Bay Beach: From Swampland to Success Story

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | june 2016

This grand old pavilion has seen it all. Built about 1909, the stately structure has served as the park's cornerstone through good times and not so good. Denis Gullickson photo.City plans unveiled in 2013 suggest that some 650,000 people might visit Titletown's Bay Beach this summer. With the park celebrating its 125th anniversary, however — and even more folks discovering what a bargain Bay Beach is — that number could exceed expectations considerably.

Not bad for a swampy stretch of Green Bay land that started off on some soggy footing way back in 1892.

Nejedlo and “The Cap"

The Gilded Age was a rambunctious time in a nation still reeling from the carnage of the Civil War. It was a breakneck era that saw U.S. industrialization and applied technology dominate the country and the globe. Between 1860 and 1890, a half-million patents were issued — ten times the number issued between 1790 and 1860.

Folks were busy and life was moving at a frenzying pace. Railroads surged across the nation like a pulsating circulatory system. The throb was nearly audible and leisure time became a valued pursuit.

With the mechanized din as a backdrop, Mitchell Nejedlo bought a tract of land on the shores of Green Bay and hustled to clear and drain it. He hacked at the underbrush, dug ditches and swatted mosquitos while breathing life into his dream. Then he built a small dancehall, a bar and a bathhouse and opened “Bay View Park."

Next? Getting folks out to his park as today's Irwin Street was a notoriously muddy trail.

Three years later, Nejedlo was joined by the sally that was Captain John “Cap" Cusick. Like Nejedlo, Cusick knew that an amusement park was just the remedy for frazzled nerves. His vision included a grand summer resort — replete with a pristine beach, spellbinding rides, a resplendent hotel and luxury boat cruises.

It was a frenetic run for Bay View Park as a huge dock went up, a 160-room bathhouse was constructed, a roller coaster was added and a huge, new pavilion was built. Day-trippers were transported to the park aboard an excursion boat — “The Bell Isle" — from a dock near the Walnut Street Bridge.

In 1908, Cap bought out Nejedlo and was joined in business by Fred Rahr and Frank Murphy.

The next upgrades focused on bolstering the park's offerings and growing the gate.

Irwin Avenue was graded and graveled and the following June a streetcar was introduced. The “101" ran from Main Street to the park every 15 minutes on Sundays and holidays and every half hour other days.

Some days, cars were so overloaded that women and children packed in as best they could and men hung on for dear life by a lone hand and foot. On special occasions, as many as twenty additional streetcars were leased from Wisconsin Public Service, which ran the city's streetcar system.

The white pavilion was a marvel to behold: 300 feet long by 75 feet wide, two stories at the center with spacious wings reaching east and west — it struck an impressive profile with the bay as a backdrop. The downstairs center comprised a kitchen and dining rooms, the upstairs a diminutive living quarters. The west wing served as a roller-skating rink; the east wing was a dancehall. A 12 foot walkway skirted the entire building and six regal columns shouldered a remarkable curved entrance.

The white, pristine beach and cool, bay waters were especially inviting.

In September, 1909, the park held its “Grand Reopening."

Rented Suits

Modern readers will squirm some when learning that “back in the day" most folks didn't own a bathing suit — they rented one. On busy days — one that had been used just minutes earlier by another swimmer.

In fact, renting swimming suits became a virtual goldmine at the park. With 1,200 swim suits to rent with a towel and wicker basket — ten cents at first and, then, a quarter — the park bathhouse took in as much as $450 a day.

After using a suit, the swimmer returned it to be laundered, dried and re-let. Unfortunately for the persnickety, the demand was often so great that the suits never really dried. One old-timer recalled, “Even though the suits were never quite dry or free from sand, people kept climbing back into the clammy things anyway. There's nothing colder on earth than a wet swimming suit."

The park's reopening was the stuff of great fanfare — occurring as it did in conjunction with Labor Day. The affair was noted in the press with headlines like “Pavilion Ablaze with Light, Dancers and Roller Skaters Glide About" and “Spectators Look on and Enjoy Band and Orchestra Music of High Class." More than 10,000 people poured into the park over that Labor Day weekend.

1910 saw the addition of “Shoot the Chutes" — a water ride popularized at Coney Island. To “shoot" “the Chute," twelve courageous passengers scurried into the bottom of a flat-bottomed boat at the top of a 50' tower. Then, they raced in the boat down a slide and into the bay with a heady spray of exhilaration for turn-of-the-century sensibilities.

Additional attractions included a roller coaster, a large merry-go-round, hot-air balloon rides, baseball games and popular dances.

In 1911, Rahr and Murphy bought out Cusick, who stayed on as manager until 1916.

Over the next decade, the park's popularity declined, as did that of many similar parks. In fact, some 2,000 U.S. parks like Bay View Beach were falling into an era of disregard and disrepair. This, thanks in large part to the automobile, which put destinations further away within reach of many citizens. U.S. families were enjoying vacations over trips to the local park after the workday or on the weekend.

In 1920, Rahr and Murphy donated the park to the city. The move created the city's park department and prompted the name “Bay Beach." In actuality, the city had probably purchased a quagmire to rival Nejedlo's.

On a recent dreary evening, one of Bay Beach's most-popular rides, the Zippin Pippin roller coaster, rested easy before this summer's flurry begins in earnest. The bay, once the park's main attraction, is faintly visible in the background on the right. Denis Gullickson photo.From the Ashes

Much like its dilapidated roller coaster — disassembled by city order in 1922 — the park had seen better days. It would experience plenty of ups and downs and twists and turns over the next eight decades.

Highlights included a 1934 celebration of Green Bay's tercentennial as the oldest European community in Wisconsin and one of the oldest in the nation. A nine-week celebration commenced on July 14 and included a historical pageant “Under Three Flags" that involved 750 actors on a stage by the bay. That August 9, FDR delivered a speech from the pavilion's back platform to a crowd of 100,000.

Baseball was a perennial feature at the park as were dances through the Big Band Era and the rock 'n' roll days. Annual Fourth of July fireworks displays ran from 1936 through 1988. Rides remained affordable and popular — especially the bumper cars that had taken over the pavilion's roller-skating wing.

Indeed, the park's biggest liability had become the bay itself. As early as 1927, Wisconsin's Board of Health had put the park's beach under the microscope for water pollution and general conditions. In June 1933, the city park department officially recognized the Health Board's concerns. Warnings signs were posted. In 1943, the city's own Board of Health closed the beach permanently — one of the earliest such closings in the country.

What remained, were inexpensive rides and a surging attraction nearby — the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. Were they enough to sustain the interest of the city and, more importantly, its citizens?

These days, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!"

Keeping one foot firmly planted on the park's legacy, the city continues to make it a place appealing to family. And — on any given day — attendance reflects and furthers Titletown's élan and growing diversity.

The cost for rides is still based on a 25-cent ticket — the most-expensive requiring four tickets. The park now features over twenty rides — the newest including the Bay Beast and Falling Star.

City leaders know what a gem they have out there where Mitchell Nejedlo once fought a swamp. In 2013, they rolled out an $11-million, 10-year plan for Bay Beach including improvements that would increase park revenues from $2.4 million in 2012 to $4 million in 2022.

Today, one can plainly see expansion to the park's west.

Best of all, the bay itself is making a comeback — thanks to cleanup efforts. One study suggested that — after eighty-nine years — the beach could reopen for swimming as early as 2018 — sans, let's hope, the rented swimming suits. And rather than turn its back to the waterway as an eyesore, future plans for the park include once again embracing the beach and bay.

June 10 marks the park's 125th birthday with much in store for that day and the summer.

Families often remark that they can enjoy a fun-filled day at Bay Beach for under $30 — making one of Titletown's oldest treasures still one of its best.

2017 is now on cruise control as summer reintroduces itself. Author, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson continues to ponder and write about all things Titletown from a horse farm west of Green Bay and a cobblestone cottage near Lakewood.

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