June 20, 2011

Montrose Pier and Harbor and George the Hot Dog Man

Editor's Note: Ron of Knotmyline.com, who fished from Montrose Pier as a child, has given us kind permission to reprint this post. Ron, now in his seventies, lived on Chicago's North Side when he was a kid. Be sure to visit his blog for more stories.

Montrose Pier and Harbor

I was just a toddler when first my parents took me out to Montrose Pier.  The mile or so long pier extends out into the lake and ends with a horseshoe or fishhook shape.  There were several tall towers on the pier with lights and foghorns to warn and alert vessels on the lake.

Some of my early memories are of fishing for perch with my dad and brother on Montrose pier. Pilings about 16 feet apart had been driven into the lake bed, fill of some sort was added and on top of the fill were huge limestone blocks at about 10 feet square.  I imagine that at one time these blocks had been placed somewhat evenly on the fill, but over the years due to erosion and weathering they had become a jumble of uneven stones. In many areas there were big gaps between the blocks and to get from one to the other was an adventure. A few years after World War II the park district renovated the pier.  They encased it entirely in concrete and put in a center chain handrail.

My brother tells of how in the early and mid 40′s the lakefront was still being developed and he would take a bus to the old Lake View pumping station at Clarendon and Montrose and then walk on pipes and fill and junk to get to the pier. This expansion and improvement of Chicago’s parks began with the 1930s projects of the New Deal. The area along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago from Jackson Park to Montrose Harbor is actually a 15-mile chain of land entirely created by dredging, landfill and plantings, accomplished with the labor of hundreds funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The development of Montrose Harbor started in 1934, the year I was born.

One of my favorite characters associated with Montrose pier was George the hot dog man.  Before the renovation George would carry his wares out to the anglers, but once the concrete was in, he had a large steam cart that rolled on wheels easily along the pier. He would push his cart along and every once in a while shout at the top of his lungs, “Hot coffeeeeee”, “Hot Doggggs” and folks would gather around.  “Keep the change?” he would ask his patrons in his broken Greek accent adding, “Always, in the old country, I would tell the old man – keep the change, old man!”  On warm sunny days he would sneak up on on an angler sound asleep on the pier.  Standing nearly on top of the person he would shout “QUIET, QUIET PLEASE, MAN SLEEPING!”  Usually the sleeper would almost leap into the lake startled with that shout. If someone needed their trolley anchor thrown out into the lake, George was the man for the job.  He would wind up and pitch that anchor further than all but a few.

The renovation of the pier made life a lot easier for anglers and sightseers. Prior to it the pier was a dangerous place.  Broken bottles, old fishhooks and other assorted trash collected between the limestone blocks.  Lazy anglers used the dark recesses between blocks as a toilet, filth accumulated around the towers and the stench could be nauseating. The concrete brought an end to most of that, a welcome sight to most of us. Because of Lake Michigan’s dangerous waters, the pier is still a place where one needs to be alert at all times. Occasionally a seiche will occur on the lake and those waves can easily wash across the pier and leave it barren.  But regardless of all the effort and possible danger, a day at the pier can easily be one of the best you can enjoy.


bill Matteson said...

Thank you for the great article on the horseshoe, they're not many of us left that remember.
George's Hot coffeeeee was always a welcome sight He would sell hot coffee and rolls in the morning. then sandwich's, hotdogs and pop in the afternoon. He had an old shack near the bait shop that he kept all his equipment in . His son Jimmy went to Stewart school a couple of semesters behind me.

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Anonymous said...

This answers one of my long-standing questions about the origin of the pier given its unique design compared to anything else jutting out into the lake. My many years living in Uptown, it was always one of my favorite places to go watch sunrises/sunsets, catch sheepshead, even slept out there overnight a couple times (shh, not allowed - you didn't hear anything!), etc., and I was always curious if it was constructed to play some role in the integrated fire control (IFC) area for the Nike missile down at Belmont Harbor during the Cold War or whether it was constructed before/after that time.

Sounds like, based on this, it was constructed decades before the Nike missiles were deployed in the area and got a major "facelift" shortly after WW2 - the pier was part of the New Deal, not the Nike program!

Thank you for answering this question, Ron - I have wondered for a LONG time! Certainly as a Chicago-history and war-history enthusiast (literally, my two Labrador Retrievers are named Nike and Ajax, after the program and model of missiles we had at our two Nike sites in Chicago), I really appreciate your history lesson...!!!

Anonymous said...

Montrose Harbor and Montrose Point was completed in 1934 but construction took several years. You can find a few aerial pictures from 1931 and 1932 online. The hook was there. The land fill was an extension of Lincoln Park by the Lincoln Park Commission (before the Chicago Park District was created in 1934).


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