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Lincoln Park Zoo’s first two inhabitants were a pair of swans, gifted from Central Park. Swan boats followed soon after, canopied contraptions with room for a crowd. Donald L. Miller described a typical scene from the era in his 1996 book City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. What’s striking is that the swans were the last holdouts from that era (well—that and electricity). They’re gone now, and for that matter so are the nearby working-class neighborhoods that Miller mentions:
On Sunday afternoons, the park’s lakes and lagoons were filled with canopied swan boats and with canoes “paddled by gentlemen in high stiff collars, their ladies holding dainty parasols and trailing fingers in the water.”* And on dirt diamonds young men in shirtsleeves played the “American Game.” As many as twenty thousand people would be in the park on sunny Sundays, many walking with their big wooden picnic baskets from working-class neighborhoods that had begun to appear north and west of the park. Electric lights were introduced in the 1880s, and summer crowds that stayed on into the evening would gather around Yerkes’s electric fountain to see the colored water display, young couples discreetly breaking away to walk hand in hand along the gaslit lake promenade, the moon throwing a silver trail across the black water. “No Chicago millionaire,” wrote George Ade, “has such a magnificent front yard.”
Perhaps the swan boats will go the way of Lincoln Park Zoo’s forebears, who were . . . dead. Founded in 1868, the zoo was built atop a relocated cemetery. That cemetery had been a source of concern due to its proximity to Lake Michigan. Dr. John H. Rauch, a member of the National Sanitary Commission, feared that the lake lapped up water overflowing from freshly-dug graves and deposited it back into the city’s drinking water supply, spreading cholera and smallpox. Rauch agitated for the space to be turned into a public park; in 1860, the city of Chicago agreed.
On the other hand, Lincoln Park residents have a history of returning: workers uncovered a corpse there during some construction in 1962, nearly 100 years after cemetery inhabitants were supposed to have been removed from the grounds. So who knows what could come back.
*quote from the 1972 book Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago's Lakefront by Lois Wille