Perched on the coast of an ever-changing village on the edge of the city, Lake Michigan would appear to be an exceptionally constant presence in Shorewood.
And, in some ways it is. Residents have always turned to the beach for its seemingly timeless serenity and respite from urban life.
But at the same time, the lake and especially its local shoreline have been a turbulent reflection of village politics, economics and culture, manifested this summer in the construction of a new boardwalk and attempts to revitalize Atwater Beach.
As construction projects swing into action this summer, they will join a centuries-deep line of vestiges of human behavior.
Evidenced by a small footpath carved out of the bluff, Milwaukee’s European settlers began using the beach for recreation in the late 1800s.
During that time, a train called The Dummy Line would take city-dwellers north to parks along the Lake Michigan shore, where they could escape the “heat, dust and noise of the city,” as promised by an ad for the train from 1891.
The ad continued, “You will return with a better opinion of yourself and the world generally.”
In 1916, the village constructed wooden steps, a dressing room and a pier, and named the beach Atwater. At the time, East Capitol Drive was called Atwater Road.
The 1930s saw the biggest public investment in the beach, and the most visitors to the beach of any other time period.
Today you can see the foundation of a beach house from the 30s wedged into the bluff of Atwater Beach, grasses growing through the cracks in the concrete. Other pieces of the old building are deposited south of Atwater to keep the bluff from eroding.
What do these remnants show about the people who cared to build them?
The population of Shorewood grew from 700 to 15,000 between 1910 and 1938, largely during the progressive era. Shorewood attracted many families looking to enroll their kids in the village’s famously progressive schools.
With such a rapid influx of new residents demanding public services, Shorewood was aptly poised to absorb New Deal funds for various public projects around the village.
Shorewood launched a seven-year WPA program in 1931 to construct a beach house and three jetties on the beach. At the project’s peak productivity in 1934 it employed 440 workers, mostly non-residents.
The beach house, made with bricks from a demolished armory building, hosted fanciful parties on summer nights and offered showers and locker rooms to beach-goers. In 1939, according to archives of the Shorewood Herald, 62,962 people used the facilities.
During the depression of the 1930s, the beach was a diamond in the rough, something its residents could be proud of. Villagers viewed the quality of the beach as an icon of their ideal community.
The beach experienced its second major period of attention in the 1960s. It was a time of growing wealth in the U.S., especially for the middle class, which constituted most of Shorewood, so residents had cash available to invest in recreation.
Thanks to diligent fundraising by the Shorewood Civic Foundation, residents erected two electric cable cars on the beach: Able Cable and Twinkle Toes. Together they carried thousands of beachgoers up and down the bluff each summer. They were eventually shut down in 1977 due to safety concerns.
Like their parents had in the 30s, residents in the 60s took pride in the beach as a gathering place for their sparkling community.
The pride factor was especially strong because residents tended to live in Shorewood for many years—sometimes for generations.
In a 1961 survey, the median number of years that respondents had lived in Shorewood was 12.
Conducting research about Shorewood for the village manager in 1961, James R. Appel wrote, “One item stands out above all others collected in the investigation; namely, that the people who live or work in Shorewood want the community image to be that of an ideal community which will be sought out by others.”
Beginning in the 1980s, the beach was gradually forgotten as water levels rose and pollution sickened the lake.
In the 1990s, an exploding alewives population drove people farther. Dead alewife fish would wash up on the beach, sending unpleasant stench as far as five blocks from the shore and creating obstacles for people looking to lay towels on the fish-strewn sand.
Another problem that continues to ail the lake is the dumping of untreated sewage into the lake, sending pathogens into the water when large rainfalls threaten to overflow the combined sewage-stormwater tunnel.
A more recent deterrent from beach-usage is the proliferation of cladophora, an invasive species of green algae. Phosphorous from detergents and soaps contributes to the problem, but phosphorous levels have been decreasing for decades, traced back to the use of Lake Michigan as a medium of trade with foreign countries.
Zebra and quagga mussels entered Lake Michigan from the hull water of foreign boats. These mussels feed on small particles in the water, causing the Lake to be increasingly translucent. The greater amount of sunlight permeating the water allows cladophora to prosper.
While pollution remains a problem, Atwater Beach appears to be on the cusp of another epoch of community activity. Why now? And, what traces will this movement leave behind in history? For one perspective, watch the video above.
- Special Shorewood Files, a compilation of various authors, available at the Shorewood Public Library
- Shorewood, Wisconsin Under a Microscope, published in 1961, available at the Shorewood Public Library
- Images of America: Shorewood Wisconsin, produced by the Shorewood Historical Society in 2000, available for purchase
- Ecological Study and Management Plan for Atwater Park Beach Final Report, sponsored by Village of Shorewood, published January 2010