Winnetka’s Changing Lakeshore

Gazette Article by: Charles W. Shabica, Ph.D.
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1999

100 year battle with beach erosion

One hundred years ago, shipping on the Great Lakes was the primary mode of interstate transportation in the Midwest. On the North Shore, sailing vessels carrying passengers, coal, lumber, and even Christmas trees routinely put in to the half-mile long Dempster Street pier in Evanston. At that time storm-wave erosion was a serious problem for North Shore villages and the settlers living and working along the lake’s eroding bluffs. Many residents learned the hard way about Lake Michigan’s destructive storms.
Although the power of these storms was frequently underestimated by builders on the North Shore, the storms were feared and respected by sailors. It is reported that between 1879 and 1889 more than 5,000 vessels were wrecked in the Great Lakes. The United States Lifesaving Service – later to be combined with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the Coast Guard – had an active station just south of Fisk Hall at Northwestern University. Stories of shipwrecks and USLSS heroism abound.

Early aerial photographs taken from the water plant at Tower Road in Winnetka show the 1897 lakeshore lined with wooden, rock-filled piers. These piers, still constructed in some locations in Wisconsin today, were used by bathers and boaters but functioned as “shore-perpendicular groins,” trapping small sand beaches on their north sides. All of the bluffs in the photographs appear to be actively eroding, with tipped trees and shrubs sliding like escalators onto the narrow beaches or directly into the lake.
Narrow beaches continued to be a problem for the next one hundred years. A 1921 photo of Alfred Alschuler, Jr.’s siblings on the beach in Winnetka shows a wooden pier in the background and a wooden structure in the foreground that might be described as an experimental, very near-shore, very thin breakwater. Apparently, it did not stand the test of time and also may have been hazardous to swimmers’ health.

After World War II, steel and concrete became plentiful, and the wooden piers/groins were replaced by modular concrete structures (almost all of which have failed) and the low-maintenance steel, sheet-pile groins that can be seen today. The groins are typically one foot wide and cannot be walked on, much less used as piers. Only a few such piers have been constructed since then due to their high cost. One holds the public beach at Park Avenue in Glencoe. Abundant stones on this beach are evidence that it, like nearly all other Illinois beaches, is being eroded.

Today, the structure of choice for protection of beaches is no longer the groin. Instead, near-shore breakwaters over-filled with coarse sand beaches have been constructed in an increasing number of locations in Illinois. The performance of these systems and the management of the lakeshore have been subjects of intense study by coastal scientists and engineers. But that’s another story.

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