...in 1896, 45,000 people gathered in Revere to celebrate the opening of the first public beach in the nation. In 1895 the newly-created Metropolitan Parks Commission had taken ownership of the longest natural beach in the Boston area. The MPC cleared it of a railway, shanties, and other eyesores and built a broad boulevard, an elegant public bathhouse, shade pavilions, and a bandstand. The new and improved beach was an immediate hit. On some hot summer days, it had more than 250,000 visitors, most of them drawn from Boston's working class and immigrant communities. Among the beach's attractions were some of the first amusement parks in the country. The Cyclone, built in 1927, was the fastest and largest roller coaster in the world.
The first summer visitors to the 4.5-mile long beach at Revere were the Pawtucket Indians, who camped there during the warmer months. The shallow waters were a rich source of food, and the sandy beach was ideal for the games of skill the natives played. When English colonists settled in the area, they saw little value in the beach for work or play. It would be several hundred years before anyone would again capitalize on the economic and recreational potential of Revere Beach.
In 1871 when North Chelsea changed its name to Revere in honor of the man who carried the alarm to Lexington, the town had just over 1,000 residents, most of them farmers and fishermen. Four years later, the Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn "Narrow Gauge" Railroad began operating from Lynn to East Boston. Now it was easy for city dwellers to get to the beach; within a decade, the population of Revere tripled.
Steamboats brought pleasure seekers from Boston, Lynn, and Nahant, but the majority of visitors came by the Narrow Gauge. The beach soon became cluttered with bathhouses, restaurants, and private shacks and shanties that obstructed the once-expansive view.
In 1893 the Metropolitan Parks Commission was formed with the goal of protecting scenic areas while making them available for public use. Reclaiming Revere Beach was an ideal project. The MPC exercised the state's right of eminent domain to take ownership of three miles of the beach, clear away the buildings, and restore the beach's scenic qualities.
In 1895 and 1896, the MPC demolished more than 100 privately owned structures along the beach. The Narrow Gauge railway was relocated 400 yards back from the beach, along the path now used by the MBTA Blue Line. The goal was to provide, in the words of the Commission's landscape architect Charles Eliot, "the grand and refreshing sight of [Revere beach] with its long, simple, curve, and its open view of the ocean." "Nothing," he declared, "presents a more striking contrast to the jumbled, noisy scenery" of the city.
Eliot designed a broad boulevard on the old railroad bed. On the beach side, he placed a series of simple but elegant pavilions and a bandstand. A parking pavilion could accommodate 1,000 bicycles. Tunnels led from the beach, under the boulevard, to an elaborate bathhouse with changing rooms for 1,000 bathers. The Metropolitan Park Commission had a monopoly on bathing suits at Revere Beach. Bathers were required to rent their suits at the bathhouse, and the reservation manufactured, repaired, and laundered them as well. The on-site laundry could wash, wring, and press 500 bathing suits an hour.
From the very beginning, Revere Beach was considered "the people's beach," frequented primarily by working class and immigrant families from Boston and its densely populated inner suburbs. In 1909 beachgoers were described as "industrious, well-behaved, and a really desirable class of people, of many nationalities to be sure, but neighborly and polite . . . with one another."
Bathers tired of sand and surf could visit the amusements along the boardwalk. At Wonderland, America's first self-contained amusement park and the model for Disneyworld, they could ride early roller coasters such as the Virginia Reel, Wild Mouse, or, if they were really brave, the Cyclone. Dance halls were another attraction, especially during the Depression when dance marathons were regular fare at the Oceanview and Wonderland Ballrooms. While commercial development increased the popularity of Revere Beach, it represented a major departure from the MPC's vision of the reservation. As one historian has written, "space intended to serve as an escape from the city became thoroughly urbanized."
Revere Beach began to deteriorate in the 1950s, as the state deferred maintenance of the public buildings and honky-tonk bars proliferated. The blizzard that struck New England in February of 1978 destroyed many of the surviving pavilions, sidewalks, and amusements and washed away much of the seawall and beach.
In the 1980s the state and the city of Revere joined forces to revitalize the beach, which reopened in May 1992 with replenished sand and restored pavilions. In July of 1996, Revere Beach celebrated its 100th anniversary as the first public beach in the United States.
Inventing the Charles River, by Karl Haglund (MIT Press, 2003).
Memories of Revere Beach, by Peter McCauley (self-published, 1989).
A Profile of Revere, unpublished monograph, 1996
"Lines in the Sands: Ethnicity, Race, and Culture at Revere Beach," by Mark Herlihy in Faces of Community: Immigrant Massachusetts, 1860-2000, ed. by Reed Ueda and Conrad Wright (Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003).