier, renamed to honor the naval veterans who served in the First World War.

The Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression resulted in the decline of freight and passenger ship activity on the Pier.

The Century of Progress Exposition (World’s Fair) in 1933 brought a little life back to the Pier which mostly languished in the 1930’s.

In 1942 when the US became involved in WWII, Navy Pier served as a military site offering Navy pilot training orientation. Eventually, 15,000 pilots qualified for military service at the facility, among them, one who would become President of the United States–a young airman named George H.W. Bush.

It has been estimated that as many as 200 WWII Planes may still be at the bottom of Lake Michigan–a result of training accidents during that period.

In 1946, the Navy moved out and the University of Illinois moved in, turning the Pier into a two-year undergraduate branch campus that remained in existence until 1965. Soldiers flocked to the new university on the 3/4 of a mile long pier that became  known as “Harvard on the Rocks.”

What had been the Navy’s main mess hall become a giant library considered “the largest reading room” in Illinois.


In 1978 City Hall designated Navy Pier as a Chicago Landmark. That same year the Pier hosted the first ChicagoFest, now known as Taste of Chicago.

1994 marked the beginnings of the Pier we know today. Its renovations, part of a $150 million redevelopment project, made changes to nearly every element of the Pier.

On July 12, 1995 the newly renovated Navy Pier officially opened to the public featuring a mix of year-round entertainment, shops, restaurants, attractions and exhibition facilities.

Soon to follow were the Chicago Children’s Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

2016 marks many firsts for the Pier including playing host to the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series Chicago, the opening of the bigger and better state-of-the-art Ferris wheel (named the “Centennial Wheel”), Polk Park and Fountain, the Wave Wall, new restaurants, a proposed boutique hotel, the Yard and additional arts and cultural programming.

Schedule of events

  • 10:00 a.m. – Public birthday party to begin with by remarks Marilynn Kelly Gardner President and CEO of Navy Pier Inc. and additional special guests

  • ·         10:30 a.m.— Pier-wide singing of Happy Birthday and cutting of the of a giant, 1,000-pound cheesecake, specially designed by Eli’s Cheesecake

  • ·         10:30 a.m. – Party continues with handing out of free slices of Eli’s Cheesecake, games for children: “Pin the Gondola on the Centennial Wheel”; Musical Chairs, with live music from the Navy Pier Brass Band

  • ·         6:30 p.m. – The Tony Award-winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater will perform the romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night,” for free, on an outdoor stage on Navy Pier’s East End Plaza at 6:30 p.m.; free to the public

  • ·         9:25 p.m. –Toast to Navy Pier’s Second Century, presented by Miller Lite; free toast for guests 21 years and older

  • ·         9:30 p.m. – Special 100th Anniversary Fireworks, presented by Miller Lite

To learn more about the Navy Pier 100-year celebration and Navy Pier past, present and future, click here.

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