Chicago’s first public beach opened in 1895 at Lincoln Park. Prior to that, beaches were owned by hotels, clubs and other private enterprises, and typically frequented by wealthy, upper-class residents. The campaign to open the city’s beaches to the public was spearheaded by the Municipal Order League1, a women’s reform organization. But the organization didn’t have recreation in mind: The push for public beaches was motivated by hygienic concerns, like public access to the lake for washing off (bathing beach).
A HISTORY OF LINCOLN PARK, AND THE ANNUAL REPORT OF THE COMMISSIONERS, 1898
LINCOLN PARK PAVED BEACH
In 1873 a bathing-house was established just south of the North Avenue pier, and operated there for years; while in 1874 the Commissioners, in response to a plea from the City Board of Health for free bathing facilities, offered to set apart space on the beach for bathing, and maintain the beach and bath-houses if the city would erect the latter. The Board of Health returned thanks for the offer, but nothing more ever came of it, and it was not until 1895 that the free bathing beach was opened north of Fullerton Avenue.
Attention was called, in the last annual report (1897), to the danger of serious damage being done by the lake, to the paved beach along the Park front and the sea-wall south of Burton Place, and to the necessity of additional protection to enable them to withstand the force of the severe lake storms. This necessity was strikingly emphasized last fall by a series of violent storms which toppled over a section of the sea-wall at Schiller Street, undermined the rest of the structure and ripped up the paved beach north of North Avenue for a distance of 1,000 feet. A year ago it was estimated that the sea-wall and paved beach could be protected bv driving down sheeting along the entire extent, at aii expense of approximately $60,000. A much larger amount will now be necessary to repair the destruction caused bv the storms of last year, and to permanently protect the work. A beginning was made in this direction last summer, when a contract was awarded for 1,000 feet of extra piling and sheeting along the paved beach from North Avenue north, but this protection was not completed when continued bad weather made it advisable to stop the work. There is available for the work of shore protection the proceeds of the sale of bonds of the town of North Chicago of the face value of S40,000, authorized by the Legislature in 1891, which were sold last summer at a premium of S6,6oo. Unless a further issue of bonds is authorized, it will be necessary to appropriate a large sum from the general fund of the Park the coming year to protect the lake front against more extensive damage by storms.
A fund of $25,000 will be secured from the shore owners for the construction of a breakwater 1,400 feet long from the sea-wall at Bellevue Place to the new work at Oak Street; but the expense of filling the space from Oak Street to the breakwater, and improving it as a park, with a continuation of the paved beach, drive, parapet, bicycle-path, walks, etc., connecting the old and the new shore drives, will all have to be borne from the general fund.
Lincoln Park Paved Beach
Joint Preliminary Report of the Committee on Bathing Beaches and Recreation Piers and the Lake Shore Reclamation Commission to Mayor Busse and the City Council, December 1910
In the presentation of a plan for the establishment of bathing beaches and recreation piers, it is to be understood that the same is necessarily more or less tentative. The proposition is one that can not be worked out upon any fixed basis at this time. Yet it is a decided advantage that at least the general outline of the scheme should be well understood and determined as something to which we can hope to attain. The committee recommends the adoption of a plan which contemplates the establishment eventually of not less than seven municipal bathing beaches to be established substantially as follows:
1. Montrose avenue.
2. Diversey boulevard. (This beach has recently been opened by the Lincoln Park Commission.)
3. Ohio street.
4. Twenty-second street to Twenty-fifth street. (A small beach is now maintained by the city at Twenty-fifth street.)
5. Thirty-ninth street.
6. Jackson Park. (The South Park Commission has already formulated tentative plans for this beach.)
7. Seventy-ninth street. (The city now maintains a small beach at this place.)
The above beaches are shown in detail in the diagram marked “Plate 1.”
Diagram of the lake shore from Montrose avenue to Seventy-ninth street, showing proposed bathing beaches
Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1912
The north side will have a municipal bathing beach this summer. The council committee on bathing beaches and recreation piers yesterday recommended a council resolution to take immediate steps to acquire shore lend for the purpose. It Is expected the resolution will be adopted by the council next Monday night.
The site has been selected by the committee, of which Aid. Long, is chairman. The new beach will have a 1,200 toot frontage on the lake between Montrose and Windsor avenues. A double decked bathing pavilion to accommodate 2,000 persons will be constructed on the beach. Plans for the pavilion and piers also have been drawn, and the total cost of the Improvements outside the value ad the land is placed at $22.000.
Size of the Beach.
The land which the committee plans to condemn runs from Clarendon avenue to the lake. The new site has a frontage of 775 feet on Clarendon avenue and is immediately north of the city’s property on which stands the Lake View pumping station. With this the entire city holdings will extend 1,000 feet on Clarendon, but the shore line angle increases the beach length some 200 feet.
“We want to get the land acquired and work on the Improvements started this summer,” Aid. Long said. “Under the law we can either purchase or condemn. The land to be acquired is owned entirely by three men. It may be that a purchase can be arranged without necessitating condemnation proceedings, but even if the latter Is necessary the property can be in the hands of the city before the season is over.”
Aid. Long said it was planned to choose a south side beach site soon.
For Two New Bathhouses.
The council finance committee yesterday authorized Health Commissioner Young to advertise for bids for two new bath houses. One of the municipal bathing places is to be located in the Nineteenth ward and the other In the Sixteenth ward.
Montrose Avenue Recreation Pier and Bathing Beach
Proposed Pavilion and Bathing B each at Montrose Avenue
Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1912
North shore resident living between Kenesaw and Gordon terraces yesterday petitioned the Lincoln park commissioners to remove the “death trap” pier between Gordon terrace and Buena avenue. This pier, it is declared, has been responsible for two deaths in the lake within three weeks and for many narrow escapes thts season.
Commissioners Wilk and Gansbergen and Secretary M. H. West of the board yesterday received a number of written and verbal demands that Lake Michigan be cleared of the obstruction.
As President Simmons and Commissioner Lathrop are both out of the city, it was said nothing definite could be done in regard to the protests for a few days, but that the matter would be investigated.
That the beach be cleared of obstructions now on land belonging to the state and held in trust by the park board and the lives of the bathers in the lake be protected is the burden of the complaint of the property owners.
Agreed on Imaginary Shore Line.
An agreement was made some time ago between the board and the realty holders by which an imaginary shore line about fifty feet east of the present shore line was drawn. This was to mark the extent of the rights to be acquired by the property owners.
At Kenesaw terrace property owners have taken advantage of this agreement and have erected piers closing In the beach.
Between Kenesaw terrace and the United states Marine hospital grounds, however. the beach Is open. Half way, on this stretch In an old pier that extends out nearly 100 feet, part of it being on the state property. It is this that is complained of.
The swirling of the water has washed the sands away from the sides of the pier, and a strong undertow that is dangerous to weak swimmers is noticeable. Many of the hundreds who bathe about the pier day after day are not aware of the undertow until caught by it.
Informal Meeting of Protest.
Residents along the lake shore held an informal meeting yesterday and decided to protest against the presence of the “death pier” on state property.
“The Lincoln park board owns the land the pier is on,” said one man interested.
“This pier endangers the lives of hundreds every day, and should be removed at once.
“Hardly a day passes that some one is not carried from the water half drowned from being sucked under the pier. Our houses have become life saving stations.
“There is no need for this. The Park board should remove the pier and the city should take some steps to establish a municipal bathing beach there, which can be properly policed and protected.”
Besides the individual protests it is probable a formal petition for the removal of the death trap will be mado to the commissioners within a day or so.
Sergt. Nicholas Pauly and Policeman Fred A Meyer narrowly escaped drowning yesterday afternoon a mile out off Devon avenue, while for the body of Marie Doniat. who was drowned on Thursday near the Buena “death pier.” Their catboat capsized end threw them into the water.
Oak Street Beach
Aerial View of Oak Street Beach
1 “Work of Municipal Order League,” Chicago Tribune, March 27, 1894