There was a time when Miller Beach, just a short zip down the interstate or toll road now, was almost impassable – an area of swampland, sand dunes and dense vegetation. When the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad (later the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad) first laid tracks in 1851 connecting Chicago to Michigan City, the terrain was considered the most impassable of any attempts yet.
Beach property was plentiful then but no one wanted it and in the mid 1800s, squatters built homes (really shacks), pulling great amounts of fish from the waters, foraging the dunes for cranberries, wild strawberries and raspberries and mothers worried about eagles swooping down to snatch their babies as they worked with their husbands to haul in fishing nets from the lake.
Though I grew up in Indiana Harbor, the even more industrial half of East Chicago, I spent weekends as a teen at Marquette Park and Wells Street beaches in Miller Beach where the landscape, if you were careful and only looked north and east, the waters sparkled and the shoreline was seemingly endless sand and dunes. My brother married a Miller Beach girl whose maternal great great grandparents had moved to America in 1863 from Hygsby, Sweden first to Lake Station and then to Miller in the late 1860's. Their son Charles ran Miller's first general store.
After graduating from the University of Chicago’s law school, my brother’s daughter Linda Simon moved back to Miller Beach with her husband Greg Shade. Their three sons would become sixth generation Millerites. History has always been my family’s passion and so Linda and I decided to cull family photos, collect the stories of long time Miller Beach residents and spend time in the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest, putting together a history, told through vintage photos, for our book Miller Beach (Arcadia Publishing 2012).
We were delighted with the stories we learned and the photos we found – silent movies shot in the dunes which meant camels shipped by railroad from Chicago and led through town to the lake; Chicago area environmentalist coming to explore the beaches – the women dressed in long flowing white dresses, the men in suits; the amazing Drusilla Carr, one of the first beach squatters who added a dance pavilion and beach cabins to begin the tourism boom and fought the steel mills to save the beachfront from the encroaching steel mills and the adventures of Octave Chanute, who tested his flying machines (and also advised the Orville and Wilbur Wright) in Miller Beach.
Now as we go to book signings, people share their stories about Miller Beach. Little did I know, when I basked in the sun and swam in the waters of Wells Beach, the fascinating history of all that had gone on before.
Where to buy the book:
Available in local stores, including Barnes and Noble in Valparaiso, Costco in Merrillville, Lake Street Gallery in Gary, Marquette Perk in Gary and online from arcadiapublishing.com, amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Retail price is $21.99.