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Chicago River Once Hosted Long-Distance Swims Attended By 100,000 Fans

By Justin Breen | March 9, 2017 5:18am | Updated on March 12, 2017 10:54am
 The Chicago River used to host massive long-distance swimming events.
Chicago River swimming
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DOWNTOWN — It might be hard to imagine now, but the Chicago River once hosted lengthy "marathon" swimming races attended by thousands of spectators.

“In the early 1900s, the Chicago River 'swimming marathon,' a roughly two-mile course, dominated the city’s summer sports calendar with thousands of people crowding the river banks and bridges to see the brave contestants," said Peter Alter of the Chicago History Museum.

Veteran outdoor swimmer Don Macdonald recently proposed bringing a long-distance swim back to the Chicago River. Macdonald, who has guided swims around Manhattan Island and also participated in several urban swimming events, would like to swim from Ping Tom Park in Chinatown to the Main Stem of the Chicago River Downtown sometime this year.

The proposal for a Chicago River open-water swim helped prompt the topic of swimming for the 2017 Chicago River Summit, which takes place Thursday.

"In general we have proposed restarting the 1908 Illinois Athletic Club marathon river swim and began these discussions with the city and other regulating bodies," Macdonald wrote in a February email.

Alter said long-distance swimmers in the early 20th century braved the Chicago River waters, which were "very cold" even in July, by covering their bodies in grease and tar to keep warm.

Many of the races were dominated by Perry McGillivray, a future Olympic gold medal winner and member of the Illinois Athletic Club. Alter said the 1908 race saw the oldest contestant, 55-year old bartender Albert Freese, drown near the finish line.

Also that year, the only woman contestant, Anna Harris, finished the race, taking 17th place. According to the Tribune, almost 100,000 people watched that race, which it described as "one of the most athletic contests that Chicago ever saw."

Although technically it's legal to swim in the Chicago River, there are no public access points for swimmers.

For more information on the noon-4:30 p.m. summit, click here.