BURNS HARBOR — Bill Meyer, 88, remembers walking from his house to Lake Michigan when he was a a teen. He lives next door to the home he grew up in, but he can no longer take that walk.
It isn’t because of his age. It’s because the area itself has changed.
This 50-year-old town is sliced and diced by highways, forged by industry and independence.
The dunes Meyer climbed are gone, leveled by Bethlehem Steel to clear the way for its new steel mill in the 1960s and by NIPSCO for its Bailly Generating Station.
In the beginning
Meyer was 16 when his family moved from East Chicago’s Indiana Harbor area to the far northwest corner of Westchester Township in 1945.
“We had all gravel roads here. There were no paved roads except (U.S.) 12 and 20,” he said.
His parents bought a one-bedroom cottage and added rooms to it over time. He did the same with his own house, adding new bedrooms whenever his wife got pregnant.
A short walk from Meyer’s two-acre property — the National Park Service bought the third acre along the Little Calumet River when Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was developed — is a home that has two log cabins that have been joined by a series of additions. One of the cabins is from the area’s early days; the other was trucked north from Brown County.
At least one other house in town had a refrigerated boxcar at its core, with rooms added on over the years, he said.
Marilyn Arvidson has roots here that go well back into the 1800s. Her great-grandparents, John and Christina Brickner, bought a log cabin and farm in November 1875. Her grandfather was born in that log cabin, she said.
Eventually, her grandparents built a big farmhouse along Crocker Road that was moved when Ind. 149, which ran along Crocker Road, was widened to four lanes.
Westport Community Club
Arvidson’s father, carpenter Adolph Arvidson, and architect Albin Rak were instrumental in the construction of the Westport Community Club building that served as the glue that held the area together.
Westport got its name from Westchester and Portage townships, with members from both areas participating in the club activities.
Arvidson’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, as were others at the time. They belonged to a home economics group under the direction of the Purdue Extension Service.
The women met in each others’ homes but decided to build a clubhouse in the mid-1950s, according to clippings from The Vidette-Messenger available at nwi.com/archives. Men were allowed to join the club, too, and the building was built with volunteer labor.
“That club was really the center of activity in the area,” Meyer said.
The club had all kinds of activities — holiday parties, dances, Scout and 4-H clubs, Lions Club and of course the community club.
“It was a place where the whole neighborhood gathered,” Meyer said. “That’s how everyone got to know everyone.”
The smorgasbord, twice a year, was legendary.
“All the food was homemade,” resident Dawn Ruge said, and the women put their best effort into the cooking.
“That was a big fundraiser for the community club,” Ruge said, even though prices like $2 for adults seem like a pittance today.
With one in the spring and the other in the fall, it also was an opportunity to meet the candidates, who couldn’t resist the opportunity to mingle with diners on the last weekend before an election.
Becoming a town
When Bethlehem Steel bought up property to build its new steel mill, the rural area drew the attention of neighboring municipalities that wanted to annex it. Portage was especially eager, even attempting to annex the town after the residents decided to incorporate.
The suitors were investigated by the Westport Community Club’s annexation committee, but in May 1965 club members decided they should create their own town, with lower taxes than Portage. Bethlehem Steel officials, of course, encouraged that idea.
Then came the first big decision — what to name the town.
Westport, the name of the community club, was a favorite for the new town, but rejected when residents learned there already was a town by that name in southeast Indiana.
New Westport, Meadow Brook, Salt Creek and Burns Harbor were suggested. Burns Harbor was chosen even though the actual harbor by that name is inside the city of Portage. Bethlehem had named its mill the Burns Harbor plant, and the town followed Bethlehem’s lead.
In September 1967, the Porter County Board of Commissioners created the new town of Burns Harbor, population 1,313.
“The town includes 500 acres owned by Bethlehem Steel Corp., for which the firm plans a high-rise office building and other facilities,” an Associated Press story in The Times said.
Town’s early years
The town itself, however, had more modest facilities. Its first town hall was an old farmhouse, followed by a double-wide trailer, Town Council Ray Poparad said. The current town hall was built in the 1980s.
When residents voted on the town’s name, they also picked the first town council members.
The council first picked a town marshal, then hired out road and drainage projects until a street department could be formed. Even fire protection was outsourced until the town could form its own department, Poparad said.
Bethlehem’s dreams for its steel mill were larger than the reality. That helped the town, because development was stymied until the town tapped into Bethlehem’s oversized sewage treatment plant to serve residents and new development.
There were other stumbling blocks along the way.
In April 1974, The Vidette-Messenger reported, the town was asked to consider providing transportation for animal warden Lowell Dougherty, “whose personal car sustained $200 damage when someone locked a dog in it.”
Dougherty said the car was parked in his garage at the time.
“He said he has found animals tied up at his home and that his home is private property and is not designated as a depository for animals,” the story said.
When Interstate 94 was built, bisecting the town, residents found themselves cut off from one another.
But then a barrow pit used to build the highway was turned into a swimming hole, and Lakeland Park was born. The park now has a new playground as well as ball diamonds and beach.
The 1980s were difficult for the steel industry, and all of Northwest Indiana felt the economic impact of the rapidly shrinking number of employees in the steel industry.
The biggest shock of all for the town, however, came in October 2001, when Bethlehem Steel failed to pay its property tax bill and announced it was filing for bankruptcy.
The mill was 90 percent of the town’s property tax base. The Town Council had to make drastic spending cuts, including laying off half of the police department’s uniformed officers.
Since then, however, the town has grown. With four subdivisions under development, things are looking up.
Like other towns, Burns Harbor is attempting to create a sense of place.
“We don’t have a downtown,” Poparad said. “Our downtown is (Ind.) 149 and U.S. 20.”
The town is trying to create a downtown, but it’s also eager to attract new businesses elsewhere.
A former bank is an eyesore. “That’s basically our only blighted piece of business property that’s still standing,” Poparad said.
His advice for new businesses is to ask the town even if the business leaders aren’t sure about locating there. Master Link Concrete Pumping got a 10-year tax abatement when the company acquired and improved the site that used to be Dean’s Porter County Dodge in the 1970s.
Make an offer, Poparad said, because the town is eager to make deals.