The land is special.
That’s why Ken Schoon has written his second book about the land south of Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline. “Dreams of Duneland: A Pictorial History of the Indiana Dunes Region” is his fifth book and the second on the subject of the dunes. His first, “Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan,” was published a decade ago. (Both books are available from the publisher, Indiana University Press)
“This area will always be important because of Lake Michigan,” he said. “It’s amazing to see the reaction of people who come here and see the lake for the first time. It floors people – lakes are typically small features that you can see across – you don’t get a feeling of the enormity of the lake until you’re standing on the shore.”
With roots in the Indiana Dunes region, degrees in geology and education, a fascination with history and decades of teaching experience, Schoon, who recently retired from Indiana University Northwest, begins his first book with a story about “Acquiring a Sense of Place.”
His story begins with the birth of his grandfather, Jacob Schoon, in 1873. During his lifetime of 101 years, Jacob Schoon saw the Calumet Area change “from a quiet, primitive and rural area to one of the world’s greatest manufacturing centers.”
We all have a story that’s related to the “land” in one way or another.
Michigan City was the first town on the Indiana shoreline of Lake Michigan, Schoon said.
“When it was established in 1836, Michigan City’s rival was Chicago,” he said. “Transportation – highways, harbors and then trains were a big factor. Generally, people had to go around Lake Michigan to reach Chicago. Since Michigan City was on the New York side of the lake, it had rail transportation to the east before Chicago. But the reason Chicago grew was the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which in 1848 had already made it the only shipping link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River system.”
In the early days, many people in Michigan City earned their living by fishing. However, after what Schoon estimates to be less than 50 years of fishing long Lake Michigan’s shoreline, by 1890 it had already drastically declined.
“At that point, Michigan City had been for 60 years dumping the stuff it didn’t want into Trail Creek that flowed into the lake,” he said. “The mindset everywhere was that once sewage was carried away, it was no longer their problem.”
Likewise, before completion in 1900 of the Sanitary and Ship Canal in the city on the other end of the lake, the sewage in the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, very near the water intake cribs for the city's drinking water supply.
In addition to untreated sewage, chemical pollution and the dumping of sawdust from saw mills, overfishing and dams across many of the lake’s tributaries all contributed to the decline of the fish population to the point where commercial fishing is no longer allowed on Indiana’s portion of Lake Michigan, according to Schoon.
Like Michigan City, Miller steadily grew as more travelers made their way west by stagecoach and rail. Then, in 1906, U.S. Steel came to Gary.
In “Calumet Beginnings,” Schoon describes the impact of industry on the area.
“The Pullman Company had what was for many years the largest railroad passenger car manufacturing plant in the country. Thornton had the world’s largest commercial limestone quarry. U.S. Steel’s Gary Works was the largest integrated steel mill in the world when it was built. Universal Portland Cement at Buffington Harbor was the world’s largest cement plant.”
With jobs came money and prosperity. Workers became residents of various Indiana towns with doctors and grocery stores and schools and everything else following close behind. Many current residents of northwest Indiana can trace their roots back to one or more of these major employers in one way or another.
A story charting a different path dates back to 1898, when Henry Chandler Cowles earned his Ph.D. studying vegetation succession on the Lake Michigan sand dunes. The Indiana Dunes – specifically one of his field study locations and the nearby wetlands now preserved and named in his honor – are often referred to as the birthplace of ecology.
Efforts to preserve the Indiana Dunes began soon after. Plans for a “Sand Dunes National Park” stretching 25 miles along Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline were put on hold when America entered World War I in 1917. Unwavering grassroots support resulted in the preservation of the Indiana Dunes State Park in 1923. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was finally established in 1966.
In the foreword of “Dreams of Duneland,” outgoing Superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore wrote:
“Once a place of rolling sand dunes, pristine rivers, wetlands teeming with wildlife, and the crystal-clear waters of an enormous lake, the area of Northwest Indiana has seen a variety of forces tugging to make the land conform to their individual visions. Today, this land shows the results of those struggles between industry and nature, homes and recreation, isolation and inclusion. Enormous steel, chemical and power-producing factories stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a national park and a state park... Whatever the future holds for Indiana’s Duneland, you can be sure that it will reflect the decisions and actions of the people of the region.”