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Green Bay Could Have Its Beach Back In The Near Future

Cleaner Water Means Park Could Have Swimming Again After More Than 70 Years Without One


Across Wisconsin there are state and federal efforts to reduce industrial pollution in waterways.

In some cases they have brought back aquatic life. In Green Bay it could mean bringing back a city beach that’s been closed since the 1940s.

The Fox River runs into the bay of Green Bay, and Bay Beach, a city park, sits near the confluence.

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The kiddie train at Bay Beach Amusement park runs along what was once the sandy swimming beach. Patty Murray/WPR

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been dredging polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the river’s sediment as part of the Superfund program. That could end up putting the beach back into Bay Beach, which is something 5-and-a-half-year-old Wren Kast of Green Bay would like.

“I feel like it’s really good for the community. If there wasn’t a beach, it would be really bad,” Wren said at Bay Beach Amusement Park, which sits near the former beach.

Wren visited the amusement park on opening day in May. Her father, DJ, and mother, Jenna, agreed with their daughter.

“If they can clean it up and make Bay Beach an actual beach to swim in as well, I think that’s only better for the community,” DJ Kast said.

Jenna Kast said she would bring her young family to the park more often if the beach returned.

“We try to go to beaches but it’s hard to find any nearby; so if there was one that was useable, that would definitely be a bonus,” Jenna said.

Bay Beach Amusement Park has a variety of rides including the “Zippin Pippin” roller coaster. The famous ride relocated to Green Bay in 2010 after it was purchased from Libertyland, a shuttered park in Memphis, Tennessee. The rollercoaster is said to have been Elvis Presley’s favorite.

The Zippin Pippin rollercoaster relocated to Bay Beach Amusement Park in 2010 from Libertyland in Memphis, Tennessee. The ride is said to have been Elvis Presley’s favorite. Josh Grenier (CC BY 2.0)

The Green Bay park’s beach permanently closed around 1945, said Mary Jane Herber, a historian with the Brown County Library.

In the early- to mid-20th century it was a huge draw for people of all ages. Its pavilion hosted big band dances.

Herber believes part of what made its beach good for swimming was its depth, which was less than 6 feet.

“It’s very, very shallow, and there are parts of the bay that you can walk out for, I don’t know, a tenth of a mile or more,” she said.

But those shallow waters kept contaminants close to shore.

Herber said locals even coined a term for it. “I think they called it ‘the itch,’” she said. “You know, there would be something in the water that would give people some kind of rash.”

In French “Green Bay” is “La Baye Verte” and partly takes its name from algae. Along with industrial, human and bird wastes, algae would periodically close the beach over the years.

Then, the beach shut down for good.

The closure of Bay Beach was partly due to paper mills, said Donalea Dinsmore, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources beach program manager.

“That was closed for pollution way back when,” she said, noting paper mills and other heavy manufacturers were partly to blame. “Discharges from industry were going directly into the water.”

Dinsmore said algae or E. coli. usually cause temporary closures on the state’s “coastal” beaches.

“These are naturally occurring bacteria, so what we’re monitoring is when does the level rise to the level that we think that we should advise people to exercise more caution?” she said.

The city of Green Bay is doing a feasibility study on reopening Bay Beach. The city would need permits from the EPA and DNR, so any swimming is several years off.

Jason Arnoldi has worked at the park for 22 years and is now its manager. In that time he’s seen nature rebound.

Bay Beach Amusement Park, which originally opened in 1892, is celebrating its 125th birthday this year. Aaron Carlson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“We’ve noticed a lot of return of certain wildlife; pelicans, stuff like that. So the water is getting a lot cleaner,” he said. “We still have to do some more tests and see exactly where we’re at, but it’s looking a lot better.”

If and when a beach opens, Arnoldi said it could do wonders for attendance.

Arnoldi said “the closest beach is about 30 miles away” in Door or Kewaunee counties.

“It means a lot for the community to have something like that back in the Green Bay area,” Arnoldi said. “Obviously, for us, we’d see a lot more people out here to enjoy the beach itself versus just going on rides.”

Meanwhile dredging continues on the river, people continue to ride the rides, and what was once the sandy beach sits vacant and covered in rocks.

This story is part of a yearlong reporting project at WPR called State of Change: Water, Food, and the Future of Wisconsin. Find stories on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The Ideas Network and online.

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