Indiana Dunes was designated the 61st National Park in 2019, having been a National Lakeshore since 1966. The park encompasses roughly 15,000 acres, including 15 miles of Lake Michigan shore and completely surrounds Indiana Dunes State Park. There are a number of areas that are not actually connected to the main park area or to each other. An urban, industrial area is a rather unusual location for a National Park and there is definitely a bit of disconnect when one drives in and out of the park past steel mills and industrial power plants.
We have found dunes in other parks, such as Great Sand Dunes and Kobuk Valley much more awe-inspiring; forests more varied and expansive in Acadia and Great Smoky Mountains; and swamps more intriguing in Congaree and the Everglades.
However, Indiana Dunes is home to an impressive biological diversity. Over 1,100 flowering plant species and ferns and more than 350 bird species have been observed here. Located on the southern tip of Lake Michigan, the park is an important feeding and resting area for migrating land and waterbirds.
So perhaps the bigger story of this National Park lies in its history and the efforts to restore this piece of nature in the midst of ever-encroaching industrialization and development.
By the time, Indiana Dunes became a part of the national park system in 1966, people had made many changes to the natural areas. Many white pines were logged in the 1830s and 1840s and, as a result, species composition of the forest changed and dune erosion occurred. By the late 1800s farmers began moving into the area and drainage of wetlands began. Around 1900 industry became a major factor, residential communities sprang up and land use was modified drastically. By 1966, close to 1,000 commercial building and homesite were located within what became the park’s boundary.
The legislation which authorized Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966 resulted from a movement that actually began in 1899 with an article by Henry Cowles, a botanist from the University of Chicago, detailing the intricate ecosystems existing on the dunes. In 1908, Cowles, Thomas Allinson, and Jens Jensen formed the Prairie Club of Chicago and proposed a portion of the dunes be protected from commercial interests and be maintained in pristine condition. In 1913 the Prairie Club built a beach house for members and beachgoers erected tents and rough wooden cottages for housing during their summers in the dunes. Resorts and cottages sprang up. This type of development created problems but was minor in impact compared to industrial sand mining.
Hoosier Slide, 200 feet in height, was the largest sand dune on Indiana’s lakeshore. During the first years of the battle to save the dune, the Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana, manufacturers of glass jars, and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company of Kokomo carried Hoosier Slide away in railroad boxcars.
In 1926 Indiana Dunes State Park opened, small in size and scope, and the push for a national park continued. The whole battle went on for another forty years with numerous competing interests but the tireless efforts of Dorothy Buell, an Ogden Dunes resident and English teacher, and Paul H. Douglas, U.S. Senator for the State of Illinois, resulted in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore becoming a reality. The 1966 authorizing legislation included only 8,330 acres of land and water but subsequent expansion bills increased it to more than 15,000 acres.
A number of historic structures have been preserved within the park including the Chellberg Farm and the Baily Homestead.
The Chellberg Farm represents a typical 1890 to 1910 Swedish and Northwestern Indiana farmstead. It tells the story of the Swedish immigrant family who lived and worked there for three generations.
The Bailly Homestead, a National Historic Landmark, the home of Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein (1774-1835). In 1822 Bailly set up his fur trading post at the crossroads of several important trails, providing a meeting place for Native Americans and Euro-Americans. It was one of only two stopping places for travelers between Chicago and Detroit. During the fur trading years the homestead consisted of six log structures which served as living quarters, kitchen, storehouse and warehouses for the trade goods. In 1833 Bailly received $6,000 for his services in counseling the Potawatomie Indians in an agreement called the Chicago Treaty and he began construction of the main house. It was completed after his death and the brick house was built in the late 1870s for Bailly’s granddaughter.
Within the National Park is the Century of Progress Architectural District. The 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago was touted as an “exposition of science and industrial development.” One of the exhibitions was Homes of Tomorrow with new building materials, designs and technology. At the end of the fair Robert Bartlett, an Indiana real estate developer, purchased five of the homes and relocated them across the lake. Four of them were transported by barge and the Cypress Log Cabin was dismantled, trucked to the site and reassembled. In the midst of the Depression, Bartlett’s dream of creating an upscale resort community failed.
In 1966 when the area became a part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, homeowners became lessees and, with little incentive for maintenance, the homes suffered. At the turn of the 21st century, Indiana Landmarks leased the homes from the Park Service and subleased them with protective covenants to people who restored them. Four of the five have been restored under this arrangement. The state of the fifth presents extra challenges and needs extensive and expensive rehabilitation. Once a year, the homes are opened to the public but unfortunately, we weren’t there at the right time for the tour.
Indiana Dunes National Park is taking a proactive approach to mitigating damage done in the past. Intensive programs to remove invasive, exotic species and replant native species of a local genotype as well as restoration of the area’s prairies and savannas to provide critical habitat for endangered species are a part of this approach. An extensive wetland complex called the Great Marsh is being restored. Indiana Dunes National Park feels like a work in progress.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm