Navy Pier Turns 100: What the Pier Was Before it Became an Iconic Chicago Attraction

Navy Pier hosts birthday celebration Friday to mark 100th birthday

If Chicago landmarks could talk, Navy Pier would have a lot to say.

One of the city’s largest tourist attractions, Navy Pier has humble beginnings dating back to its grand opening in 1916 and a storied history since then.

You’ll be surprised to know how many planes are at the bottom of Lake Michigan from aviation training accidents near the Pier or what Illinois school took over for a few years. As the Pier turns 100 on Friday, here's a look at some of the landmark's evolutionary moments.

1909 - 1916:

The idea of the attraction started with architect Daniel Burnham envisioning five recreational and docking piers near the Chicago River, according to Navy Pier history. However, Burnham was given one pier that stretched 1.5 miles long and was constructed under the direction of architect Charles Sumner Frost.

Over the span of two years, the project totaled $4.5 million and opened to the public in 1916 as the Municipal Pier, the first of its kind to offer a combination of business and fun.

1917 – 1926:

As the country entered World War I, the pier served as a military safe haven for units such as the Red Cross and Home Defense as well as soldiers and recruits. Between 1918 and 1921, the attraction added an emergency hospital, theater, restaurants and a streetcar line.

WCFL, deemed as the “the voice of labor,” opened in 1926 as the station under the Chicago Federation of Labor.


The Municipal Pier became Navy Pier to honor individuals in the Navy who served in WWI.

1930 – 1940:

The Great Depression changed the Pier into a military location where over 60,000 individuals were trained for jobs such as pilots, metal smiths and engine technicians. Accidents from years of training have left behind at least 200 WWII planes in Lake Michigan.

1946 - 1975:

By 1946, the University of Illinois set up a two-year undergraduate campus that remained until 1965 and supposedly held the “largest reading room.” Navy Pier continued to host recreational and business events following the fire of McCormick Place and was recognized as a top inland port in the world. 


Due to all the contributions, Navy Pier earned the title of a Chicago Landmark in 1977.

1978 – 2000:

Throughout the remaining decades, the Pier has hosted a range of festivals, opened on the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, invited multiple vendors and has been featured in multiple publications.

Navy Pier's free birthday event on Friday includes complimentary slices from The Eli’s Cheesecake Company, a performance of “Twelfth Night” by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a toast to the Pier and concludes with fireworks at 9:30 p.m. Further details can be found on the Navy Pier Facebook event

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