It was in the 1970’s during my high school and college years that I remember traveling with friends to Chicago’s Oak Street Beach for a summer field trip from the south suburbs of the city. We would also pick out high rise apartment buildings we wanted to live in after college. And I remember it crowded with beach chairs, towels, bicycles and of course, numerous bathers and acrobatics. I remember male friends wanting to be a life guard as a summer job there; where prestigious life began. Oak Street Beach is located at 1000 N. Lake Shore Drive at Oak Street and Lake Michigan near the Gold Coast/Streeterville neighborhoods.
According to the Chicago Park District, Lincoln Park and Lake Shore Drive suffered constant damage from storms and lake shore erosion. The city built a breakwater made of pilings, planks, and stone on the lake’s edge between Oak Street and North Avenue in the 1870’s. This device could not protect Lake Shore Drive, so in the late 1880s, the commissioners began working with the Army Corps of Engineers to design a seawall between Fullerton and North Avenues to provide better protection. Lake Shore Drive was also extended south from Oak Street to Ohio Street.
The park district claims property owners helped pay for the landfill extension, which included a breakwater to protect the lake shore and roadway from erosion. Constructed in the 1890s, the project included a 50-foot-wide roadway as well as an extensive granite-paved beach, stone sidewalks, bicycle path, bridle path, and luxury lawns with elegant trees.
The beach was extremely popular in the early 1900’s but rich, mansion property owners complained about how small it was so it was extended in 1923. My father remembers living in the city in those early years as a child attending the beach. According to sources, over 50,000 visitors were known to travel to the beach during that time.The Chicago Park District offers some wonderful history on all Chicago area parks and when they can be used.
Today, Oak Street has gone through many renovations and has a outdoor cafe though with Covid restrictions, not available at this time. Currently, the beach is closed but when opened, you can rent beach chairs, umbrellas and cabanas. Of course, public restrooms are available. Usually, various vendors carts are seen along the path. Besides swimming, many beach goers play volleyball or just sit, taking pictures of amazing sunrises and sunsets. Still, a beautiful place to visit.
Photo courtesy of Greg Wass