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McClendon map changing shoreline 150K.jpg

Map by Dennis McClendon

Almost the entire shoreline of Lake Michigan within city limits has been expanded through lakefill. Lakefill makes up almost all of the park district land along the lakefront as well as industrial sections such as the former U.S. Steel plant in southeast Chicago and residential and commercial areas like Streeterville just north of downtown Chicago.


The amount of land created through fill is more than 5.5 square miles.

Several features and resources of the lake have made lakefill construction possible. First, the shallow slope of the lakebed allows for close access to the bottom of the lake, making it easier to drive in pilings. Second, thick layers of clay that lie beneath a thin layer of sand can support breakwaters and other structures. And third, large amounts of sand is available nearby from the Indiana dunes and the lakebed that can be used to make new beaches along Chicago’s lakefront.

1860s and 1870s





Late 1880s


















Late 1930s








Late 1990s



Filling in around Cemetery Park between North and Diversey.


Lake Park (later Grant Park)


Narrow stretch between North and Fullerton out to breakwater approximately 500 feet offshore for Lake Shore Drive


Oak Street Beach


Fullerton to Addison including Diversey Harbor and Belmont Harbor


Burnham Park south of Grant Park, including Northerly Island


North from Addison to Montrose


Northerly Island


Montrose Harbor from Montrose to Foster


Burnham Park completed down to Promontory Point at 55th Street


North Avenue Beach


North of Foster to Thorndale, the northern edge of continuous open access lakefront


Extension of 31st Street Beach


Extension of Oakwood Beach

The progression of lakefill construction includes:

A few episodes of lakefill:

The natural flow of Lake Michigan waters drives sand south down the Chicago lakefront. Shortly after the Treaty of 1833, settlers built a pier into the lake to keep the mouth of the Chicago River open. Silt and sand naturally accumulated north of the pier, which was filled in further during the following decades to create what is now the Streeterville neighborhood.

Chicago River mouth shoreline changes 1833 to 1864 July 29, 2017 Blog Photo.jpg

Map of the lake front at Chicago, showing position of shore in 1902, positions of the shore line at intervals from 1821 to 1864, outlet of Chicago River, and sand bar in 1830-1833 and in 1851 and 1864, after the construction of the North Pier. By William C. Alden b. 1871. (1902). Chicago folio, Riverside, Chicago, Desplaines, and Calumet quadrangles, Illinois-Indiana. Geological Survey (United States)

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Streeterville, view from Erie Street, 1909 (Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum)

Grant Park was the product of filling in south of the mouth of the Chicago River between the 1870s and 1920s, including debris from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and excavated material from construction of water tunnels and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Grant Park Michigan Avenue 1868 Chicago tribune DY4VAXPRNZDU3I2G62UKGK7HB4.jpg

View looking north on Michigan Avenue in 1868, before construction of the park (Chicago Tribune)

Grant Park 1890s Chicago Tribune P7RLWYEUWNANJE63FCEIROZ6TE.jpg

Looking north on Lake Park (now Grant Park), in the 1890s (Chicago Tribune)

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View of Grant Park in background with construction of Grant Park Stadium (renamed Soldier Field) in foreground ca. 1923 (National Archives)

Calumet Harbor was built up starting in the late 1870s, when the North Chicago Rolling Mills, predecessor of U.S. Steel, relocated to this location north of the mouth of the Calumet River. It began dumping slag and refuse from the mills into the lakefront, increasing the amount of its land to 573 acres by 1922.

Calumet South works 1938.jpg

Burnham Park construction began in 1920. “Making land for the park was complicated. The first step was to build the edge, or wall, for the fill in the open lake. This edge held the fill behind it and served as the revetment to protect the filled land from wave erosion. Parallel rows of timber pilings were driven into the thick till of the lake bottom to form a crib. The crib was filled with 1- to 50-pound rock and then capped with 4- to 8-ton quarry blocks. Stone was also placed on the lake bottom at the toe of the structure to prevent erosion of the lake bottom from the downward energy of waves impacting the structure. Once the rock-filled timber cribs were in place, fill was added between the cribs and the shoreline. Sand fill was transported from the lake bottom and dunes of southern Lake Michigan. Clay fill came from lake-bottom dredging east of the timber cribs, forming lake-bottom depressions.” (Nimz et al.)

Burnham park 23rd and south park 1925 Newberry cropped.jpg

Outer edge of Burnham Park, looking south from 23rd Street in 1925 (Newberry Library)

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Looking north on Promontory Point under construction in 1925 (Newberry Library)

Montrose Harbor was built in the 1930s: “The south perimeter of the filled land was built with timber crib stepped revetments similar to those used elsewhere on the lakeshore. However, the large groin at Montrose Point was constructed using steel sheet pile. This groin construction is historic because it is the first recorded use of steel sheet pile for shore structures in Lake Michigan. This new technology allowed the construction of the double walls of this 23-foot-wide, 2,490-foot-long groin to be completed in less than two months, which, for its length, was a record for the time.” (Chrzastowski, 2008, p36)


“A second generation of lakeshore construction began in the 1990s. This was needed to replace the original generation of timber and stone shore protection with steel sheetpile and reinforced concrete.” (Illinois Department of Natural Resources p.25)

Sheridan and Irving 1927 Newberry cropped.jpg

Outline of Montrose Harbor under construction in 1927 (Newberry Library)

Selected Sources:

  • Bachrach, Julia Sniderman & Michael J. Chrzastowski. 2015. A Walking Guide to the History and Features of Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois. Illinois State Geological Survey, Prairie Research Institute. Accessed

  • Brown, Stella J. South Works Deep Geological Study. 2018. Self-published. Accessed

  • Chicago Department of Transportation. N.d. Accessed 

  • Chrzastowski, Michael J. 1999. Geology of the Chicago Lakeshore—Shaping the Chicago Shoreline. Illinois State Geological Survey, poster. 

  • Chrzastowski, Michael J. 2000. Geology of the Chicago Lakeshore—Chicago's Underwater Landscape. Illinois State Geological Survey, poster. 

  • Chrzastowski, Michael J. 2005. Chicagoland: Geology and the Making of a Metropolis. Field Excursion for the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Association of American State Geologists. Illinois State Geological Survey, Open File Series, OFS 2005-9, 64 pp.

  • Chrzastowski, Michael J. 2008. "Make No Little Plans”: Field Trip Guidebook for the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association 2008 National Conference, Chicago, October 15–17, 2008. Illinois State Geological Survey, Guidebook 36.

  • Illinois Department of Natural Resources. 2011. State of Illinois Coastal Management Program. Accessed 

  • Nimz, Cheryl K., Michael J. Chrzastowski, Cynthia A. Briedis, Julia S. Bachrach, and Brian C. Trask. 2012. A Walking Guide to the History and Features of Burnham Park, Chicago, Illinois. Illinois State Geological Survey, Prairie Research Institute. Accessed

  • Wille, Lois. 1972. Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press. 

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