The Beaches of Chicago: The Miraculous Making of the Riviera of the Midwest
Without doubt, one of the biggest surprises for first time visitors to Chicago is the extent and quality of its lakefront beaches. Many don’t even realize that Chicago has a developed waterfront, much less that it boasts twenty-six miles of some of the finest urban beaches in the United States. Outside of Miami and Tampa, only Los Angeles can rival Chicago for the quality and quantity of its beaches. Those in the know have called Chicago the Riviera of the Midwest with hardly any pushback from anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting both. The beaches of Chicago are truly world class. But how did they get that way?
The Swamp and the Railroad
It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning Chicago’s shoreline was a swamp, a shallow, weedy quagmire infested with mosquitoes. Then in 1851 the state of Illinois granted 3 million acres of prime lakefront property to the Illinois Central Railroad in exchange for the railroad’s agreement to improve the shoreline as a way of bringing its trains up to the lakefront.
The railroad made the required improvements, including filling in several hundred feet of shallow, swampy shoreline with landfill and extending the coastline east into the lake. Where once the shoreline had come right up to Michigan Avenue, it was now several hundred feet further out, and the swamp was no more. But all the newly built land was owned by the Illinois Central Railroad and was off limits to the public. Or was it?
In Trust for the Public, the Birth of Chicago’s Lakefront
Behaving like a bully, the railroad restricted public access to the lake and squandered the goodwill of the people, so in 1873 under public pressure the Illinois legislature repealed the charter giving the railroad exclusive access. In its arrogance, the railroad continued building infrastructure on the new land as if the repeal had never occurred. The state of Illinois struck back.
The state filed suit against the railroad, seeking an injunction. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, and in 1892, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the state, citing the public trust doctrine, which affirms that the state holds the shoreline in trust for public use, meaning it cannot be granted to private parties to the exclusion of the public.
Lincoln Park Beach
Due to the efforts of the railroad, Chicago now had a partially developed lakefront, and in 1895 it built its first public beach. The Lincoln Park Beach extended from Fullerton Avenue to Diversey Parkway in a place where, ironically, there is no beach today. The beach was championed by a women’s reform organization whose purpose was not recreation but to provide a place where Chicago’s grimy underclasses could take a much needed bath.
The Lincoln Park Beach was not a place you would want to go swimming. Not only would you find yourself immersed with hordes of filthy people, some of whom bathed in their work clothes, you were swimming in a lake that resembled a sewer. This was before Chicago reversed the flow of the river, so sewage flowed out into the lake from the river, making the waters near the shoreline a good deal less than sanitary. In 1900 the river’s flow was reversed, and all that changed.
Oak Street Beach
In the course of all this, the City of Chicago learned something about the value of landfill. Consequently, in the 1890’s the city extended Lake Shore Drive south from Oak Street to Ohio Street by extending the shoreline east with landfill. It built a breakwater to protect the roadway, then added sidewalks, bicycle paths and a small sand beach at the foot of Oak Street.
A decade later, after the river’s flow was reversed and the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal was completed, the lake became safe to swim in, and Oak Street Beach took off. In the summer months as many as 55,000 people a day tried to squeeze onto the small crescent of sand there. Before long, residents began to complain, and the City began eyeing other places to build beaches as a way to disperse the crowds.
At the time one of the easiest ways to acquire new beaches was to appropriate existing privately owned beaches, taking the land from luxury hotels and exclusive clubs by applying the public trust doctrine. That was the case when the City appropriated the privately owned Windsor Bathing Beach in 1905 and turned it into the 75th Street Beach. And when the City took the privately owned Manhattan Beach and turned it into Rainbow Beach.
57th Street Beach and 63rd Street Beach
Among the oldest currently operating public beaches in Chicago, the 57th Street Beach, which sits directly opposite the Museum of Science and Industry on the east side of Lake Shore Drive, was established in the late 1890’s as part of improvements to the lakefront after the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. But to call it a beach then was a bit of a stretch. It was composed of granite bricks. Not exactly a place to run around barefoot in the hot summer sun. Later it was cleaned up and improved with the addition of sand. It remains a popular beach today.
The 63rd Street Beach was also part of the improvements to the lakefront in the late 19th century. Tiny at first, it was expanded to 10-acres in 1917 and provided with an elegant Classical Revival style pavilion in 1919. The pavilion once housed bathrooms and showers, medical rooms and separate courtyards for men and women with hundreds of wooden changing booths. The wooden changing booths are gone, but the building remains and can be rented out for parties and events.
North Avenue Beach
After the first flurry of beach building from 1890-1920, the City of Chicago stood pat until 1934 when the Chicago Park District received funding from FDR’s New Deal programs to make improvements to Lincoln Park along the lakefront. The City built out the available parkland with landfill in preparation for a spacious new beach. Completed in 1940, North Avenue Beach stretches 875,000 square feet between North Avenue and Fullerton Avenue and is one of Chicago’s largest public beaches. With its close proximity to downtown, it is also one of its most popular, drawing residents and tourists alike.
The beach is outfitted with a cleverly designed beach house intended to emulate an ocean liner. The original version was an Art Moderne beauty constructed of wood, but time and weather rotted it away, and it was replaced with a concrete version in 1999. The beach house contains changing rooms, beach rentals and a full service restaurant and bar.
One of the biggest advantages of North Avenue Beach is that it sits directly adjacent to the amenities of Lincoln Park, including ball fields, nature trails, a conservatory, a marina, a rowing basin and Lincoln Park Zoo. No other park in the country offers so much within such a short distance to the beach. It is one of Chicago’s special gems.
Montrose Avenue Beach and Foster Avenue Beach
Another recipient of New Deal funding was a massive landfill project that built out the lakefront from Irving Park Road north to Foster Avenue. By 1940 this resulted in a new beach at Montrose Avenue, the City’s largest. Today, Montrose Avenue Beach primarily serves the lucky residents of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood with three miles of lush sand, a 3,000 sq ft beach house, a dedicated dog beach, watercraft rentals, and a full service restaurant and bar. For those who contend that the government never does anything right, they haven’t been to Montrose Avenue Beach.
A half mile further north lies Foster Avenue Beach. The last of Chicago’s beaches to be built on landfill, it was completed in 1958. Less crowded and with more easily accessible parking, Foster Avenue beach is considered the best beach in Chicago for children. Catering primarily to families from the Edgewater neighborhood, it has a beach house, food service and adjacent dog beach.
Ohio Street Beach
Of all Chicago’s beaches, Ohio Street Beach has had the rockiest existence (no pun intended). As early as 1900, the City of Chicago unveiled grand plans for a beach at the terminus of Ohio Street, but the plans were rejected by the Lincoln Park Commission, the forerunner of the Chicago Park District. Undeterred, Mayor Carter Harrison ordered the construction of a small beach at Ohio Street in 1913. However, the beach was considered temporary and was removed a few years later.
By the end of the decade, overcrowding at nearby Oak Street Beach created a new incentive to build a beach at Ohio Street, and in 1923 the City Council appropriated the funds to get it done. But the project stalled over concerns that the angular configuration of the beach might limit the movement of water and create public health issues. The project remained dormant until 1931 when a few changes were made to the design, and a modest beach was built at the site, although nothing on the scale of what was originally envisioned.
Then in 1958 a small peninsula was built north of the beach to allow construction of the city’s new water filtration plant. As a result, a cove was created, and in 1965 the revamped Ohio Street Beach was unveiled. Today, it is the only Chicago beach that sits in a cove. It is also the only beach that faces north. As the closest beach to downtown, it’s popular with tourists and sits within easy walking distance of Navy Pier.
The Beaches of Chicago, a Summertime Delight
In addition to those named, twenty more beaches are strung out along Chicago’s lakeshore like beads on a necklace. Unique among cities on the Great Lakes, Chicago is a beach town. Yet the image of Chicago as the Riviera of the Midwest doesn’t quite square with its other image as a cold, gray, gritty city, inhospitable and harsh. Perhaps that’s why so many newcomers are surprised when they discover Chicago in the summer months, as warm and welcoming as toes in the sand. It’s an amazing reversal of expectations, an over the rainbow revelation, a summertime delight.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Peshtigo, WI
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Mattoon, IL
My American Odyssey Route Map
Garcia, Eva. “10 Things About Chicago Beaches You Might Not Know,” WTTW, 24th May 2019, Website
“Parks & Facilities: Beaches,” Chicago Park District, acquired 13 September 2021, Website
“Public Trust Doctrine,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, acquired 13 September 2021, Website
“The Development of Public and Private Beaches for Recreational Use”, Encyclopedia of Chicago, acquired 13 September 2021, Website
Tieri, Elizabeth. “Swimming in Chicago Part One: Chicago Beach History,” Chicago Detours, 10th July 2014, Website
Oak Street Beach, Malcolm Logan
Chicago lakefront in 1890, Chicago Historical Society
Rainbow Beach, Steven Kevil
Lincoln Park Beach 1892, Chicago Historical Society
Oak Street Beach in the 1920’s, Underwood & Underwood, Library of Congress
Oak Street Beach today, Malcolm Logan
57th Street Beach, Malcolm Logan
63rd Street Beach, Malcolm Logan
North Avenue Beach, WhereTraveler
North Avenue Beach beach house, Malcolm Logan
Montrose Avenue Beach, Malcolm Logan
Foster Avenue Beach, Malcolm Logan
Ohio Street Beach looking north, Competency is my Core Competency
Ohio Street Beach video, Malcolm Logan
Aerial view of Oak Street Beach and North Avenue Beach, Bonfire2k4