With the change of seasons twice each year, Grays Lake in the fall is transformed from a summer-fun recreation outlet to a winter paradise for hearty cold weather souls. In the spring, the landscape returns to the hazy, lazy days of summer for the many residents who live in homes surrounding the lake.
William M. Gray came from Allegany County, New York, some time before 1840 and purchased the land along the south shore of the then unnamed lake. He purchased two quarter sections of land.
Grays Lake is located just north of Route 120 and is entirely within the Village of Grayslake. It is an oval shaped, 80-acre glacial lake with a maximum depth of 20 feet, an average depth of 5.7 feet and a lake volume of approximately 449.8 ace-feet, according to data from the Lake County Health Department-Lakes Management Unit.
The spring-fed lake is part of the Mill Creek drainage basin, which is part of the Des Plaines River watershed. There is a spillway on the west side of the lake which controls the drainage from Grays Lake into Mill Creek. Flow continues northward to Third Lake and eventually into the Des Plaines River. The lake's small watershed (approximately 230 acres) consists of storm water drainage from houses surrounding the lake.
The Village of Grayslake and the Grayslake Park District, along with the Grays Lake Lake Management Committee, oversees the management of the lake. The park district maintains the Jones Island Park on the lake, and conducts fish stocking and aquatic plant management.
Voters approved the park district formation in 1959. Shortly thereafter, the park district purchased Jones Island property for $15,000 from Mrs. Milton Jones. For several winters sand was dumped on the ice, which when melted formed sandy-bottomed beaches on the Jones Island lakefront.
Access to Grays Lake is open year-round to all residents of the Village of Grayslake through several access points around the lake as well as private residences. Lake bottom ownership is split between the village, subdivisions and several private owners. Launching of watercraft by non-residents and non-approved personnel at the access points is prohibited.
Recreational opportunities on Grays Lake include boating (no motors of any kind allowed), swimming, and fishing in the warmer months and skating, hockey, skating races and ice fishing in the winter. In the past, civic groups sponsored ice skating and ice fishing contests on the lake. Ice boating was a popular adventure on the lake from the early 1900's into the 1930's.
The no boat motor policy is enforced by the village and is a village ordinance. An Illinois Department of Public Health licensed bathing beach is at Jones Island Park, which is monitored for E. coli bacteria levels by the Lake County Health Department on a bi-monthly basis from early May through Labor Day.
Four other access points on the lake offer fishing and boat launching areas, but no beaches. There are access points on the east side of the lake that are private and one on George Street that is public to Grayslake residents. On the west side of the lake, there is one access on Bluff Street that is public to Grayslake residents.
A major recreational attraction beginning in the mid-20's on the shore of the lake was Grays Lake Park, which was developed by Pete Newhouse in 1924 on property that was once the John Hook farm. The park was on property that extended from the corner of Lake and Center streets to the lake. It was sold around 1951 and became a small subdivision and a grocery store that is now the site of a condominium with retail outlets and offices on the ground floor.
The park was a major attraction for many families. Many of them came from Chicago and its suburbs via the Wisconsin Central Railroad. The final train back to Chicago on Sundays departed Grayslake late in the evening allowing families to spend the full Sunday in the sun on Grays Lake. The families enjoyed boating, fishing, picnicking, swimming, playing baseball, etc. Playground equipment was installed and boat rental was available.
One of the first subdivisions on the lake shoreline was platted in 1901 by banker P.A. Robinson. The area had been dredged prior to the home construction. These homes faced Lake Street. Another early plat on the shores of the lake was the Tobias Subdivision in 1921, mainly summer cottages north of Belvidere Road and east of Bluff Avenue. Yet another subdivision was developed in 1921 by dentist Earl Harvey on the north shore of the lake. Many of the original summer cottages later became year-round residences.
Among the subdivisions established around the lake included: Palmer's Addition and the Robinson Subdivision, which included the present day streets of George and Lake; Moore's Addition Subdivision including Junior, Harding, South Slusser and South Seymour (although many of the lots were not located on the lake, the residents there have access to the lake via a small, vacant lot on the lake shore on Lake Street); the Harvey Subdivision on the north shore of the lake; the Lakeside Subdivision which includes Bluff, Getchell, Greenwood and Apple streets; and the Tobias Subdivision near the southwest portion of the lake.
Source of ice
Grays Lake in the winter was the source of ice for the residents and merchants in the village to keep their foodstuffs cool before refrigeration became available. Merchants or their employees would come to the lake shore with their saws and cut the chunks of ice they would need.
There was never a commercial ice operation on Grays Lake. But those residents and merchants that needed ice could go to nearby Taylor's Lake (now Highland Lake) where the Knickerbocker Ice Company operated an ice house on the shores of the lake. It was on eight acres on the east shore of the lake. It was later sold to the Consumer Ice Company and was served by a spur of the Wisconsin Central Railroad.
In 1938, Grays Lake overflowed its banks because of heavy rains and flooded much of the downtown Grayslake area. There are Grayslake Historical Society pictures of the flooded area including one of a "lake" at the corner of Center Street and Barron Boulevard (Route 83) and another showing the flooded entrance to Grays Lake Park on Lake Street.
But Grayslake was still the place to be.
An advertisement by one subdivision developer boasted: "Probably the best located tract of suburban property ever offered northwest of Chicago... Many of our residence lots are 164 feet deep, and to those who come first we can offer several lots containing as many as 10 or 12 healthy apple and shade trees.”