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More than 100 years ago, the Region received a boost from a man with a not-so-impeccable reputation.

Thirteen libraries sprang up in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties between 1904 and 1920, thanks to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and the dedication of local individuals willing to work to boost literacy in their communities.

"Libraries are a vital part of any community. They are a great equalizer in society. Everything is free, no matter who you are," said Rachael DeLuna, director of Whiting Public Library, one of the five remaining Carnegie libraries in the Region that still operates as a library.

The others are East Chicago's Pastrick branch, Hebron, LaPorte and Westville. In addition, of the original 13, four have been repurposed including East Chicago's Indiana Harbor branch, Crown Point, Hobart and Lowell; the remaining Carnegie buildings in Gary, Hammond and Valparaiso have been demolished.

"He had a real impact as far as the state goes," said Jacob Speer, Indiana state librarian, adding that during the two decades Carnegie offered grants, 164 libraries were constructed in Indiana — more than any state in the country.

Who was Andrew Carnegie?

Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant. Born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1835, the Carnegie family immigrated to America in 1848, after steam-power technology caused his textile-worker father to lose his job. The family settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, according to a biography.

Ending his own education when he arrived in the United States, Carnegie found employment at age 11 as a bobbin boy at a cotton factory, earning $1.20 a week, according to the biography.

But Carnegie was influenced in those early years by spending Saturday afternoons at a local private library at the invitation of a wealthy Pittsburgh man, according to Digital Public Library of America.

"In his autobiography, Carnegie remembers that, as a child, 'I resolved, if wealth ever came to me, that it should be used to establish free libraries,' " according to the DPLA.

Carnegie did become wealthy, first working for the railroad and then founding Keystone Bridge Co. and, later, Carnegie Steel Co.

Generous philanthropist, harsh boss

His journey to becoming one of the United States' top industrialists, however, did not come without controversy.

In 1892, workers struck his Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel mill.

With his consent, his general manager locked out workers and hired some 300 Pinkerton armed guards. A battle between the striking workers and the Pinkertons left at least 10 dead. The months-long strike also broke the union, according to

Carnegie's name also is often tied to the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889, which killed more than 2,200 people. He, along with other Pittsburgh industrialists, were members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club along the banks of the Little Conemaugh River.

The club was responsible for maintaining a dam, but, according to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, they not only failed to do so, but also made harmful modifications to the dam, leading to its failure.

In 1901, Carnegie sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million. Morgan quickly merged Carnegie's company with a group of other steel companies to form U.S. Steel.

Carnegie libraries

While Carnegie began funding libraries prior to selling his steel company, he accelerated his efforts following the sale.

In all, according to the DPLA, Carnegie funded construction of 2,509 libraries world wide, including 1,795 in the United States.

"He left quite the legacy across the United States, specifically in Indiana," said Speer, adding that communities who applied for the grants "had aspirations of having a first-class library."

Carnegie also required local communities raise 10 percent of the costs of construction, limited architectural styles and required each library be engraved with an image of a rising sun and the phrase, "Let there be light."

"He was very much of the belief in assisting people to be self-starters. It was a boot-strap approach to create your own dream," said Brad Miller, director of the Northwest field office of Indiana Landmarks. "Communities had to have a buy-in."

"He was pretty adamant that the local community would support the library," said Fonda Owens, director of the LaPorte Public Library, which opened in 1919. "It shows there was a real focus on education and learning which continues today."

The first NWI community to receive funds from Carnegie was East Chicago, which received $60,000 to build two buildings, one that now serves as the Pastrick branch on Chicago Avenue and the former Indiana Harbor branch on Grand Boulevard, which was renovated in 2015 and reopened as the East Chicago Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.

The final library to be funded in the Region was in Lowell in 1918. The town received $12,500 to construct a library at 512 E. Commercial St. The building served as a library until 1969, then became the town's town hall until it was sold in 2002 for retail space.

The Carnegie libraries still standing and in use for their original purpose have been renovated and expanded over the last century.

Owens said the LaPorte library has been expanded from its original 5,000 square feet to its current 30,000 square feet, with the last renovation completed in 2017. An effort with the latest remodeling project aimed to restore some of the flavor of the original library, she said.

The local history room's remodeling exposed some of the original exterior brick. Some of the arches and windows duplicated some of the keystones in the original building. The original entrance is accessible on Maple Avenue, Owens said.

DeLuna said Whiting's library underwent renovations in 1980 and again in 2000, and is double the size of the original library, but still maintains some of the aesthetics and ambience of the original building.

The front entrance on Oliver Street remains original, DeLuna said, as well as the fireplaces and the upstairs alcoves.

Miller said many of the Carnegie libraries on are the National Register of Historic Places, and that the buildings themselves, display "craftsmanship that no longer exists."


Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.