Apr 5, 2024 - Culture

Photos: Past Chicago River swims

Photo of people swimming in the river
Photo: Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

The Chicago River Swim is inviting 500 brave swimmers to jump in the murky waters for charity this September.

  • Wait, swimming in the Chicago River? That's preposterous.

Yes, but: Back in the 1900s, "swimming marathons" were held in the river, Chicago History Museum archival photos show.

  • In this featured above, from 1911, hundreds of folks lined up along what we imagine is the Lake Street Bridge (because of the elevated train rumbling on top of it).

State of play: According to the Chicago History Museum, these "marathons" were extremely popular events, attracting thousands every summer at the turn of the 20th century.

Photo of people swimming in a river
View of men sitting in rowboats on the Chicago River during a river swimming marathon in 1909. Photo: Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Zoom in: This race was less than two miles but hard to finish because the waters were very cold, even though the race took place in the summer, a historian told the now defunct news site DNAinfo.

  • Swimmers covered themselves in grease and tar to stay warm.

The intrigue: The swim could happen because the river was reversed in 1900, so the water quality had improved. Temporarily, of course.

Photo of people swimming in the river
A swimmer is in the Chicago River, holding on to a canoe, 1911. Photo: Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
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