Evanston Bathing Beach, from an undated photo. Over time, the locations, names and number of beaches have changed. Evanston’s lakefront has a long and continuously shifting history. (Photo from Evanston History Center Archives)

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 beachgoers looking for some fun in the sun.

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 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 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. (Photo from 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 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 (and still is 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] (Photo from 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 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, Aug. 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 to 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 undated. (Photo from Evanston History Center Archives)

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

Beachgoers at an Evanston beach, undated photo. (Photo from 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 offshore. 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, undated photo. (Photo from 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. (See below.)

View of Evanston’s northern lakefront and the Northwestern University campus, c. 1907. Visible in the foreground is Evanston’s lifesaving station and boat house. Cook Street beach lies to the north of the station. The beach is no longer there. The university’s 1962-1964 lakefill project, which created 74 acres of land and almost doubled the size of the campus, greatly altered the shoreline along the university. George R. Lawrence, Co. “Birds’ eye view of Northwestern University,” c. 1907. (Photo from Library of Congress.)

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 began to establish municipal beaches. [15]

On July 1, 1917, a municipal bathing beach at Lincoln Street was opened. The beach was complete with “spacious bathhouses with good provisions for the comfort of the bathers.” [16] The beach was owned by Northwestern University. (A different beach by the same name is still managed by the university today.) Through an agreement with the City, the university permitted Lincoln Street beach, which was located on a small portion of the university’s shoreline, to be used by the City of Evanston as a public bathing beach. [17]

Bathers at an Evanston beach, undated photo. (Photo from Evanston History Center Archives)

As improvements were made, and as Evanston grew as a City, the municipal government and many residents would increasingly view the City’s beaches as places that were not fully public. Instead, they were spaces in need of monitoring, places in need of a watchful eye to ensure both safety and “propriety.” And particularly after World War I, many viewed beaches as sites of potential racial conflict.

Evanston was just miles away from where one of the United States’ largest race riots took place. The 1919 Chicago race riot had begun on a hot July day in the waters of Lake Michigan. Seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams was swimming in the water near Twenty-ninth Street when he crossed the invisible line separating the “white beach” from the “Black beach.” One or more white men on the beach began throwing stones at Williams and as a result Williams drowned. [18]

No law segregated the beach, but it was tacitly understood that specific parts of the beach were divided by race, separated by an “imaginary boundary.” [19]

Evanston’s beaches were also not officially segregated. But, just as in Chicago, boundaries also existed. Prior to World War II, there existed what was informally called the “colored bathing beach” in Evanston. Since 1909, it was widely understood that the site, a small expanse located near Greenwood Beach just off Lake Street, was the only City beach that Black bathers were welcome to use. [20]  

“Lake Street Beach (Colored People).” This 1940 map of Evanston is one of the few known official documents that provides evidence of the segregation of the City’s beaches. Today, there is no “Lake Street Beach.” That erstwhile beach is now part of Greenwood Beach. The larger area, which was also once the location of Dempster Street beach, has undergone significant changes over the years. Map of Evanston, Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, 1940.

While segregation of the beaches was not explicitly codified by the City, the authority to enforce just who was or wasn’t allowed on which beaches lay in the hands of City residents, City officials, Evanston police and beach guards. No ordinance or posted placards were necessary to enforce these unwritten rules. “There were no signs such as ‘whites only,’ ” as some Black residents recalled of Evanston decades ago, “but everyone knew where they were allowed and not allowed to be.” [21]

For others, there were other rules to follow. And, over the first decades of the 20th century, City officials began to exercise more explicit control over Evanston’s beaches and enforce rules to regulate the “public” spaces of the lakefront.

Part 2 – Policing the beaches

Part 3 – Legalized restrictions

[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.

[16] “Open Lincoln Street Beach on Saturday,” Evanston News-Index, June 26, 1917. The Lincoln Street beach that exists in 2021 is not the same beach as was opened in 1917. The newer beach was created after the university’s 1962 project to extend the campus by adding landfill into Lake Michigan. After that project was completed, the beach was reserved for university and staff only. There is some dispute over who owns the beach. See Genevieve Bookwalter, “Northwestern, Evanston Officials Differ on Rules For Campus Beach,” Pioneer Press, July 16, 2019.

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

[18] Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922), 596.

[19] Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, 4

[20] Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois, Feb. 17, 1939, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312) Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b088-i365; Shorefront Legacy Center, interview with Spencer Jourdain, 2018.

[21] Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 63.