In the very early 20th century, Cedar Lake was a rowdy place. Prostitution and drunkenness were rampant at some of the rougher resorts. Then a Chicago preacher stepped off the train and looked around.
Moody Church Associate Pastor Erving Yale Wooley – E.Y. to his congregation – got off the Monon train in early summer 1914 in Cedar Lake. He looked around and asked, “What is this place?” It was Monon Park.
“Hallowed Grounds: The Cedar Lake Bible Conference Grounds,” by Daniel John Hoisington, tells the story.
In 1882, the Louisville, New Albany and Chicago Railroad Co., which everyone knows as the Monon, extended its line from Chicago to Indianapolis. It built two deports near Cedar Lake, a large lake sculpted by a glacier as it departed Indiana during the last ice age. The railroad built a picnic area and a pier, and rented rowboats. The gamble paid off.
By 1895, the park attracted as many as four passenger trains a day during the summer. After the railroad company reorganized in 1897, it bought 20 acres and opened a park with a new depot, a bowling alley, dance hall and refreshment stand.
With all these amenities, the park offered activities that could keep visitors occupied for an entire day.
In 1907, Marshall Field’s set up an exhibition game there between the White Sox and Cubs. More than 7,000 fans packed the bleachers.
Alcohol soon watered down civility, and crowds got rowdy. A Chicago bartenders picnic reportedly was so troublesome that the train crew unhooked the passenger cars in Hammond so the riders could “dry out,” the book said.
A June 13, 1910, story in The Lake County Times told of a riot at Monon Park. An officer was badly hurt and several people injured during the “sensational and shameless riot.”
“The affair took place where so many of its predecessors have occurred, at Monon Park, the Monon railway’s pretty park on the west side of the lake where seven coach loads of picnickers came out from Chicago to spend the day. The picnic was given by one of the painters unions from Chicago,” the story said.
By 1914, the Monon management wanted a solution. That’s where Wooley stepped in.
Wooley envisioned a place where Moody Church could enjoy the beauty of the lake and countryside and hold summer camp meetings and Chautauquas, which were becoming popular. Railroad officials loved the idea, as long as they continued to get paying passengers traveling to the site. They struck a deal – if Moody Church would operate the grounds for five years, paying all the bills, the Monon would turn over the land to the church in five years.
Moody laymen invested $10,000 in new buildings and other improvements to the site.
They laid the groundwork for what is now Cedar Lake Ministries.
In February 1915, the church got a new pastor, Paul Rader, who helped the church grow rapidly. He used the new Moody Conference Grounds at Cedar Lake for summer conferences and youth work. Cottages popped up then, many of which still stand.
Train travel to the site was common then, because it took Chicagoans four hours to drive to the site by car on unimproved roads back then, said Bob McRae, executive director of Cedar Lake Ministries.
The Monon offer to donate the park to the church was reported by The Lake County Times on Aug. 9, 1916.
“In past years Cedar Lake and Monon Park were well known as a favorite training quarters of Jack Johnson, negro champion, and a rendezvous much in favor with the sporting world, The Lake County Times reported. “Every summer saw numerous picnic throngs at Monon Park at which liquid refreshments flowed freely and hilarity of a questionable sort reigned supreme.”
On Aug. 16, 1919, The Lake County Times said the Monon turned over the land, just as it had promised four years earlier. The beautiful grounds were drawing 400 to 500 people a week during the summer, the story said.
In April 1923, the Cedar Lake Conference Association was organized and took over management of the camp. The laymen who ran that association leased lots for summer cottages. Many have since been converted to year-round use.
In August 1926, Indiana Gov. Ed Jackson spoke at the Disciples of Christ conference and taught a men’s Bible class on the Cedar Lake resort’s grounds, the book said.
Billy Graham is reported to have been a guest at the resort. It has drawn guests from around the world.
Last year, Cedar Lake Ministries celebrated its centennial. It’s now a year-round operation, hosting corporate retreats as well as religious conferences and conventions. The chapel is a popular spot for weddings. It’s also used for reunions.
You’ll see modern facilities, but be sure to check out the Torrey Auditorium. It was renovated in fall of 2000, but it is one of the oldest Monon railroad buildings on the site. Today, it has air conditioning and other comforts. The building is a registered national historic landmark.
There are dormitories as well as an RV park available.
The site is at 13701 Lauerman St., Cedar Lake. Its website is www.cedarlakeministries.org.