Chasing a Mystery in Downstate Illinois

Champaign County, Illinois (Wikimedia Commons)

Champaign County, Illinois (Wikimedia Commons)

This week in Chicago, I could not resist a side trip downstate to Champaign County, Illinois.  The place has nagged at me as one of the mysteries of the world capital competition. It appeared on a list that the United Nations published in November 1945, but left no paper trail in the UN Archives to follow. What led this contender into the race to become the Capital of the World?

It turns out, this was also a mystery for the people of Champaign County in 1945. When news of the UN’s list reached Champaign-Urbana through the news media, it took some digging by local reporters to discover how their community had achieved such a distinction.  There were only twenty-two invitations on the list at that point in time, and so it seemed that Champaign County had taken quite a leap onto the world stage. Reporters for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette solved the mystery, and so they also solved mine.

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Northerly Island: Echoes of 1945

At times, in some places, lost histories echo in surprising ways. This has been on my mind this week in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit the location that the Windy City proposed as Capital of the World: Northerly Island.

From Northerly Island, the view of the Chicago skyline.

From Northerly Island, the view of the Chicago skyline.

As Chicagoans know, Northerly Island today is not an island at all, but a man-made peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan near the Field Museum and then runs parallel to the shoreline. Created in the 1920s as part of Daniel Burnham’s vision for chain of lakefront islands, it connected to Chicago at first with a bridge and then with the causeway that remains. In 1933-34, Northerly Island was the site of the Century of Progress Exposition; beginning in the 1940s it served as an airport. Although managed by the Chicago Park District, a magazine writer noted in 1966, it “is not now and never has been beautiful.”

Largely deserted on the cool weekday of my walk, Northerly Island remains a work in progress, with a beach, a concert venue, a yacht club, and crews at work on the landscape. Among its great assets are the spectacular view of the skyline of the city, which seems a place apart despite being within walking distance. On the island, there is no explicit evidence of the world’s fair, and no sign that Chicago once offered Northerly Island to the United Nations as a site for its permanent headquarters.

The Meigs Field terminal building, now a visitor center. In the foreground, "Action is the Answer," by Carla Winterbottom.

The Meigs Field terminal building, now a visitor center. In the foreground, “Action is the Answer,” by Carla Winterbottom.

And yet …

At the farthest accessible point of my walk stands the 1961 terminal building for the former Meigs Field, reminding me of the visions for commercial aviation that helped Chicago and other world capital hopefuls argue that they could become the central gathering place for the world. More startling are the two artworks in front of the terminal building.  Recent installations, both are renditions of planet earth. One is a colorful display promoting environmental activism.  The other is a dark earth in chains, imploring the viewer to “unlock creative energy” to combat climate change.

In these ways, the global aspirations of Chicago in 1945-46 echo on Northerly Island still.