Cleveland’s greatest asset is, arguably, Lake Erie which has made the area a hub of transportation and industry, and given us a supply of fresh water that many other communities would envy. However, every summer the lake takes on another guise – a recreational wonderland for boaters, fishers and bathers. It’s highly doubtful that early Clevelanders viewed the lake as a getaway from everyday life, but as the city grew and prospered in the years after the Civil War its shoreline (at least those portions that had not been taken over by railroads and industry), became a highly sought after site for the homes and estates of the wealthy and powerful. Bratenahl became Cleveland’s version of Newport, Rhode Island. It was where many who had grand homes on Euclid Avenue, built large, equally grand summer “cottages” along the lake. Just to the east of Bratenahl, William J. Gordon, who had made a fortune in wholesale groceries and iron ore created his own landscaped 122-acre park at the mouth of Doan Brook. West of the Cuyahoga, Jacob Bishop Perkins, who amassed his wealth from real estate built his home, “Twin Elms” on the lake shore. West of his property were the homes of Marcus A. Hanna, Caroline W. Hanna, and Julius Feiss. Essentially much of the shoreline was privately owned – either by the railroad, or individuals by the late nineteenth century.
So, where did someone without great wealth find a beach – a place to escape from the heat of a Cleveland summer? Fortunately, Gordon willed his park to the city when he died in 1892 with the proviso that it always remain a free public park. Perkins offered his lakeside land to the city in1889 at a price far below market value. The city demurred but in 1894 reconsidered and acquired a large portion of his estate for public use as Edgewater Park.
By the turn of the twentieth century everyday Clevelanders had access to a public beach on both the east and west sides of the city. Edgewater and Gordon parks had large public bath houses where people could change into their then cumbersome bathing costumes. But there were now also other beaches that could be accessed via the amusement parks that owned them. White City amusement park had a beach as did, of course, Euclid Beach.
As the city’s population grew from just over 381,000 in 1900 to over 900,000, the beaches provided an urban getaway for many Clevelanders, but other things had changed as the city grew. Bathhouses became a thing of the past as bathing attire became less cumbersome and the auto rather than the streetcar or bus became the prime way to reach the shore — one could now dress for the beach at home! At the same time, access to some beaches began to disappear. Euclid Beach Park closed in 1969. White City was long gone, as the amusement park had succumbed to fire and storm less than a decade after its opening. Gordon Park was bisected by the construction of Interstate 90; the mouth Doan Brook was culverted; and a dyke (Dyke 14) for the disposal of dredged material jutted out from the shoreline. Growing lake pollution was a major factor in the decline and closure of Gordon Park’s beach and it almost killed off the beach at Edgewater. Mayor Carl Stokes provided a temporary expedient to the situation by having the water near the beach treated to kill bacteria. However, by the mid-1970s, the city was increasingly unable to fund the maintenance of its lakefront parks and both Edgewater and Gordon park had fallen into disrepair.
Matters began to turn around when in 1977, the City of Cleveland executed a lease agreement with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to maintain, develop, and improve the parks along the shore of Lake Erie. Now, over four decades later, the city’s much improved shoreline parks and beaches are part of the Cleveland Lakefront State Park and are a major factor in the growth of neighborhoods like Gordon Square and Battery Park. Townhouses and condos now occupy old industrial sites and give residents a view of the lake and Edgewater Park (where one can still find “Perkins Beach” at its most westerly end.) A new (2019) pier at Euclid Beach now offers splendid views of the city and the lake — and a beach (of sorts) has been created on the East 9th Street pier for beach volleyball! And as for that dredging dump at Gordon Park – it is now a nature preserve!