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Shoreline of Lake Mendota

Shoreline of Lake Mendota (1900 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-60859


The Goodman brothers’ generous donation for a community pool is the latest episode in the quest for proper swimming facilities in Madison, a quest that has lasted more than a century and a half.

At the time of settlement, the lakes met Madison’s bathing needs. As noted in the Wisconsin Democrat on July 20, 1843: “We never found a more cleanly or prettier bathing place than dame Nature has given us in our Fourth Lake (we wish it had a prettier name). For a distance of 100 yards, that part of the shore of the Fourth Lake that adjoins the town of Madison, is entirely destitute of weeds, and is covered with a border of cleanly gravel which extends into the water 10 or 15 feet, when the gravel gives way to a pure gray sand, which extends many hundred yards into the lake furnishing a hard, level and smooth bottom. Thirty or forty feet from shore the water is four or five feet deep. The water is of the purest kind; a dime can be seen on the bottom at 10 or 12 feet. We recommend invalids who need pure air, pure water, and soothing scenery come to Madison.”

In May 1855 the editor of the Wisconsin Patriot called for a bathing house on Fourth Lake off the foot of Carroll Street.

On July 13, 1867, the Wisconsin State Journal issued a “Caution to Bathers: Boys and others who are in the habit of bathing at points along the lake shore and on the causeway across Lake Monona are reminded that it is illegal and punishable by fine. The practice of bathing in public places, where ladies have frequent occasion to pass, particularly along the railroad causeway, has become a nuisance, and the proper officers are determined to put a stop to it. The lawful hours for bathing outside of the bathing houses are before 5 a.m. and after 8 p.m.”

In 1900, in the midst of a campaign to erect Madison’s General Hospital, some opposed wasting time on such a facility at all: “It has been surprising to me that our good people – those looking after cleanliness and health – have said nothing about the fact that we have no public bathing places anywhere on our lakes. Quit your hospital work a minute or two and give thought to bathing resorts that produce cleanliness and health.”

In June 1904 there were 45 cases of typhoid at the Insane Asylum (now Mendota Mental Health Institute). Authorities believed the illness was caused by sewage in the lake and warned that no one should bathe in Lake Mendota.

The following summer the Wisconsin State Journal demanded bath houses for Madison. “Boys are swimming on Lake Monona at the foot of Hamilton Street without bathing suits. They come out of the water and race up and down the railroad tracks. They ‘dismantle’ on the railroad bridges and jump in the water when passenger trains pass. On Lake Mendota a grownup man enjoys a daily plunge without a suit. A complaint has been lodged by a UW official.”

In August of that year, after being called on by “25 little girls,” Mayor Curtis ordered that the Fourth Ward bathhouse be set aside from 1 to 6 on Friday afternoons for the exclusive use of girls.

In 1916 Wilber Warner, who operated Madison’s leading music store, left the city $100,000 in his will. A quarter of the amount was to be used to erect a sea wall on the Lake Monona shore, to remove the shanty towns there located, and to put up a bathing pavilion and boat house.

Three years later, in his inaugural address, Mayor Sayle called for, among other items, a trust to finance street lights, park maintenance, a life saving crew on each lake, a municipal bath and municipal boat house, a city band, and a baseball team.

Mark Gajewski