by Chris Serb
Rogers Park’s first lifeguard crew arrived at Touhy and the lake, the site of today’s Leone Beach, in 1906. At the time, the United States Life-Saving Service already housed a crew of student-volunteers at Northwestern University. The Northwestern crew was one of the service’s best, winning the Gold Lifesaving Medal for the dramatic 1889 rescue of the steamer “Calumet” off Highland Park. But as shipping traffic on the lake increased, the Evanston lifeguards, the only organized rescue crew between downtown Chicago and the Wisconsin border, were clearly overworked.
The Life-Saving Service hit on a solution. If volunteers could man a station so well in Evanston, they reasoned, why couldn’tthey do so on the North Side? The agency leased some land from early settler Hervey Keeler and built a modest wooden boathouse on the lake, just east of Keeler’s pumping station (which serves as the headquarters for Leone Beach today). For its crew, the service enlisted teenagers from the neighborhood.
John Kernan, who lived just a block from the station on Chase Avenue, was one of the first lifeguard captains. Thirty years later, Kernan recalled those early days.
“The siren would scream out in the middle of the night to tell the crew that some boat as in distress. When the alarm sounded, the boys would all tumble out of bed and run for the shore, donning most of their clothes on the way. Many a cold night the youthful volunteers fought the waves for hours working without compensation or glory. When making rescues, the boys would build gigantic bonfires on the shore and serve hot coffee to the guards and the rescued.”
Kernan would personally claim 16 saves during his years with the Life-Saving Service. His fellow oarsmen included neighbors Eugene Harmon, Leo Kramer, George Quinn, and Lawrence Maurier.
Also in 1906, the old North Shore Park District hired its first “professional” lifeguard, Northwestern University student Sid Roberts. While the volunteer crews kept an eye out for boats in distress, Roberts looked after recreational swimming which was quickly gaining popularity. Roberts guarded the area from Calvary Cemetery to Devon Avenue, a one and one-half-mile stretch of beach. By comparison, today’s lifeguards rarely cover more than 150 yards. Despite his almost impossible task, Roberts tallied 47 rescues in his first summer. His secret: on hot weekends, he’d hover near Pratt Avenue, where the neighborhood’s German immigrants had a beer garden. Whenever a drunk stumbled into the water or a fight would carry over into the lake, Roberts was nearby to fish out the victims. Roberts guarded for several more years, and later became a highly regarded surgeon at the now-shuttered Edgewater Hospital.
The Life-Saving Service, was merged into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, and continued to man the boathouse at Touhy for a few years. In 1919, the city too over, and the Rogers Park Municipal Bathing Beach formally opened. During that summer, Tom Daly, director of city beaches, started up a junior lifeguard program. Neighborhood kids would help the lifeguards watch the beach on busy days, and inreturn, they’d get to swim, row, use the canoes, play sports, and enjoy other activities. That first junior guard crew included youngsters Bob Dooley and Fran Conway, who would both be associated with the beach for decades.
The early bosses at Rogers Park Beach were a transient bunch. From 1919 to 1925, the beach had three differnt directors. The fourth director, Sam Leone, arrived in 1925 and stayed for 40 years (1965).
The Chicago Park District was created in 1934 by the Illinois Legislature under the Park Consolidation Act. By provisions of that act, the Chicago Park District consolidated and superseded the then-existing 22 sperate park districts in Chicago, the largest three of which were the Lincoln Park, West Park, and South Park Districts, all of which had been established in 1869.
By 1937, the park comprised 250 feet of beach frontage, including street-end beaches at Chase, Greenleaf, and Farwell Avenues.
In 1959, the Chicago Park District began leasing the park, then known as Rogers Park and Beach, from the city. In 1966, the Park District renamed the site Leone Park after beloved park district employee Sam Leone (1900-1965). Leone joined the Bureau of Parks and Recreation as a lifeguard after serving in the Navy during World War I. Initially, he worked at the old Clarendon Park Beach, but was moved north to Rogers Park in 1925. When Leone became a Park District employee in 1959, he was named Supervisor of Lifeguards for the entire North Side. Leone was still living above the Rogers Park beach house and supervising lifeguards and safeguarding swimmers at the time of this death at age 65.
The author, Chris Serb, has written a book about Sam Leone and the lifeguard service. Called Sam’s Boys, The History of Chicago’s Leone Beach and Legendary Lifeguard Sam Leone. We have a limited numberl copies available at the Society office for sale. Call or e-mail for additional information.