History of Welles Park

The Lincoln Park Commission opened Welles Park in 1910, named in honor of Gideon Welles (1802-1878), Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869.  Initially eight acres between Western/Montrose/Sunnyside, the park expanded to its current footprint that extends to Lincoln Avenue in 1922.

One of five parks created by the Lincoln Park Commission and named for a member of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, Welles Park honors Gideon Welles (1802-1878), Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869. Since the Lincoln Park Commission’s formation in 1869, its primary responsibility was to improve and manage Lincoln Park and its connecting boulevards. By 1908, the commissioners were impressed with new neighborhood parks on Chicago’s south and west sides, and began efforts to create similar parks on the city’s north side. In 1910, the Lincoln Park Commission transformed an initial 8-acre site into Welles Park. The commissioners began leasing a large property just east of the park in 1922, and several years later they purchased the additional acreage to permanently enlarge Welles Park. A small fieldhouse opened in Welles Park in 1915. This was replaced by a modern facility in 1970. In the 1920s, Abe Saperstein (1902-1966) began his career as a basketball coach in the Welles Park fieldhouse. Saperstein soon recruited south side African-American basketball players to play at a Jewish youth center in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. In 1927, he began coaching a semi-professional black basketball team. Known as the Savoy Big Five, because they played twice a week at the south side Savoy Ballroom. Saperstein soon took the team on the road, driving the players in his own Model T Ford. He renamed the team the Harlem Globetrotters to suggest an all-black travelling team. Saperstein encouraged the players to do trick moves with the basketball, and they became the one of the world’s most entertaining and well-known basketball teams. In 1971, Abe Saperstein was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. (source – Chicago Park District)

Other important additions to Welles Park include the iconic gazebo, added in 2004, the Welles Park Parents Association baseball and softball league and associated improvements, started in 1990, and the NaturePlace, installed in 2017/2018. Our important neighbor, the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, was built in 1985, named after an early settler of Ravenswood (LINK) and the Old Town School of Folk Music moved into the Hild Library building on Lincoln Ave in 1998. LINK

Prior to European settlement and urban development, the northside of Chicago was land originally occupied by tribes of the Council of Three Fires including the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa. Many of our place names come from Native American words including Milwaukee, Skokie, Wabash, and Chicago. Many of the diagonal streets nearby (Clark St., parts of Lincoln Ave, and Elston) were originally Indian trails. LINK

Additional history for the area can be found at the Chicago Public Library, Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Square and North Center Chambers of Commerce.

Aerial Photo from 1938
Intersection of Lincoln and Montrose 1909
Story time at Welles 1940s
Looking northwest at Lincoln and Montrose circa 1946