James Morgan and the expansion of the Hyde Park lakefront

The sweeping curve of the shoreline and wading beach near the Chicago Beach Hotel were not necessarily as intended by nature. Those boardwalks and cabanas owed their sandy perches to the ingenuity of one James Morgan. Unknown to those landing at Morgan’s Pier, the structure had provided a most different service. The original shoreline was quite a different place, with room for but a single residence, that of Dr. Jacob Bockee. He built on a desolate sandy parcel (at what is now Cornell and 50th streets) before leaving for service in the Civil War.

By 1873, James and Rebecca Morgan acquired Bockee’s house, and it was moved to a new location overlooking the park today known as Harold Washington Park. An ingenious fellow, Morgan improved the parcel north of 51st Street. According to the April 3, 1910 Chicago Tribune, “About the time of the Chicago fire, James Morgan purchased a tract of three acres of land north of 51st Street and east of the Illinois Central tracks. . . . Despite the continual washing away of the shore lands, this particular tract now contains 11.52 acres, or an increase of nearly 8 acres in thirty-nine years.” Morgan made this land through a simple method. With a “pile driver, a crew of men, a few boats of lumber,” he built a series of piers. Morgan kept a clamshell dredge busy taking sand from the outside of these structures and dumping it on the inside, a quick and inexpensive way of making land that he claimed as his.

The newly made land wasn’t exactly scenic in its early years. When residents of the Boat Club wanted to erect a boathouse at the lakefront in 1886, the Hyde Park Herald noted that the condition of the shoreline was hardly idyllic. Morgan had left his worn out pile driver there to rot, the shell of Paul Cornell’s old hotel stood as fire-blackened ruins a few blocks south and the remains of an old tin factory only increased the number of eyesores.

That all began to change, when in 1892 planning for the world’s fair began. Morgan leased the west 400 feet of his tract to the Chicago Beach Hotel Company and construction of a luxurious lakefront hotel began. The hotel was a success, and in 1919 the construction of a thirteen-story 550-room addition was announced. Morgan surely made a wise business venture with his manufacture of sandy landfill — the proprietors of the hotel purchased twelve acres for the hotel addition from Morgan’s daughter for $500,000, in cash.