October 29, 1955
O'Hare International Airport
The Jet Age arrives at an airfield that soon becomes the world's busiest airport.
Jet exhaust makes waiting planes look like a mirage, but they are real: with more than 900,000 flights a year at O'Hare, the airport's runways are rarely empty. (Tribune photo by José Moré)
Officials at the time believed O'Hare could serve 8 million passengers annually within a few years. But who could have predicted that the airport would be handling nearly 70 million people annually four decades later? Along the way, O'Hare would secure Chicago's place as the world's premier aviation crossroads and, at the same time, become a mighty money machine for the city and surrounding suburbs. In the mid-1990s, the airport generated an estimated $12 billion a year in economic benefits and created more than 300,000 jobs.
For such an economic and aviation heavyweight, O'Hare's beginning was humble. Orchard Place Airport, nestled against northwest suburban Park Ridge, was just one of the many sleepy little fields spread across the Chicago area when World War II broke out. It took on added significance, however, when the federal government turned it over to the Douglas Aircraft Co., which assembled C-54 transport planes on the site. Meanwhile, the city's busy commercial field--small and land-locked Municipal Airport (renamed Midway after the war)--was becoming increasingly congested. Several locations came under scrutiny as a site for another passenger air terminal, including a landfill in the lake off 39th Street, but in late 1945, Orchard Place won the City Council's nod.
The first scheduled service began with a freight carrier in 1948, but regular passenger service could only begin in 1955 when a new passenger terminal was finished. After that, O'Hare's growth was strong and steady as airlines switched over from propeller-driven planes to big jets that could not use small airports like Midway. In 1961, the number of flights at O'Hare surpassed the total at Midway, which relinquished its title as world's busiest airport.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in subsequent investment brought new services and facilities to the airport, including two architectural gems: the United Airlines terminal, designed by Helmut Jahn, which opened in 1987, and Ralph Johnson's International Terminal, which began serving passengers in 1993. But as the suburbs grew up around O'Hare, aircraft noise produced political opposition strong enough to stifle construction of additional runways. Some now say growing aviation demand has produced a new need--for yet another Chicago area airport.