By Daniel Ladue | Photos Supplied by the Clinton County Historical Museum
“Thousands Attend Opening Day at the Municipal Beach,” read the headlines in the Plattsburgh Daily Republican on August 13, 1928. The entire stretch of beach, from its western end at Scomotion Creek to its eastern extremity near Cumberland Head, was packed with more than 12,000 people. The famous 26th U. S. Infantry Band from the Plattsburgh Barracks hosted a three-hour concert, culminating in a stirring rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Old Glory was raised, speeches were given, and the “Plattsburgh Municipal Bathing Beach” was officially opened.
More than 2,000 cars packed the small parking lot. Ten lifeguards manned their stands, golden sunlight poured down on the immense crowd, and thousands were in the water. “It was the day of days,” piped Judge John K. Collins, who had been one of the seminal agents in getting the beach to that point. The event had exceeded the most optimistic expectations.
Authorities stopped tallying vehicles after 1,250 were counted entering the beach on Scomotion Avenue and Merkel Boulevard. Cars were lined up the entire length of the sand, all the way to Cumberland Head. It wasn’t just New Yorkers visiting that day. License plates were spotted from all over New England, Quebec and Ontario, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, and California.
It had been a journey of fits and starts to get to that point. Various attempts to generate interest in aquatic sports and a bathing beach had been made earlier, but none proved to be successful. In the summer of 1882, Jonas Maurice, disabled veteran of the Civil War, sexton and grave digger for the Catholic cemetery, official lamp-lighter for the village, and all-around first-class swimmer, promoted a swimming school at the “Sand beach at the head of Cumberland Bay.” Maurice built two changing rooms, and beaches were strictly segregated…one for ladies and one for gentlemen. No one was allowed to come to the beach unless he/she wore a bathing suit.
Lessons and use of the beach were $5 for the season and ladies, especially, were encouraged to attend so they could “learn the art of swimming…with convenience…and propriety.”
The swimming school was short lived. No mention of it was made after its first season in 1882.
A second attempt was made in 1916 when the Cumberland Bay Beach opened in front of where McDonald’s now stands on North Margaret Street. It, too, offered all the amenities—bathing suit rentals, lifeguards and a small refreshment stand.
Cumberland Bay Beach Dance Hall, located a stone’s throw from the beach, attracted far more attention. Live music by Kempner’s five-piece orchestra entertained guests three nights a week, local girls swooned over officers from the Plattsburgh Barracks and fine dining with views of the lake and the Green Mountains of Vermont proved far more popular than the beach, which shuttered its operation in 1917.
It would take another five years for the public to embrace the idea of “going to the beach.” Prior to the 1920s, there was simply no culture of beach going as we know it today.
It wasn’t until 1922, when St. Armand’s Beach, at Point au Roche, opened the first successful bathing beach in northern New York. Opening day, July 27, 1922, was a gala affair. Hundreds of people were in attendance. Tents had been erected, and acted as changing rooms that were used solely for the ladies. Bathing suits, still uncommon, were available for purchase or for rent. College men from the Plattsburgh Normal School acted as life guards. For those without a car, a bus left City Hall on the hour until 10 p.m. Fireworks burst open the night sky.
The beach, which advertised heavily in the Plattsburgh Daily Press, was popular from the start. The War to End All Wars was over. Hemlines rose. Girls dared to smoke in public. And why not. It was the 1920s. The Jazz Age. Everything was possible. Finally, “going to the beach” was the “berries,” “the bees’ knees,” and everyone was doing it, doing it.
Build it, and came they did. St. Armand’s Beach attracted great interest among locals and residents of Montreal, who had also discovered it. John Weldon, beloved editor of the Daily Press, took notice. He had been watching the beach’s progress for three years. On July 7, 1925, he editorialized that Plattsburgh should take advantage of its own beach, one of the finest on the North American continent.
“There is,” he wrote in the Daily Press, “as beautiful a piece of beach as one could wish to see just east of [Scomotion Creek.] There, we find a stretch of hard sand which slopes gently into the waters of the bay and is as clean as though it had been cleaned and scrubbed.”
But there was one small problem. All the property was in private hands.
Weldon’s editorial was not some poorly thought-out piece of writing. It was the end product, I believe, of a well-orchestrated campaign on the part of a core group of Plattsburgh’s most influential business men, all of whom had come of age and operated within the transformational and idealistic years of the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. I am convinced that Weldon, with the help of Mayor William E. Cross, businessman David S. Merkel, Judge John Collins, and a handful of others, saw the success at St. Armand’s Beach, and were convinced it could be replicated on the sands of Plattsburgh Bay.
Development of trails, parks and bathing beaches were part of a larger trend within the state of New York. Why wouldn’t it work in Plattsburgh? Other than the Champlain Hotel and the Catholic Summer School at Cliff Haven, which were off-limits to non-members, there were no public places for swimming. Within several days of the editorial, both Merkel and Collins, who owned substantial plots on the western end of the beach, deeded their properties to the City of Plattsburgh. Other civic-minded folk ceded theirs as well. By the end of July 1925, 24 days after Weldon’s editorial, the city held 340 feet of prime beach front.
Others followed suit. Those who held out, were often willing to sell their property for far less than market value. Within three years, the City of Plattsburgh owned the entire beach that stretched from Scomotion Creek to where the current concession stand is now located.
General estimates to develop the beach ran between $50,000 and $100,000. During the summers 1925 to 1928, enthusiasm for the new bathing beach never diminished. The Chamber of Commerce wisely advertised in the Montreal daily newspapers. Volunteer work parties cleaned up the beach. Dance halls held wildly popular fund raisers to help pay for parking lot development, changing rooms, life guard stands, and concession stands. A Beach and Park Commission was established to oversee the beach development.
Much was at stake. Despite the success of St. Armand’s Beach and a statewide trend to create bathing beaches, a lot of money was at stake. Would the investment give a good turn on itself? Would the public maintain its same level of enthusiasm or was the beach some quicksilver Jazz Age fad? There were legitimate concerns. The Plattsburgh Daily Press was justified to ask, “Who knows?”
Succeed it did. People drove from all over. For decades, thousands flocked to Plattsburgh. There were summers in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s when more than half a million visitors paid to use the beach and state park. Montrealers rented cabins and stayed in motels on North Margaret Street. They spilled over into town, bought properties, clothes, furniture, and groceries. They packed drive-in movie theaters, restaurants and night clubs. French was often the first language at the beach and on the streets in downtown Plattsburgh. More than once, the newspapers called Plattsburgh “a suburb of Montreal.”
Girls met their future husbands at the beach. Trans-border friendships forged. More than anything, the presence of the French-Canadian was the first exposure an American had to someone from another country. And they proved to be not much different from us.
Mayor Cross, David Merkel, John Collins and John Weldon had every reason to be proud of the gamble they took. Simply from an economic point of view, Montreal alone pumped millions of dollars into the local economy yearly, and that largess rippled from mom-and-pop stores to large national chains.
From its inception, the Plattsburgh Municipal Bathing Beach was a gift from the people of Plattsburgh to the people of Plattsburgh. For a variety of reasons, the beach population no longer equals what it did in the past. Gone are the days when a wave and a smile got the Quebecer past Customs. Changed habits, international travel, and the disparity between the Canadian and American dollars mean fewer Montrealers venture south.
The Plattsburgh Municipal Beach is still the crown jewel of Plattsburgh. One can only hope it stays that way for a future generation.
Daniel Ladue is the author of Bold and Courageous: 25 North Country Women and Their Exceptional Contributions. His book on the history of the Michigan Hot Dog will be available this summer. He is currently working on a project that explores the history of that piece of property locals refer to as “the beach.”