Chicago Beaches

0 Posted by - May 23, 2018 - Vintage View

When people think of the city of Chicago, probably the first thing that doesn’t come to mind is beaches.   But miles and miles of sandy beaches are one of Chicago’s defining characteristics and one of its alluring amenities.

Of Chicago’s 30 miles of shoreline, 26 are public land, with 29 separate beaches stretching 15 miles in total.

Doris Irwin of American Air Lines Charles Cushman June 27, 1941

Doris Irwin of American Air Lines, Charles Cushman, June 27, 1941

I live two city blocks from a Lake Michigan beach, which is a central reason I chose to live in the far north Rogers Park neighborhood.  I can walk to the beach.  Every day.  Year round.

BeFunky_june 20th

Loyola Park Beach


12th Street Beach 1973

As a tour guide, I love showing the lakefront to people visiting Chicago for the first time.  Most marvel that the lake seems “just like an ocean.”  And, including our very prominent river, Chicago has more water and boats than most visitors had ever imagined.  One might be surprised to learn that Chicago has the largest municipal harbor system, with nine yacht marinas.

Kathy Osterman Beach (aka Hollywood Beach), 1946

Sunbathing at Kathy Osterman Beach (aka Hollywood Beach), 1946

We Chicagoans take our beaches more or less for granted.  But free, clean, public beaches were not the case a century ago.  Reading a bit of the history of Chicago’s beaches was quite eye-opening: many people fought for many years simply to have public beaches.


Courtesy of John Chuckman, Chicago Nostalgia

The earliest beaches were owned by hotels and private clubs.  The first city beach opened at Lincoln Park in 1895, due to the efforts of the Free Bath and Sanitary League.   They believed that the working class and the poor should have access to clean bathing beaches.

Charles Cushman

Charles Cushman

In the early decades of the 20th century, women’s groups and reformers successfully persuaded the city to create and maintain more beach land for the public good.

12th Street Beach, c1970

Oak Street Beach, 1950, Cliff Oettinger

But while Chicago’s beaches were plentiful and secure for the future, they were the site of more battles to come: from the morality concerns over proper “bathing” wear that went on into the 1960s…


Woman being arrested for indecent exposure, 1922

…to the start of the deadly 1919 race riots, which began with the death of a black youth on a segregated southside beach.


Fortunately today, we can wear whatever we want, swim wherever we want, and the beaches are generally safe and clean.

On-leave servicemen and their girlfriends playing volleyball at North Ave Beach, 1943

On-leave servicemen and their girlfriends playing volleyball at North Ave Beach, 1943


Montrose Beach, c1960

But on hot, humid summer days, perhaps the biggest challenge we face is simply finding a spot:


Oak Street Beach – 1925

Oak Street Beach, 1929, Chicago, Torkel Korling

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