Beach Reflections History

How Old Are You Really, Revere Beach?

If something is repeated enough times, it becomes the truth; repetition feeds the subconscious to the point where it becomes etched in stone.

Or, maybe people simply believe what sounds plausible. Either way, Nelson Mandela did not die in prison, Darth Vader did not say, “Luke, I am your father,” and Revere Beach did not open on July 12, 1896.

Wait, what?

Revere Beach, in Revere, Massachusetts, has been called the first public beach in America; there is a bit more to it. Mandela died in 2013, long after his prison release; Vader said, “No, I am your father,” in The Empire Strikes Back, and Revere Beach? Well, the public had been welcome there since it was known as Chelsea Beach, before Revere became a town in 1871. Although the 100th and 125th anniversaries of the opening of Revere beach have been celebrated, there is zero evidence of a grand opening or declaration of such happening on July 12, 1896. According to the Boston Globe, The Boston Post, and the Revere Journal, other than a heat wave that led to tens of thousands of visitors to beaches throughout New England, it was business as usual. It was on October 1st, 1896 – prior to any new developments having taken place – that the Metropolitan Parks Commission officially took ownership of Revere Beach, making it “the first to be set aside and governed by a public body for the enjoyment of the common people.” Yes, there is more – much more.

The news of July 13, 1896…if anything happened at Revere Beach the day before, it wasn’t newsworthy

The birth of the Boston, Revere Beach, and Lynn Railroad in 1875 – or the “Narrow Gauge” as it usually is called – was responsible for a tremendous growth spurt in regards to beach attendance, bringing thousands of residents to the shore each day. Of course, this would mean the public had been enjoying the beach some 21 years before the perceived opening. However, unlike today, the shore itself and the buildings that lined the Boulevard – or Railroad Avenue, as it was called back then – were privately owned.

Yes, buildings lined the shoreline; there was no beach wall until 1960, and there wasn’t a boulevard – just railroad tracks. If you wanted to see the water from the train, you caught glimpses from in between buildings.

Railroad Avenue, looking south. The Strathmore (on the left) was located where the Bandstand now sits. Not much of a view from the train.

Enter Charles Eliot and the Olmsted architectural firm. Harry Codman, a junior partner at Olmsted, passed away suddenly in January of 1893; at the urging of stepbrothers Fredrick and John Olmsted, Charles became a partner in February of that year. In August, Messrs. Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot were appointed Landscape Architects of the Metropolitan Park Commission. While the Olmsted firm was responsible for overseeing future developments, the Metropolitan Park work – Beaver Brook, Blue Hills, Middlesex Fells, Stony Brook, and Revere Beach reservations  – would remain in Charles’s hands.

Eliot was no stranger to the preservation of the natural beauty of the outdoors; an 1890 self-published article entitled “Waverly Oaks” to defend an old-growth line of trees in Belmont, MA in large part led to the creation of The Trustees of Reservations the following year – the world’s first non-profit conservation organization dedicated to preserving natural and historical places in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After surveying Revere Beach in 1893 for an initial summation, Eliot’s intents were made clear in a letter to the MPC:

It is only along Revere Beach that difficulty will be encountered in securing free public access to the shore. The present condition of this fine beach is a disgrace. Two railroads and a highway have been built upon it, with out regard to either the safety and convenience of the public, or the development of the highest real-estate values. The railroads cared only for a location which would enable them to use the beach as an attraction to draw passengers.

Structures line the sand of Revere Beach, 1892

On May 7, 1894, legislation (Ch. 483 of the Acts of 1894) would allow for two important land takings – the beach itself, where the private structures could be cleared, and Railroad Avenue, which would force the relocation of the Boston, Revere Beach, and Lynn Railroad tracks. A sum of $500,000 – later upped to $1 million dollars – was allotted towards making this a reality.

The Revere Beach summer season unofficially opened on May 10, 1895. As Eliot would later state in November 1896, ”We must not conceal from visitors the long sweep of the open beach which is the finest thing about the reservation.” To this point in the long process, the only work to have been taken place was in legislation and on the drawing boards of Charles Eliot’s office; hundreds upon hundreds of privately owned structures remained along the shoreline throughout the summer of 1896.

The date of July 12 was actually a grand opening in a different year and of a different attraction; The Great Ocean Pier, built on the rocky remnants of Cherry Island Bar at Roughan’s Point, opened in 1881. At that point in time, it was the longest pier in the world, at 1700 feet long and 22 feet wide; throughout its twelve year existence it featured a café, a skating rink, a dance hall, and fresh spring water siphoned in from nearby Endicott Ave. Steamers from Foster’s Wharf delivered passengers daily. It was broken up and sold in sections in 1893.

Great Ocean Pier, 1881-1893

The water and sand were not the only reasons to visit the beach throughout the 1880’s-1890’s; in those days, Ocean Avenue continued along what is now the northern end of the boulevard, from Revere Street all the way to the Point of Pines. While privately owned and with an entrance fee, the public was welcome and invited – there was the Goodwood Hotel, with the Oriental Bandstand and Goodwood Park out front, the Hotel Pines, which at different times featured picnic grounds, a bandstand, a race track, and tennis courts, and the amusements of the pleasure grounds, and the Café, which stood to the right of the Hotel Pines. About halfway between Revere Street and the Pines was the Oak Island Grove, which featured a picnic area, a skating rink, and an athletic field. Both Oak Island and the Pines had train stations, making it very easy for the public to get there.

While the structures on the sand were not completely removed until the Spring of 1897, with the removal of the tracks commencing later that year, it was on Thursday, October 1, 1896 that the Metropolitan Park Commission officially acquired Revere Beach. This also was the day the Boston, Revere Beach, and Lynn Railroad relinquished Railroad Avenue; the work could officially begin to remove buildings from the sand and the tracks from the future Revere Beach Boulevard. It could very well be stated that Revere Beach was officially born on this date.

October 1, 1896…Before and after: Fall of 1896, and 1898

The Metropolitan Bathhouse officially opened on August 1, 1897; the newly opened boulevard, from the Beachmont end to Revere Street, was freshly paved and free of tracks Just seven days later, the largest crowd to date, estimated to be between 80-100,000 beachgoers, convened upon the crown jewel of the Metropolitan Park Commission.

While the public had always been welcome, the beach was now officially state owned and operated, and for public usage and enjoyment. The pavilions, the bandstand, the bathhouse, and the Metropolitan Police Station would all be constructed by 1898 (the northern end of the boulevard would not be completed until 1905, however). Although Charles Eliot would pass away early in 1897 from spinal meningitis at the age of 37, he did live long enough to see parts of his vision of Revere Beach come to fruition. The rotary at the southern end of Revere Beach was posthumously named for him – Eliot Circle. Considering the Revere Beach we now know began with Charles Eliot, a memorial at the start of Revere Beach Boulevard is fitting.

Lou Spagnola, 8/14/2021

Sources: Boston Globe, Revere Journal, Charles Eliot: Landscape Architect, The Acts of 1894, Olmsted archives