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The Second City on the Third Coast

People are bathing at a sandy beach on South 76th Street in Chicago, likely in the 1920s.
Published by Max Rigot Selling Co., Chicago.

European explorers who first encountered Lake Michigan and the four other Great Lakes described the huge bodies of water as “inland seas.” In a way they were correct. These glacial lakes contain 90 percent of the fresh water in the United States and 20 percent of all surface water in the world, according to environmental groups. And Chicago, which is located near the southwestern portion of Lake Michigan, was built at its current site for only one reason: to use the resources of this huge freshwater lake for drinking, fishing, building and transportation.

Some people today refer to the Great Lakes region as the “third coast,” noting that the nearby state of Michigan borders more coastline than any other state–yes, even more shoreline than California and Florida. Chicago has about 28 miles of shoreline on the lakefront. The city also has over 20 sandy beaches and even a popular lakefront recreational path that runs from the north side to the south side.
A large group of people fishing on a pier in Chicago in the very early 1900s.
Published by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago.

In the late 19th century, many parts of the lake in Chicago were inaccessible, as industry took over almost all of the shoreline. There were huge steel mills on the far south side of the city, along with other industrial boat shipping dock areas. Even a train line running adjacent to the lake cut off access for many people. In the late 19th century, city visionaries like the mail order magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward began a campaign to transform the shoreline into “forever open, clear and free,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

After several court battles, Ward and others forced the city to create and maintain open space along the lakefront. It was Ward’s legacy along with the work of preservationists that gave us this recreational gem. The following postcards display the lakefront along with the ways people enjoyed it.

People bathing at a beach in Jackson Park. The postcard is postmarked from Chicago
 on December 1, 1907. Published by Alfred Holzman, Chicago-Leipzig.

Vehicles and buggies on Sheridan Drive (now Lake Shore Drive) in Chicago. This postcard
is postmarked May 18, 1907. Published by E.C. Kropp Publishing, Milwaukee.

Oak Street Beach where Lake Shore Drive meets North Michigan Avenue.Published by Cameo Greeting Card Co., Chicago.

Several individuals walk along Lake Michigan with high waves
at Jackson Park Beach. Published by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago.

 A comic postcard from the Sunshine Beach at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Published by Curt Teich & Co., Chicago.


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