skip to Main Content

A Shifting Shoreline: A Look at Evanston’s Beaches

Beaches today are widely viewed as sites of recreation, relaxing places where land meets sea. But the history of these sites is nothing if not natural. Evanston’s lakefront has undergone both physical and symbolic changes over the years, from being viewed as fraught with peril for ships and bathers alike to being seen as communal recreation areas for beach goers looking for some fun in the sun.

Evanston Bathing Beach, n.d. Over time, the locations, names, and number of Evanston’s beaches have changed. Evanston’s lakefront has a long and continuously shifting history. Photograph, Evanston History Center Archives.

Evanston’s lakefront, which has long faced problems with erosion, is a site that proves to be constantly shifting, both literally and physically.[1] As white settlers moved into the area, indigenous peoples would be moved away from the shores in the appropriation of the land that would later be called Evanston. This was the first act of restriction, and it would be followed by others.

In 1913 members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians filed a lawsuit claiming possession of a portion of the lakefront in Evanston and Chicago. “[T]he Indians cannot claim land which they abandoned eighty years ago,” wrote the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in dismissing the complaint. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision in 1917.[2] Evening Star, November 12, 1913.

In 1931, Evanston City Council members first passed legislation to restrict beach access. In July of that year, city officials ordered fences to be erected around four of the city’s municipal beaches and all residents and non-residents were required to pay access fees using a system of beach tokens. (See more below).

But in a variety of ways the city’s beaches had been under the control of city officials prior to those first official restrictions. As early as 1909 there is evidence that the city’s beaches had become restricted by race. Over the years, restrictions would also be enforced in ways that could be seen to target people according to gender and class. There is, to date, no comprehensive history of these restrictions and more research is needed on this topic. What is provided here is a basic outline of this history.

Calvary Beach[3], Evanston, 1900. Photograph, Evanston History Center Archives.

The Rise of the Bathing Beach

Evanston has discovered the summer advantages of Lake Michigan. The sandy shores afford extensive bathing beaches.[4] Northwestern University brochure, 1918

In the years before World War I, most of Evanston’s beaches were fairly small expanses and they were not particularly well maintained. At that time, the shores of Lake Michigan were not viewed as places for recreation in the same way they are today. People swam in the lake to be sure, but there were significant problems.

First, the lake was “in a polluted state due to the constant flow of sewage into the waters.”[5] Second, many beaches were uncomfortable; they were rocky and littered with stones, and, in some areas, refuse. (For a time, Evanston used a portion of the shorefront as a dumping ground for trash.) And finally, the lake was (as it is still today) dangerous. Accidental and intentional drownings took place on a regular basis.

Evanston Lakefront, c. 1914. Refuse was strewn along parts of the lakefront, indicating the poor state of most of Evanston’s beaches in the first part of the 20th century. In 1913, the beach at Dempster Street was described as “a low sandy expanse, unattractive and unimproved.” A year earlier, it was widely reported that a large number of rats were nesting on the beach.[6] Photograph, Evanston History Center Archives.

Still, bathers did flock to various beaches. But not all visitors had equal access.

In 1909, at Evanston’s Dempster Street beach, a number of white bathers complained that Black men and Black women were “mingling with white persons” and “entering the water at the same point where the white people bathed.” They also complained that “colored men and boys”[7] were “lying on the sand and annoying white women passing along the beach or going to and from the water.”[8]

“This must stop,” said Fred G. Shaffer (1866-1936), Evanston’s chief of police. Shaffer announced he would detail a patrolman to the beach to arrest any “offenders.” “It is only proper that there should be segregation of the races,” Shaffer stated, “and this plan will be carried out. I understand that the proprietor of the lockers at the beach does not rent suits or rooms to colored persons, but they arrange in some other manner to get into the water.”[9]

Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1909.

Shaffer’s statement provides evidence that racial discrimination was practiced on Evanston’s beaches prior to 1909, and, as Evanston’s Black population grew in the following years, especially during the period from 1910-1930, it would continue. It was precisely during this same period that city officials began to make improvements to Evanston’s beaches.

Around 1913, a campaign to raise funds (through taxation) to improve the city’s beaches was launched. A bit earlier, the city’s various parks departments had been established. In 1923, Evanston formed a Bureau of Recreation to manage the city’s beaches, parks, and other recreation areas.[10] Flyer, n.d., Evanston History Center Archives.

In 1914, two newly-constructed houses for bathers were opened at the popular Lee Street beach. (The beach is still extant; located between Greenleaf and Lee streets). That year, 100 bathers showed up for the opening day of the summer season.

Beach-Goers at an Evanston Beach, n.d. Photograph, Evanston History Center Archives.

Cook Street beach (no longer extant) was another popular swimming spot, despite being reportedly “rocky and unpleasant.”[11] The beach boasted lights on the piers for evening bathing and a diving platform, with rafts available just off shore. On the beach itself, as the Evanston News-Index reported in 1915, large settees were built “for the use of mothers and nurses, from which they can more easily overlooked their charges at play in the sand.”[12]

Cook Street beach, n.d. Photograph, Evanston History Center Archives.

Northwestern University also had its own private beaches which were “reserved for the sole use of students, faculty, and members of the administrative staff of the university.”[13] That beach too was segregated; the small number of Black students enrolled at the university were barred from the beach at least into the late 1930s.

Public interest in beach-going steadily grew, and by World War I, Evanston city planners observed an “urgent need of bathing beaches” as more and more residents were “discovering the lakefront after years of neglect.”[14] With the opening of the drainage canal, Lake Michigan’s water quality improved, and Evanston City Council members began to establish municipal beaches.[15]

This article continues. To read more please visit:


[1] The vast subject of beach erosion and the work that has been done physically to Evanston’s shores are not the focus of this article.

[2] Joseph D. Kearney and Thomas W. Merrill, “Contested Shore: Property Rights in Reclaimed Land and the Battle for Streeterville,” 107 NW. U. L. REV. 1057 (2013), 1109. For more see: John N. Low, Chicago’s First Urban Indians – the Potawatomi. PhD dissertation. The University of Michigan, 2011.

[3] For years, the waterfront along Sheridan Road and Sheridan Square was identified variously as South Boulevard beach, Keeney Street beach, and Calvary (Cemetery) beach. United States Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Impact Statement: Beach Erosion Control at South Boulevard Beach, Evanston, Illinois (Chicago: U.S. Army Engineer District, 1975), 7.

[4] “The Summer School,” Northwestern University Bulletin (Volume 18) 1918, 4.

[5] “Open Lincoln Street Beach on Saturday,” Evanston News Index, June 26, 1917.

[6] “Fair Bathers and Big Rats Use Beach,” Chicago Defender, August 10, 1912.

[7] Throughout this article, I quote materials that use the term “colored” and other antiquated and racist terms. I do so in original context only.

[8] “Will Bar Negro Bathers on Complaint of Women,” Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1909.

[9] “Will Bar Negro Bathers on Complaint of Women,” Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1909.

[10] “New Recreation Board is Named For Evanston,” Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1953.

[11] Lee Street beach had been patronized by the great majority of the city’s bathers in earlier years. “Open Lincoln Street Beach on Saturday,” Evanston News Index, June 26, 1917.

[12] “Cook Street Bathing Beach is Now Open,” Evanston News Index, June 24, 1915.

[13] “Beach Regulations,” Daily Northwestern, June 28, 1932.

[14] Evanston Small Park and Playground Association, Plan of Evanston (Evanston, IL: Bowman Publishing Company, 1917), 45-47.

[15] “City’s Beaches Excellent Bathing Spot,” Evanston News-Index, July 2 1917.

Back To Top