For most people, dwelling in the past is not a good idea, but it seems to work for Cynthia Ogorek. The historian and author has spent the last 20 years sifting through books, official records and photos in libraries and historical society collections in order to gain a better understanding of often overlooked aspects of local history.
A former reporter, Ogorek says, “I got frustrated with how little room there was to tell the whole story with newspapers and magazines.”
After earning a master’s in U.S. History from Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, Ind., Ogorek put her investigative skills to work, researching the history of Calumet City, Ill., her hometown, and helping to found the Calumet City Historical Society Museum.
Soon after, she contributed writings to a biographical dictionary, “Women Building Chicago 1790 to 1990,” a project championed by championed by the Chicago Area Women’s History Conference, starting in 2000.
Ogorek spent the years that followed assembling facts and photographs for three books published by Arcadia Publishing.
“I was at the women’s history conference in a booth across from Lake Claremont Press, and they were pushing Libby Hill’s book about the Chicago River,” Ogorek says. “I found myself thinking, ‘There’s more than one river in Chicago!” Later that afternoon, she shared these thoughts with an Arcadia Publishing representative. The conversation resulted in Ogorek’s first book, “Along the Calumet River.”
“I guess I chose that river because I have this attitude that’s a bit South Side versus North Side, suburb vs. city,” she says. “A lot of Chicagoans overlook the important role played by the Calumet Region and so much that is to the south and east. So many people have the attitude the world ends at (Chicago’s) 95th Street.”
Next came Ogorek’s book about the nation’s first hard-surfaced transcontinental highway, “The Lincoln Highway Around Chicago.”
Her latest effort for Arcadia Publishing, “Along the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Rail Line,” released in 2012, has garnered awards from the Illinois Women’s Press Association and the Illinois State Historical Society.
The book explores the creation and operation of the Chicago and Northwest Indiana region’s 104-year-old inter-urban rail line. The South Shore hugs the rim of Lake Michigan from Chicago’s Millennium Station at Randolph Street to Michigan City, then veers east across resort communities and farm fields to South Bend’s Michiana Regional Airport. “I got the idea while giving tours on the train for groups,” Ogorek says. “A friend set me up to do this. I learned so much, it gave me the idea for a book.”
One Saturday last May, Ogorek rode the South Shore from Hammond to South Bend, offering back-stories about landmarks along the route:
--Burns Ditch used to serve as home to a yacht club, though not pictured in Ogorek’s book.
--Despite the best efforts of the first National Parks Service director Stephen Mather and others to establish the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1916, national designation wasn’t assigned until 1966.
--The Beverly Shores station with its Spanish-tile roof was built with living quarters for the ticket agent and his family. That’s now a museum.
--Developer Frederick Bartlett planned the Beverly Shores community to look like an exclusive Florida community, promoting Spanish revival style homes. These never took hold on a grand scale due to the Great Depression.
--The Indiana State Prison in Michigan City arranged for inmates to work for local manufacturers until 1904.
-- Amelia Earhart landed on the test fields of Bendix Corporation of South Bend, when the company was developing flight technologies.
Among the most telling landmarks along the South Shore are the numerous substations that regulate electricity used by the trains. These represented money in the bank to Sam Insull Sr., who purchased and improved the South Shore Line in the 1920s. “Insull owned several electric utilities,” Ogorek says. “Which is why he also purchased electric rail lines, which used plenty of electricity.”
As a child, Ogorek rode the South Shore Line with her mother. She witnessed the bustle of the Hegewisch station at Christmas and at quieter times when passengers lingered over coffee and sandwiches served on the marble-topped lunch counter before boarding trains.
“Those times have passed,” Ogorek says wistfully, but adds, “It’s quite remarkable that the South Shore remains so vital. Ridership seems stronger than ever.”