Chicago, IL

Hunting for Sea (Lake) Glass on the Beaches of Rogers Park, Chicago

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

What are the best beaches in Rogers Park Chicago for finding lake glass?
Glass Beach in California is all sea glass but you can't take any of it as a souvenir.Floris van Breugel/Travel the Whole World

I remember first learning about sea glass when I was watching Martha Stewart. She had managed to find, (or rather her assistants managed to find), enough to create an entire table top from the large mostly oblong or pebble shaped colored glass. I was impressed and a new dream hobby was born. Spending time on the beach, searching for this beautiful glass that you could use in craft projects - what could be better?

I was in school in Florida at the time and my boyfriend and I spent two weekends on the Gulf coast and the other two on the Atlantic coast. I looked for sea one day enthusiastically, thinking I’d find a bag full of nice size pieces in all colors.

My boyfriend and I both looked for a while and we found some nice shells but no sea glass. My boyfriend lost interest sooner than I did and retired to the chairs. I admit, I didn’t last more than another half an hour, wanting to find at least one piece to make the dream hobby worth it. When I had no luck, I dragged by feet back to the chairs.

I was disappointed. I thought I’d come away with at least a few pieces. Martha Stewart had made finding it seem so easy. She had said you could find it anywhere. This was because there was always glass being dumped into the oceans, with the salt water creating the smoothed, frosty, gem like look of sea glass. Well, evidently this process skipped the beaches we went to on the weekends in Florida.

Once in while, when I'm somewhere new, I might decide to see if perhaps this is the beach where I’d find a wealth of sea glass. I tried beaches in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont Delaware, Virginia, California, and New Hampshire. But until I moved to Chicago, I’d had no luck.

. . .

Once I started looking for sea glass, I realized that Martha Stewart had glossed over some facts. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

1) You can’t find sea glass everywhere. It depends on the currents and the way the sea bed is formed. You might be able to find a small piece almost anywhere at some time or another but to actually have the chance to collect any amount means you have to have currents that will brings the glass in and deposit it so that it can be seen. Some beaches around the world are famous for this. For example, MacKerricher State Park Glass Beach, is a beach covered in sea glass. It remains beautiful to look at since visitors are not permitted to take any of it.

2) Few places have an enormous amount of sea or beach glass for the picking. You might come away with a small handful at the end of the day but don’t go expecting piles of it that you can just sift through to find the best pieces.

3) Few beaches have large pieces of finished sea glass to collect. This is a lucky find. Sea glass comes from glass bottles, and other containers, windows, and any type of glass debris that made its way into the ocean. It’s mostly broken up pieces that start small and get smaller through the process of becoming sea glass.

4) There’s sea glass and there’s beach glass or lake glass and they’re different. Martha was right about the salt water being part of the process that creates sea glass. But when you have glass that is created by the same tumbling and grinding process over decades with fresh water the finished item is a bit different.

. . .

When I first moved to Illinois, I stayed in a hotel for a week. None of my belongings had arrived including my books. So, I picked up what I could find which was one of those hotel guides to the area. When I saw the table of contents, I noticed an article about looking for beach glass along Lake Michigan. It seemed from the article that you could find beach glass at many Chicago beaches.

That night, I learned the difference between sea glass and beach glass. Since sea glass is created in salt water is typically has a more “frosted” appearance to it with pitting due to the chemical transformation that occurs. When glass is immersed in salt water for a long time the soda and lime in the glass leaches out to form pits and frosting. Since beach glass is conditioned in fresh water you don’t get the pitting a frosting and the appearance is much smoother and less “smoky.”

I didn’t really think about it much for the next several years until moving to an apartment that was practically right on Lake Michigan in the Rogers Park neighborhood. The first morning I woke up in my new apartment, while drinking a cup of coffee that article about beach glass came back to me. I grabbed a towel and went out to see what the beaches were like in that neck of the woods.

The beaches in Chicago are different from anywhere else where I lived. I was used to driving a distance outside of any major cities until I came to a little beach town. In Chicago, the large, urban city sits right on the banks of Lake Michigan.

While there are larger, connected beaches further south, the far north Rogers Park neighborhood has a number of small "street-end" beaches that unlike most Chicago beaches, are often separated by private property and big apartment buildings and therefore, unconnected to one another by public parkland. This accounts for the seemingly large number of beaches in this one neighborhood. While all of Chicago has 18 street-end beaches, 9 of them are in East Rogers Park.

Looking for Beach Glass

My favorite time to look for beach glass is in the late afternoon as sundown is approaching. Many of the beaches on Lake Michigan are covered in pebbles and stones along the water line. Lake Michigan is at near record high water levels. This means that while you may find sea glass above or at the water line, you may also find it a bit deeper out where there are rock deposits which can trap the glass and prevent it from washing back out.

The reason I love looking for sea glass as the day is ending, is that the change in light makes it easier to distinguish glass from pebbles. With the sun shining brightly overhead, it can obscure the glass especially if it’s white or clear and takes on the color of the stones around it. When the light is less direct and not as bright it’s easier to tell the difference. Once the light starts to diminish, I use the flashlight on my phone to make the glass shine.

This is one of the reasons I look for glass below the water line. The waves keep the glass wet and shiny and when I shine the light on it I can more easily distinguish it from the other things around it. If there are others who are also searching for the scarce glass on a small beach like the ones in Roger’s park, you might find more if you are willing to get your feet wet, and search the bands of rocks that are in the water.

I usually search after there’s been a storm since that causes the waves to kick up what has been buried for a while and bring it into shore. That includes sea glass. This is another way to find glass if the beach you are on is popular with other people searching for glass.

There is a variety of shapes and colors of beach glass that can be found around the western side of Lake Michigan. The closer you get to the city the more common the colors are so you will most likely find whites, browns and greens.

As you search farther outside the city in some of the suburban neighborhoods, you have a greater chance of finding rarer colors such as purples, blues, yellows and reds. I have found a few blue pieces and one red piece over the years. People who search daily, regardless of the weather, say they've found a bounty of colors and shapes including soft green "marbles" that were created from old coke bottles.

Searching Rogers Park Beaches for Lake Glass

I normally look for lake glass at the beach that is behind my building. Today I decided to look at a few beaches in the area to see if there is a difference in the amount of glass that can be found at each. I decided to visit four beaches to see which ones have the most lake glass that is easiest to find. I started at the beach behind my apartment and moved south.

Marion Mahoney Griffin Beach (Jarvis Beach)
Jarvis Beach, with pier visibleAuthor

This beach is steps from my apartment so it’s always the easiest to get to especially when I just need to relax but I don’t have much time or it’s getting late and the sun will be setting before long. The beach is one of the smallest in Chicago, and it’s covered in rocks, some small leaves from plants that grow in or near the lake, and bits of algae so it’s hard to pick out any glass that may be present from everything around it. You really need to be down at the water line to find what you’re looking for.

This is what also makes it the most interesting. You can keep going over the small area at the water line a number of times, and still find glass you didn’t notice the first time. During the half hour I spent there, here is what I found:
Lake glass found at Jarvis BeachAuthor

It's obviously not much but I did find several nice colors. The two clear white ones have a really nice finish to them. There is also a yellow green which I haven't seen before and a few other shades of green. I did find other pieces but they hadn't been tumbled enough so the edges weren't smoothed and I threw them back.

Leona Beach
Leone Beach with lake grasses planted to prevent erosionAuthor

Leone Beach and Loyola Beach are often thought of as a single beach but to me they have slightly different characteristics. Leone Beach winds down from the parking lot along sand dunes and a dense area of Marram Grass. The grass, also called Dune Grass, is being planted along the shores of Lake Michigan to stabilize sand dunes and as one means of decreasing erosion.

While there are a few ridges composed of rocks brought in by the waves, though I searched them several times, I only found a few small pieces of green glass worth keeping.

Loyola Beach
Loyola Beach with pristine sandAuthor

Loyola Beach is among the nicest beaches along Lake Michigan. It has a large playground for children of all ages, benches, plenty of space for towels or blankets and a view of the lake that is an unimpeded stretch of blues and greens. Loyola Park is one of the most popular beaches in Chicago.

From what I noticed while I was there, Loyola Park doesn’t seem like one of the best beaches for finding lake glass, the beach above the water line is one of the only beaches I’ve seen in the area that doesn’t require you to pick way over a layer of rocks, best accomplished in water walking shoes. Instead, it is almost completely clear of rocks, shells, glass, plants and algae. While it is beautiful to look at, it’s not where you’ll find a lot of glass.

Once I’d determined this, I went to the waterline and could see a rocky ridge several feet out in the water. It wasn’t exposed when the waves receded and instead always remained under water. With the storms in recent nights leading to some small but powerful waves, it wasn’t easy trying to look for beach glass, while maintaining my balance.

While I was at this beach, the sky got darker and the waves grew bigger and even though I wasn’t even up to my knees in the water, I could feel the growing pull as a storm surf threatened to make its way inland. Hoping to finish the story today, and still having about ten minutes left to the half an hour dedicated to this beach, I doggedly pressed on until when reaching for what looked like a piece of glass, I didn’t notice a wave that had another coming right along behind it. I was knocked flat into the water (luckily my phone was safe on shore), and a third wave went over my head and I could feel it trying to pull me out.

I have never actually gone much deeper than hip high in the lake for this very reason. Even when the lake looks calm on the surface, below the surface it can still have an undertow. When there are waves visible, it’s a guarantee that there is a powerful rip current beneath the surface which can pull you right out into the lake. That’s why they caution people never to go in without lifeguards on duty and to pay attention to the flag warning system which signals if it’s safe to into the water or not.

This is important for anyone who decides to take up lake glass collecting on Lake Michigan. As there is less and less glass to be found from year to year, those serious about finding it, may venture further out into the lake to do so. With your attention fixed to the lake bottom, you may miss a wave or decide the pull that you’re feeling isn’t a big deal. You always must have respect for this lake as even in seemingly calm weather, because of all of the structures that jut out into the lake like all of the piers, the currents have been altered making them unpredictable on the best of days. When there are waves from a storm surge, it is not hard to be pulled off of your feet even if you are only knee deep.

Before I was knocked down, I found a few pieces of glass worth keeping. And I managed to hold onto the piece that I was in the process of salvaging when the wave hit me.

Hartigan Beach
Hartigan Beach with the lighthouse in the backgroundAuthor

One block south of Loyola Beach is Hartigan Beach. This is another one of my favorite beaches, primarily because there’s a long pier that leads out to an old lighthouse that you can visit. There is a sweeping green lawn which is perfect for picnics and grills are provided in case you brought food to cook. There are trees for shade which are often used for hanging camping hammocks from, a popular way to take in the view of the water here in Chicago. There’s another large playground with nearby benches for parents to watch their children from.

The beach itself is a large area of sandy waterfront, with some rocks. The beach has more rocks than Loyola beach and less than Jarvis beach. From what I experienced, I think of the four beaches I’ve visited today, it may be the easiest beach for beginners looking for lake glass. That’s because there are enough rocks to keep some glass that’s mixed in trapped in place so it won't wash away. I managed to find several nice pieces of glass and several smaller ones in greens and whites.

Concluding remarks
Todays haul of beach glass from Rogers ParkAuthor

Even if I didn't come away with handfuls of lake glass, the day was very relaxing. There something about this hobby that can put your mind at ease. It's likely a mix of the fresh air, soothing sounds of the water, the feel of the warm sand underfoot and looking for something beautiful which also provides a source of activity and sense of purpose. I've also found that no matter what other things I must get done that day, when I need to take a break, spending some time alongside Lake Michigan looking for these sparkling gems touched by water is the perfect respite. It is completely different from anything else I may do and so it's the perfect activity to take my mind off of anything that may be stressing me out or when I am experiencing writers block or a lack of motivation. No matter what mood I am in when I head for the lake with the crystal bottle I keep my finds in, when I return I am always feeling much happier.

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