I recently visited Revere Beach on a perfect, hot and sunny July morning. It also happened to be exactly 120 years – and one day – since the beach first opened to the public. 

Now there is no mistaking that Revere Beach is city beach. There was steady traffic on the boulevard as plane after plane descended into Logan Airport. But it is also – to be sure – a city beach. Seagulls and piping plover plucked at kelp in the surf. And kids splashed in the water as old timers, like Arthur Signoriello, took it all in.

"Do I remember the old days?," he knowingly repeated my question back to me. "I remember horse and buggy on this street, those days, selling ice," he explained with a chuckle. 

By the time a young Signoriello started coming to Revere Beach way back in the 1930s, it was already decades old, the result of a novel idea by city leaders in Revere: Create and maintain a beach “for the enjoyment of the common people.”

In the shade of a pavilion overlooking the water, I met up with author and educator Keith Spencer, to learn about how this three-mile stretch of coastline five miles north of Boston came to be America's first ever public beach. 

"It was definitely unique for its time," said Spencer, whose history of Revere Beach will be released later this year. "In 1895, the legislature actually puts aside these three miles, from Winthrop, forming this crescent shape all the way up to the Lynn and Nahant border."

Once a pristine summertime home for Pawtucket Indians in precolonial days, by the mid 19th-century, the area was building up fast. There were dozens of buildings on the sand, where railroad tracks ran not far from the water. 

The task of restoring the beach to it's more natural state, for the people, fell to a little-known landscape architect named Charles Elliot, who had apprenticed for the far-more-famous Frederick Law Olmsted.  

"Eliot was really kind of a revolutionary at the time in the idea that, 'oh, you know, we need to bring back that natural environment and use it for that public enjoyment,'" said Spencer.

In just a year’s time, some 300 structures were cleared from on and around the beach, the train tracks were moved back, and huge pavilions were constructed. When it opened on July 12, 1896, it was an immediate hit.

"It was extremely well attended. The beach was packed. About 45,000 people came down," said Spencer. "And we continue to see for the next several decades, hundreds of thousands of people coming down to Revere Beach and it becomes this truly seaside resort destination."

And boy did it. There was a 1,500-foot pier with a ballroom, café and roller skating rink. Amusements, games, and concessions. Restaurants and swanky resort hotels, like the Point of Pines, where Teddy Roosevelt gave an address during his 1912 presidential campaign. 

And there were rides galore! Carousels, fun houses And of course, roller coasters – including the Lightning, The Derby Racer, and the Cyclone, a massive wooden thrill ride with an initial drop of 100 foot drop, once the world’s tallest.

At its peak, millions visited the beach annually; hundreds of thousands on busy days. 

But as with other seaside resorts – like Coney Island and Atlantic City -– Revere Beach fell on hard times through in the late 1960s. hot dog stands replaced by honky-tonk bars, and a seedier vibe. Most of what remained of its heyday was leveled by the Blizzard of 1978.

"I think death knell is probably the perfect way to describe it," said Spencer. "You really start to see a decline in attendance down here. It was no longer the Revere Beach that people had remembered."                   

Since then, a slow and steady effort to reinvigorate the beach has pressed on. Spencer points out small victories, like rebuilt pavilions and a new footbridge from the T to the beach -- and large ones, like a successful effort in recent years to clean up the beach.

"For the last five years, 95% of the time this water quality is fantastic, Our public beach here is cleaner than Waikiki Beach in Honolulu and cleaner than Miami Beach."

The hope is that a clean beach and events like the annual International Sand Sculpting Festival will continue to build crowds. And those crowds will, in turn, attract a new generation of businesses. 

And while it may never recapture the magic of its golden years, that’s ok with our old friend Arthur Signoriello.

"I don’t know if it’s getting any better or any worse," he said. "Things change, and they change and you can’t do nothing about it. That’s just how it is."

To be sure, the once majestic pier is now just an outcropping of rocks. The rollercoasters and ballrooms are no more. But, at the outset, the beach was launched for a simpler purpose: To give the common man access to the wonders of nature.

Signoriello told me that, as a kid, he used to sleep on the beach, to get away from the grime and bustle of the city and because it was "better than home." And today, some 80 years later, Janerit Sambrano Gonzalez, a 10-year old Bostonian, said she loves coming to Revere Beach, unaware that she is one of countless, young and old, who've spent a precious few hours here over the past 120 years, free of charge in the North Atlantic.

"I could let everything out I have inside, just swimming." she said. "A lot of problems with school, and homework for the summer, and those things....I just forget all those things and I just keep swimming," she said.