Nearly a century ago, the elite families of Chicago built a remarkable shooting facility called the Lincoln Park Traps (LPT) on Chicago’s downtown lakefront, where they had begun to play a new, unnamed sport. By 1918, it was common to hear the pop, pop, pop of gun fire on the lakefront, the sound of which was muffled by the big lake that absorbed and deadened the explosive sound of firing.
The Chicagoans were enjoying a sport started by Charles E. Davies, an avid grouse hunter, who invented a shooting game in 1915 using live pigeons. During the next decade, the game evolved and clay targets were used instead of pigeons. In 1926, a contest was held to name the sport. Gertrude Hurlbutt won the contest with the name “Skeet,” which is derived from the Scandinavian word for shoot. By the 1940s, Skeet was used by the U.S. military to teach novice gunners the principle of leading and timing flying targets.
The Lincoln Park Traps was formed by the upper class of Chicago society. As the years went by, the LPT became a public entity and evolved into a very egalitarian facility. Everyone was welcome to shoot at Lincoln Park Traps, and it was common for Chicago’s plumbers and carpenters to shoot Skeet next to the city’s captains of industry.
Through the decades of the 20th century, Chicago’s industrialists, lawyers, shopkeepers, and laborers brought their L.C. Smiths, Remingtons, Parkers, and Uticas to the Lincoln Park Traps to shoot Skeet. Each year, thousands of recreational shooters took aim at the Club’s clay targets as they sailed through the air, and millions of clay targets were either broken by the crack of a gun or shattered upon landing on the rocky shore.
In its heyday, the LPT played host to the Pan American Games and was also the home club of the first woman Skeet Shooting Champion, Carolla Mandel. In 1954 she won the 20-gauge World Skeet title. It was the first time a woman had ever won an open title. They were still talking about it in the warm and weathered clubhouse when my father began shooting at the Lincoln Park Traps in 1957. He shot there—in the strange and horrible weather that only the Chicago lakefront can produce—until 1991 when someone from the Chicago Park District entered the clubhouse and handed the manager an eviction notice.
The arrival of the Park District’s notice closely coincided with the filing of a lawsuit by Illinois Attorney General Roland W. Burris that accused the Lincoln Park Traps of polluting Lake Michigan. According to Harlan Draeger’s reporting in the Chicago Sun-Times, Burris accused the club of discharging lead shot, clay target materials, and plastic shell wadding into the lake without a federal permit. Apparently, no one in 1918 thought to ask the federal government’s permission to shoot pigeons on the lakefront and so it remained an unsanctioned activity right up until the time Burris made his stand.
Skeet shooting is one of the two major types of competitive shotgun shooting at clay targets, the other being Trap. For the uninitiated like Burris, the game of Skeet might seem like an odd sport. Skeet shooters attempt to break clay disks flung through the air at high speed from a variety of angles. The firearm of choice for this task is usually a high quality shotgun, although many shooters use inexpensive semi-auto and pump action shotguns. The use of clay targets replaced the more traditional target of live birds, as a cheaper, humane, and more reliable alternative, and is the main reason the targets are today called clay pigeons.
By the time Rolland Burris decided to put a stop to the recreational breaking of clay on Chicago’s lakefront, L.C. Smith guns, and others like it, had sent more than 400 tons of lead shotgun pellets to the bottom of Lake Michigan just a few yards off of the rocky breakwater that lines the shore along Lake Shore Drive at Diversey Harbor.
Frederick Lappe, president of the Lincoln Park Traps at the time, promised a legal battle. He said that it was not “clear-cut” that a permit was needed for sportsmen to shoot Skeet on the lakefront. In fact, the permit law Burris was enforcing was written for industrial “point sources” rather then gun clubs.
Lappe termed Burris’ action “more a response to social and political pressures” than to environmental concerns. Lappe accused the Illinois Conservation Department of operating 30 similar shooting facilities along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. But Matt Dunn, chief of Burris' environmental control division, said those clubs required steel shot, not lead. And back and forth the argument went.
The club was threatened with civil penalties of up to $50,000 per violation and $10,000 per day. But that’s not what closed the club. In fact, The Lincoln Park Traps was never fined. "It wasn’t the Burris suit that shut down the club," says former LPT President Lappe. “In the end, the Lincoln Park Traps closed because the Chicago Park District terminated our ‘dollar a year’ lease agreement. The Park District used the Burris lawsuit as an excuse for not extending our lease. There were never any fines levied against us for polluting the lake. In fact, after we closed, the EPA issued a report finding that there were no adverse effects on the Lake from the lead shot we’d deposited.”
To this day, none of the shotgun lead has been removed from the bottom of Lake Michigan. So, it was the Chicago Park District and not the Attorney General or the EPA, as many believed, that eventually quieted the guns on Lake Michigan. “The Lincoln Park Traps was one of the most fabulous sporting facilities that ever existed in this country,” Lappe recalls. “It was one of the first Skeet facilities in the U.S., and one of the few ever constructed in the downtown area of a major city. It was enjoyed by people from all walks of life; it was a neat place.”
The Lincoln Park Traps are gone. The club ran its course through the heart of the 20th century, but like so many of the traditions of Chicago’s post-industrial age, it sank in the sand of time and lays buried in memory like the lead shot that lies in the cold silt off Diversey Harbor.