Swimming in Chicago Part One: Chicago Beach History

Summer is here, and with it comes the excitement of outdoor fun and swimming in Chicago. Often on our walking tours, I am asked, “What is your favorite thing about Chicago?”

“THE BEACH,” I respond without hesitation. Any free afternoon I get this summer, you’ll find me at a Chicago beach, swimming in the water and picnicking with a book. Today, Lake Michigan and its beaches provide obvious beauty as well as recreation, exercise, and nature to locals and tourists alike. Historically, Chicago’s lakefront was not always a desirable site, nor was it so accessible. I decided to dig deeper into the history of Chicago’s beaches and swimming in Chicago, generally.

I had always heard that Chicago beaches are built on the debris created by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Dumping debris in the lake seemed like an easy answer to the volume of destruction. With a little research, I found that land-filling in Lake Michigan solved an erosion problem as well as generating more city land, so it became quite popular, quite quickly.

swimming in chicago beaches history

These first public beaches came out of work done by progressive women, like Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson through the Municipal Order League, a women’s reform organization. She urged Chicago to make use of “nature’s tub” as relief of sanitary conditions within congested, working neighborhoods. Glamorous, right?

The very first public bathing beach of Chicago dates to 1895 at the shore between Fullerton Avenue and Diversey Parkway, as a part of Lincoln Park. Until this point, it isn’t that there weren’t any beaches to let people go swimming in Chicago; it was that beaches were private affairs belonging to clubs and hotels, which meant they cost money. Only the highest class of Chicagoans traveled north of the city or across the lake for bathing beaches.

The Lincoln Park beach was free if you wore your own suit or a nickel to rent one, if you can imagine, and it established that working class people could be bathers, too. A Chicago Tribune article of the same year about the perfect lakefront trail bike ride describes this Chicago beach, where you could have witnessed “the antics of the hundreds of little newsboys in swimming” for endless amusement. At this Chicago beach, bathers were separated by gender not only when they changed their clothes but also when entering the water.  The Tribune article describes a rope that divided the swimming area to keep things proper and modest between the sexes.

There were also tough restrictions on what was considered proper attire to swim in Chicago, and breaking these dress codes was an offense that could lead to arrest. Consider the costumes necessary to swim in public shown here; bare knees would not be admissible for several years to come.

swimming in chicago beaches history bathing costumes 1905

Remember the Chicago River at this point still flowed into Lake Michigan, bringing sewage into it. In 1900, the Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed to aid in the reversing of the flow of the river.  The positive effects of this reversal on the cleanliness of the lake water took a few years to become evident. Desire to go swimming in Chicago’s section of Lake Michigan grew as the quality of its water improved. In 1909, the Chicago Council established a Committee on Bathing Beaches to better meet the growing demand for more public beaches. The same year, Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago was released, which called for the lakefront to be reserved as park space as well as several Chicago beaches as part of the urban design for the city.

From the Great Fire to the Burnham Plan, Chicago beaches are a hodge-podge of public and private efforts.  The idea of a consolidated Chicago Park District doesn’t happen until 1934, as the city responds to the difficulties of the Great Depression and attempts to access New Deal assistance. This puts both the vast sands of the south and the street-end beaches of the far north under one administration and continues construction projects that had been on hold since the crash. The Chicago Park District continued to acquire private beach property into the 1950s.  Today, Chicago has more than 26 miles of public beach, which afford endless opportunities of free swimming in Chicago’s Lake Michigan.

If Chicago beaches aren’t your scene, stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll explore the history of Chicago’s public pools.

— Elizabeth Tieri, Chicago Detours Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

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I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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