Promontory Point in the 1940s

A recent post at Open Water Chicago alerted me to an incredible collection of photos at the Indiana University Digital Library, taken by Charles Cushman between 1938 and 1969.

Of particular interest are the numerous shots he took at Chicago’s Promontory Point in the early 1940s. Through Cushman’s keen eye, we can see the Point was a special place even back then, when its great trees were mere saplings.

But Cushman was apparently drawn less to the landscape and water features of the Point than to the… human features. Specifically, women in bathing attire. The Point just happened to be an unusually rich source of subjects.

Here’s a sampling of Cushman’s work, with his original captions. The entire collection is available here.

Promontory Point: A marathon swimming landmark

Where are the sacred waters of American marathon swimming – the most historically significant swim spots? Aquatic Park (San Francisco), Brighton Beach (New York City), and La Jolla Cove come to mind.

But there’s another location – arguably as significant as those three – that remains remarkably below the radar. Promontory Point in Chicago. The Point was the primary training location of four Marathon Swimming Hall of Famers, including two Mount Rushmore-types:

  • Ted Erikson – First person to swim across Lake Michigan (1961). One of only two to swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco (and record-holder since 1967). Former record-holder for two-way English Channel swim (1965-1975).
  • Jon Erikson – First three-way English Channel swim (1981). Former record-holder for two-way English Channel (1975-1987) and youngest one-way (14 years old in 1969). 31 professional marathon swim races.
  • Dennis Matuch – one of whose swim exploits I described here.
  • Conrad Wennerberg – coach and training partner of the above three, and author of Wind, Waves, and Sunburn.

More recently, I trained at the Point for my big 2011 season – often with Amanda, a two-time MIMSer.

Promontory Point

The Point was constructed from landfill and opened as a public park in 1937. With Hyde Park and the University of Chicago nearby, it soon became a popular swim spot. Marathon swimmers have trained there at least since the early 1960s. As Ted Erikson explains (via personal communication):

In prepping for the 1961 Lake Michigan Swim to Michigan City, I began swimming off the rocks from Jackson Park Harbor entrance to 67th St. Beach (1/2 mile course) late fall and early 1961.

Conrad Wennerberg, who I met at 67th, suggested the Point, where I occasionally swam to from 67th. The Point seemed more social.  So, I started off and on in 1961 and continuously from 1962 to present.

Similar to today, the Point Swimmers of the ’60s swam “laps” between the southeast edge of the Point and the 59th Street Pier (a 1-mile round-trip). Ted recalls:

Dennis and I would push each other for 1-10 mile training swims.  Most interesting were 1-milers with slow swimmers starting early and fast swimmers starting late such that ALL would reach the final buoy about 100 yards from finish at the same time. This made a nice race to finish for all which included Connie, Bill Tregay, Tom Lisco, Mike Paesler, Jon, and others, some who “handicapped their time” obviously beat us because of “saving” themselves for the sprint.

Was great fun, competition, and good training. Once Dennis found a foot at the finish, and holding it up, breathing heavily from the sprint, said “Who lost their foot ?”… (foot was from a passenger on a United Airlines plane that crashed off the Point a week so before).

Despite this rich history, the Point keeps a low profile even in Chicago – and even among swimmers. The city’s enthusiastic triathlete population primarily trains downtown at Ohio Street Beach, the site of Big Shoulders. (One might argue, this is a good thing.)

One reason is the Point’s relative isolation, 7 miles south of downtown. Another reason: Until recently it was technically illegal to swim off the Point. A few swimmers, including Ted, were even arrested in the late 1980s. But Ted and others held their ground and, through the power of community organizing (a Hyde Park specialty), pressured the Chicago Park District to create a designated “long distance swimming area” offshore from 57th Street Beach.

The politics of the Point makes for fascinating reading. For more, see this 2001 article from the Tribune.

And finally, like its peers in San Francisco, New York, and La Jolla, swimming at the Point is a year-round activity. Point swimmer and journalist Elizabeth Brackett recently filed this story:

Related Links

Letters from Connie: There Is No Perfect Stroke

Conrad Wennerberg is Chairman Emeritus of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and author of the authoritative history of marathon swimming: Wind, Waves, and Sunburn. Originally published in 1974, the book was re-printed in 1999, and is now out of print once again. (Used copies are available through Amazon.)

Wind, Waves, and Sunburn

Conrad (or “Connie,” as he’s known to friends) is a familiar face at Promontory Point in Chicago, my preferred training location in 2010-11. Now in his 80s, Connie still takes his noontime dip in Lake Michigan, May through October. Connie is also responsible for rescuing a treasured thermos of mine, which his friend Frank the Klepto had stolen during a late-season training swim. True story.

I’m just now getting around to reading Wind, Waves, and Sunburn, and it’s delightful. More than anything else I’ve read, it captures the spirit of marathon swimming – and this power is undimmed by the passing of 37 years. For some perspective: in 1974, the records for the fastest crossings of the English and Catalina Channels were both held by Lynne Cox.

1962 Lake Michigan marathon swimIn an early chapter, Connie recounts the classic “36 3/4 to 50 mile” Lake Michigan race in 1962. This race was actually two races in one. First, a 36 3/4-mile swim from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois – an attempt to break Ted Erikson’s record of 35 hours for the same distance the previous year (Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana). The first swimmer to reach Waukegan could choose to exit the water and collect $4,000. Or, swimmers could choose to keep going past Waukegan, all the way to Kenosha, Wisconsin – a distance of 50 miles and a new world record for distance. The first swimmer to reach Kenosha would win $10,000.

Of the 20 or so swimmers who dove into Lake Michigan that day, only three would finish: Ted Erikson, Greta Andersen, and Dennis Matuch. All three would subsequently be enshrined in the marathon swimming hall of fame. In Connie’s eyes, the story of their epic race is more than a story: It’s an allegory. He describes their respective stroke techniques:

Ted Erikson was “poetry in motion”–the classic stroke with hardly a millimeter variation between either arm as it entered the water. His legs beat in a steady, even throb that impressed the observer. His powerful arms carried him through the water at a speed of close to two miles per hour. Here was the man to watch. His forty-eight strokes per minute would prevent his burning out.

Moving on to Dennis Matuch, a local lifeguard with a decidedly different approach to swimming:

His arms worked in what seemed like frenzied action. Eighty-five strokes per minute…. Extremely short, his high stroke rate prevented any smooth entry of his hands and arms into the water. Consequently there was a splash upon entry into the water and corresponding flurry of water upon recovery. The average spectator would also have been amazed at the total non-use of his legs. They simply dragged along behind him…. Spectators scratched their heads and said, “This man will drown shortly.”

And finally, Greta Andersen, the greatest female marathon swimmer of her era:

What one would have observed would have been an extremely uneven stroke. As Greta turned her head to the right to breathe, her left arm reached only a little more than half the distance ahead as the right arm. One would have been tempted to say, “What a cock-eyed stroke.” It was very uneven and looked quite uncomfortable to the swimmer.

Based on these observations, Connie concludes:

Ted Erikson would win this race. Greta Andersen, if she were lucky, would go half way. Dennis Matuch would drown in about another ten minutes. Self-satisfied, the general observer would sit back and await the “sure” and inevitable outcome.

Conrad Wennerberg
Conrad Wennerberg at Promontory Point

So, what actually happened?

  • Dennis Matuch swam 36 3/4 miles to Waukegan in 21 hours, earning a new world record and $4,000.
  • Greta Andersen, five minutes behind Matuch, continued on to Kenosha, finishing in 31 hours — a new world record for distance, earning the top prize of $10,000.
  • Ted Erikson, three hours behind Andersen at Waukegan, also kept going. By the time he reached Kenosha he was five hours behind. In reward for 36 hours of swimming, he received nothing but a metaphorical pat on the back.

The chapter concludes with a statement as true today as it was in 1974:

The moral to be learned from the above is that one should never stress the importance of “evenness” and proportion that characterizes the classic swimming stroke. The individual variations in human anatomy and physiology preclude warping an individual’s personal adaptation to the water into the closed channel of “water ballet” perfectionism.

Hear, hear!

And Connie, if you read this, please give my regards to Frank the Klepto.

Fall at the Point

I don’t take pictures very often. When I do, I often forget to upload them to my computer… which means they’ll just sit there on the camera for months at a time before I remember to check them out.

Here are some pictures I took last fall at Promontory Point. Besides being the best swim spot in Chicago, the Point is also one of the more beautiful public parks you’ll ever see. In case you couldn’t tell: I love this place.

Polar bears at the Point

Remember Ruth-Anne, star of my previous extreme-swimming documentary from Promontory Point? Here she is again, taking a quick dip last Saturday (1/29/2011) in 33F Lake Michigan (air temp about the same):

Insanely cold, yes, but let’s count our blessings: At least we didn’t have to hack through ice to find open water!