Deep in the trees along the west bank of the Milwaukee River near the Locust Street bridge is a strange sight: A massive century-old concrete retaining wall, with two sets of stairs leading down into a field of tall grass. The wall is all that remains of the Gordon Park bathhouse, a point of considerable civic pride when it opened 100 years ago but ultimately cursed by its location and by steadily worsening water pollution.
Before building the bathhouse, the city park commission tested the popularity of the swimming area. In its 1911 annual report to the mayor and city council, the commission noted:
A public bathing beach was started as an experiment on the river at Gordon Park. Six election booths were erected on the riverbank, dressing rooms were partitioned off, and an attendant for the boys and another for the girls, were employed; the man in charge acted as life-saver. This bathing beach and the booths were put in order rather late in the season, but during the 45 days they were in use, 10,792 boys and 508 girls availed themselves of the sport. The advantages the river has over the lake as a bathing beach is that it gets warmer sooner and that the temperature remains more even. – Report of the Superintendent of Parks, 1911
Built in 1913, the Gordon Park bathhouse opened for swimming in summer 1914. The building cost between $20,000 and $25,000, the equivalent of a half-million dollars today. It contained an eating room, more than 300 lockers, and was able to accommodate as many as 600 swimmers at a time. The bathhouse was also designed for wintertime use by ice skaters.
In those days swimmers could rent bathing suits, 25 cents for a women’s suit and 15 cents for a man’s. Personal swimwear had to conform to regulation:
“White bathing suits, house dresses, or one-piece suits without skirts are strictly forbidden, and full suits must be worn by all bathers more than 12.”
To keep the area tidy, every year or so officials would open the gates of the North Avenue dam, lowering the river level by several feet so workers could clean trash and debris from the river bottom and perform repairs on piers and other bathing facilities.
The bathhouse witnessed a number of sporting events throughout the year, from canoe races and Boy Scout swim meets in the summer to hockey and speed skating in the winter. The first all-city swim meet was held at Gordon Park on July 17, 1921, with more than 100 competitors taking part, 59 in the diving events alone, watched by a crowd of onlookers both ashore and aboard canoes.
In January 1926, 30,000 spectators turned out to watch an “ice fete” (speed-skating, ski-jumping, and hockey) taking place on the frozen surface of the Milwaukee River. Newspapers reported every inch of the river bank solidly packed with spectators and thousands more onlookers lining the Folsom Place (now Locust Street) viaduct. With the exception of college football, it was said to be the best-attended amateur sporting event in the state’s history up to that time.
Mostly, however, at a time when air conditioning was practically unknown, the swimming area was a fine place to cool off – and a safe one too, with four lifeguards on duty during swimming hours. One sweltering day in July 1930, 1,560 swimmers passed through the bathhouse doors.
But the Gordon Park swimming area was controversial even before construction started on the bathhouse.
Opponents of the project noted the park was downstream from sewers that emptied into the river. The city’s Public Works Department countered by saying the location was safe because the sewers only released surface water into the river – except when unusually heavy rain would trigger an overflow from the sanitary sewer system.
In time, the critics would be proven right and the city’s experts proven wrong. As the years went by, the swimming area would repeatedly close, from anywhere from a few days to a few weeks until the bacteria count dropped to a safe level. In 1931, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported that a thick coating of decomposing sewage on the riverbed was shooting geysers of gas from the surface of the water and expressed concern the swimming area might close for the entire summer. Suspicion fell on cottages built on the river north of the city limits, which flushed waste directly into the river.
On another occasion, a sanitary sewer in Shorewood became blocked and sewage backed into the storm system and poured, untreated, into the river for a considerable time before the problem was noticed.
Increasing pollution forced the permanent closure of the Gordon Park swimming area after the 1937 season. (The bathhouse continued to serve as a warming shelter for a few years after the swimming area was declared unsafe.) However, officials were mindful of the swimming area’s popularity, which hosted as many as 100,000 swimmers in a typical summer. To give the neighborhood residents a place to cool off, the depression-era Works Progress Administration provided $65,000 and Milwaukee Country kicked in a further $30,000 to build a modern in-ground swimming pool at the park. (That pool lasted into the mid-1990s when it was replaced by a small splash pad.)
In 1939, the country park commission unveiled plans to remodel the river bathhouse into a year-round recreational center by improving the heating plant, removing interior stairs, and using the enlarged space for dancing. The country also purchased a supply of games and cards.
Those were the days, right?
The building’s isolation, at the foot of a steep bluff and well separated from the main park, made it an easy target. In the summer of 1948, the Milwaukee Journal reported numerous instances of vandalism, which included the building being broken into, windows shattered, fire extinguishers emptied, metal locker doors torn off, damage to the building’s loudspeaker system, a safe turned upside down, and light bulbs and reflectors smashed.
Faced with continued repairs to a building that no longer had a real purpose, the county bowed to the inevitable. The building closed and was torn down in the late 1950s. Demolition crews left the massive retaining wall in place, probably because the river still lapped against it and erosion certainly would have followed its removal. Today the wall, built 100 years ago, sits high and dry and a fair distance from the river. A silent reminder of children splashing in the sun on hot days, of vandals prowling on dark nights, and of the terrible fragility of the river’s health.