Hello “Nature Boardwalk,” So Long South Pond Swan Boats

(Photo: In memoriam Cygnus. Credit: kellyhaffermann.)

My favorite benches never get any respect. Last year, the Buckingham Fountain plaza renovation eliminated the spot where for years I used to sit and ponder my life in Chicago. Now the Lincoln Park Zoo’s $12 million rehab of Lincoln Park’s South Pond has done the same to the bench where I heretofore loved to ponder how silly people look in swan-shaped paddle boats. My main perch has given way to the wooden walkway of the “Nature Boardwalk,” the wildlife preserve serving as the pond’s new incarnation. But my bench isn’t the only thing gone forever. Apparently, so are those paddle boats.

Until the zoo got its hands on my bench, recreational boating on the South Pond had been a popular, longstanding tradition. How longstanding? Below is an 1885 photo from the Chicago Park District archives showing old-style swan and row boats on a “lagoon” in Lincoln Park that looks very much like the South Pond:

And here’s a 1907 photo of row boats (admittedly without swans) definitely taken on the South Pond, as evidenced by the Grant monument in the background, from the archives of the New Orleans Public Library:

While not evidence that recreational boating on the South Pond has always used the same water craft, these photos do demonstrate such boating to have been a South Pond tradition for more than the past 100 years. The zoo’s outdated PDF visitors guide still says the boats are there, but the new fence in front of Cafe Brauer and elevated walkway surrounding and crossing the South Pond seem proof to the contrary–so, too, does the lack of any mention of recreational boating on the zoo’s South Pond and Nature Boardwalk web pages. Recent news coverage of the opening of the Nature Boardwalk  has quoted zoo planners waxing on about how environmentally healthy and turtle-laden the pond is now–but curiously, without mention of the loss of the paddle boats.

I thought I’d been paying attention to news stories about the renovation over the past two years, but I don’t remember any that called out the demise of recreational boating on the South Pond. So I went searching for some mention of where the paddle boats went and why. Lincoln Park Zoo’s 2008 press release (PDF) originally announcing the rehab plans made no mention of the boats. Neither did a 2009 Chicago Tribune news story I remember reading about construction delays caused by heron nesting, or a Medill Reports story on approval of the rehab project by the Chicago Plan Commission.

In fact, I’ve been able to track down the end of the swan and paddle boats mentioned by zoo officials in only three places–two in 2008 and one this year. First, a March 13, 2008 WBBM-TV piece quoted Marybeth Johnson, Lincoln Park Zoo’s vice-president for communications and public affairs, saying that recreational boating on the South Pond was definitely gone for good, saying:

“The swan paddle boats will be replaced. The concept for whatever will replace them is to provide a nature tour for visitors rather than a recreational one.”

Johnson goes on to tell WBBM those replacement boats would be larger, exhibit-oriented tour boats, but that their exact concept had not been decided yet. However, a Tribune story published the same day based on discussions with other zoo staff noted the project very specifically to include “a 20-person flatboat, along with a fleet of paddleboats.”

After hours of searching, the next mention I managed to find regarding the end of South Pond recreational boating made by a Lincoln Park Zoo official came in June–this June, 27 months later–and not in major media, either. The June 2010 issue of alternative monthly Mindful Metropolis (<— warning: outdated, awful electronic document “reader” ahead), quotes Lincoln Park Zoo public relations director Sharon Dewar with this masterfully hedged line:

“The zoo is planning to return paddle boats or some other kind of recreational boat experience in the years ahead.”

I guess if the zoo can go from no specific concept to “20-person paddleboats” on the same day, I shouldn’t be surprised that it went from “a nature tour for visitors rather than a recreational one” back to a “recreational boat experience” in two years. But given that South Pond boating of any sort is now planned for some unspecified time in “the years ahead,” I won’t get my hopes up just yet.

Perhaps the boats–whatever boats–didn’t appear this year in order to give the newly renovated pond a chance to find firmer ecological footing. Or maybe last year’s severe budget shortfall at the zoo led to their curtailment. The zoo isn’t saying and, frankly, at this point I’m learning not to expect specifics on the matter.

In fact, there’s actually a fourth, independent mention of the end of the South Pond swan boats out there–if you know where to look. It requires a trip to the Chicago History Museum. Their current Lincoln Park Block by Block exhibit notes the (now perhaps not really, or maybe, who knows?) passing of the swan boats and displays a last remaining example. Visiting the exhibit last month was the first notice I encountered regarding the end of recreational boating on the South Pond, prompting this post and the hours of Internet searches that preceded it.

Mind you, I’m all for improving the ecological fortunes of Lincoln Park. As noted in the above-referenced Medill story, so were 43rd Ward Alderman Vi Daley, the Chicago Plan Commission, and the Chicago Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning when they all gave their support to the rehab plan, which according to Medill was “unanimously approved with no comments from the public.”

How well the public may have been notified in the first place about the plan and ts specific elements–such as the potential demise of a century-long tradition of recreational boating on the South Pond–is an open question. Either way, it’s too late to save the swan boats–much less my beloved bench.

But I can’t help thinking those must be some clouted turtles.

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