Estabrook Park’s forgotten swimming beach

Built along a bend in the Milwaukee River, the swimming beach at Estabrook Park was a popular place to cool off on a hot day. The river is unusually wide here because the river bed was heavily quarried more than a century ago, creating a deep man-made lake known as the "blue hole." Photo by Carl Swanson

Built along a bend in the Milwaukee River, the swimming beach at Estabrook Park was a popular place to cool off on a hot day. The beach was abandoned almost 70 years ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Estabrook Park, on the east side of the Milwaukee River north of Capitol Drive, has much to offer. There is a disc golf course, a popular dog exercise area, and an even more popular beer garden. The swimming beach, however, has been closed for nearly 70 years.

In other news: There was a swimming beach at Estabrook Park.

Even on a hot day, most people would hesitate before jumping into the Milwaukee River, but the river was once enormously popular for swimming. Kletzsch, Estabrook, and Gordon parks had swimming areas and there were at least three private swim schools located near the North Avenue dam. Gordon Park, with its beautiful bathing house, is fairly well-known among long-time Milwaukeeans but Estabrook Park’s beach is nearly forgotten.

As was the case with so many beautiful and useful aspects of Milwaukee Country’s parks, the beach was the result of a depression-era make-work project. The county employed 75 men to create a bathing beach at a spot where the river was unusually broad and deep.

When man leaves, nature moves in. A blue heron is on the hunt near Estabrook Park's swimming beach. Photo By Carl Swanson

When man leaves, nature moves in. A blue heron is on the hunt near Estabrook Park’s swimming beach. Photo By Carl Swanson

The park is built on bedrock consisting of a rare type of limestone unusually well-suited for making cement. In the days before there was a park, the Milwaukee Cement Co. built cofferdams on the river, first on one side of the river and then on the other, and dug horizontal mine shafts into both river banks and then abandoned the operation leaving behind a pair of huge man-made lagoons on the west bank of the river. The lagoon opposite the beach was “The Blue Hole” and the one just to the south was called, “Cement Lake.” The mining meant this area was very dangerous for swimming with underwater ledges, sudden deep holes, and even underwater caves. Blue Hole was the more deadly of the two, racking up an uncounted number of drownings over the years.

As part of the swimming beach project, park workers tore down the cement kilns, located between the beach and the present-day dog exercise area, assembled floating platforms, and dumped countless wheelbarrows of rubble into the water to create a river bottom that gradually and predictably became deeper moving from the shore outward.

The beach, complete with temporary bath house, opened to the public in June 1931. By summer 1937, the Milwaukee River had all three public river swimming areas, Kletzsch, Gordon, and Estabrook parks, up and running – all with lifeguards and all offering swim classes, taught by  the lifeguards themselves.

Even so, the swimming areas could become overcrowded on hot days and cause people to look elsewhere for a cooling dip in the river despite a city ordinance that made it illegal to swim outside of designated areas. On a hot day in June 1933, Milwaukee Police arrested 40 men, women, and children for swimming on the wrong side of the river from the beach, at the deadly former quarry with the pretty name of Blue Hole.

The “Blue Hole raid” created quite a firestorm, especially since some of the swimmers actually spent the night in jail. Police defended the action by noting the river opposite the Estabrook beach was an exceptionally dangerous place to swim, yet despite repeated police warnings and repeated tragedies people persisted in swimming there.

Would you swim in the Milwaukee River? Years ago, thousands did and one of the most popular places to go on a sweltering day was Estabrook Park beach. You would have the beach all to yourself if you swam there today. Photo by Carl Swanson

Would you swim in the Milwaukee River? Years ago, thousands did and one of the most popular places to go on a sweltering day was Estabrook Park beach. You would have the beach all to yourself if you swam there today. Photo by Carl Swanson

Estabrook beach had hazards of another kind. In a letter to the editor published in the July 29, 1942 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, a highly indignant Henry Koether wrote that his clothing and personal effects had been stolen from the bathhouse:

“When a person is caught in such a predicament, clad only in bathing trunks and left without even the proverbial wood stave barrel for protection, he is in dire need of sympathy and help. But what assistance did I get? When I was finally able to locate the bathhouse attendant, this individual brightly ejaculated “We assume no responsibility.” He waved aside my suggestion to notify the police and he displayed a general “I don’t care” attitude.”

Mr. Koether concluded by suggesting, reasonably enough, that bathhouses be redesigned to make theft more difficult and that public employees show a little more interest in their jobs.

Rubble from the bathhouse foundation remains on the beach, which has been covered with debris from periods of high water over the years. Small trees are growing thickly where children once played. Photo by Carl Swanson

Rubble from the bathhouse foundation remains on the beach, which has been covered with debris from periods of high water over the years. Small trees have sprouted thickly where children once played. Photo by Carl Swanson

Four years later, in spring 1946, the county park commission decided the swimming beach would not be opened for the summer, citing increased pollution from industrial dumping, sewage overflows, and runoff from streets. it was also noted that the deteriorating bathhouse was beyond repair.

One assumes Mr. Koether, for one, was not sorry to see the era come to an end.

Starting in the late 1920s and into the 1950s, Cement Lake was slowly filled in with rubbish, leveled off, and in the fullness of time became a parking lot for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Today’s park is believed to be honeycombed with old mine shafts which may explain several sinkholes that have occurred over the years, some six feet wide and 70 to 80 feet deep. In the early 1960s, the old beach parking lot was closed after several major sinkholes opened. That former parking lot is now the dog exercise area. If Fido abruptly vanishes one day, well, you’ve been warned.Carl_sig

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2 comments

  1. Fascinating story, Carl! My dad was born in 1932 and grew up in the Rufus King area of Milwaukee. He used to tell us stories about how he and his friends & family went to the beach at Gordon Park (maybe Estabrook too?) and swam in the Milwaukee River. I love that I ended up living along the river that my dad swam in as a boy.

    Liked by 1 person

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