Streets of Chicago: Midway Plaisance

Chicago has its share of unusual street names. For example, nobody quite knows what Agatite Avenue means.

The origins and history of the name Midway Plaisance are also more mysterious than commonly assumed. It is the name of both a street and the park contained within the street’s northern and southern branches. According to the Chicago Park District, “Plaisance” may mean a shady pleasure drive—or perhaps it is an obscure French word having to do with boating.

Midway Plaisance is not named for the Battle of Midway as is the airport at the western end of 59th Street. The Plaisance served as the “Midway,” or main carnival and location of the Ferris Wheel, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, but contrary to one popular story, that is not how it got its name either. Rather the word “Midway” became associated with carnivals because of the World’s Columbian Exposition, not vice versa.

By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the marshy stretch of parkland between 59th, Jackson Park, 60th and Washington Park had already been named Midway Plaisance for over 20 years.

 

The name originated when Olmstead and Vaux’s 1871 plan and report for Chicago’s South Parks envisioned a mile-long pleasure drive and canal connecting Jackson and Washington Parks. This they called the Midway Plaisance . Although the canal was apparently never built, during the World’s Columbian Exposition the Midway became the site of carnival type attractions such as the world’s first Ferris wheel.

The Midway’s fame continued after the Exposition, lending its name to both Lorado Taft Midway Studios and the University of Chicago’s football team nicknamed the “Monsters of the Midway.”

Today the Midway Plaisance serves to provide ice skating, Frisbee and sunbathing opportunities to University of Chicago students and residents of the surrounding communities. The Midway Plaisance is worth a visit just to see the spectacular Fountain of Time.

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