The Pier played an important role in World War I.
When the pier opened in 1916, it was called Municipal Pier. It was meant to provide a place for public recreation and to serve as a shipping hub for both cargo and passenger ships. But less than a year later, the U.S. declared war on Germany, and the Pier adapted. It soon played an important role in military preparations, housing soldiers’ barracks, a Red Cross station, and even a detention center for draft dodgers. In 1927, to honor those who had served in World War I, the Pier got a new name: Navy Pier.
Photo credit: Chicago History Museum
And an even bigger role in World War II.
During World War II, more than 60,000 military personnel trained at the Pier and on Lake Michigan – including 15,000 fighter pilots.
One might wonder: how did fighter pilots train on Lake Michigan? Necessity was the mother of invention. Two former Great Lakes passenger steamers were converted into freshwater aircraft carriers. These makeshift carriers were quite a bit shorter than their oceangoing counterparts, which added some difficulty to takeoffs and landings. In fact, more than 100 planes ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan; many are still there.
Narrated by Bill Kurtis, the documentary Heroes on Deck tells the true story of forgotten World War II fighter planes at the bottom of Lake Michigan, the brave flyers who trained in them, and their link to the U.S. victory in the Pacific. Learn more about this fascinating story.
The pier once hosted the Great Lakes’ largest passenger ship.
In 1955, the SS Aquarama, at 520 feet long and 12,000 tons, was the largest passenger ship on the Great Lakes. A converted U.S. Navy troop transport ship, it could carry 2,500 passengers and 160 automobiles and cruise at speeds up to 22 miles per hour.
The Aquarama spent one summer at Navy Pier as a floating entertainment palace before heading into an uncertain future. You can page through a program from its inaugural cruise summer.
And Geoffrey Baer answers the question: What happened to the SS Aquarama?
Photo Courtesy of the Chicago Maritime Museum
The Queen of England once visited.
In 1959, a 33-year-old Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, visited Chicago (and a tradeshow on the Pier) as part of a goodwill tour celebrating the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was the first time a reigning British monarch visited Chicago.
Photo credit: Chicago History Museum
Stevie Wonder once cancelled a concert here.
After Mayor Jane Byrne nominated three new board members – all white – to the Chicago Housing Authority’s board, Jesse Jackson organized a boycott of ChicagoFest, and Stevie Wonder cancelled.
The record for the longest Ferris wheel ride was broken here.
In May 2013, Clinton Shepherd, Pier Park operations manager, made the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest Ferris wheel ride (officially the “Longest marathon on a fairground/theme park attraction" at 48 hours, 8 minutes, and 25 seconds. The record was eclipsed in Belgium one year later.
Photo: Record breaker Clinton Shepherd is interviewed by Geoffrey Baer.
On one day, 13,000 young immigrants came to the Pier in hopes of changing their lives.
In August 2012, 13,000 young undocumented immigrants lined up along Navy Pier and streamed down the bike path toward Millennium Park. They had come to the Pier to pursue temporary protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, a program of the Obama administration designed to help students and young adults. In the Pier’s Grand Ballroom, they found volunteer lawyers who answered questions and helped them fill out applications. Over the next two years, 580,000 young people nationwide received work permits and temporary protection from deportation through DACA. Watch the story as told by Chicago Tonight.