Although Portage wasn’t officially incorporated as a town until 1959, its rich history extends back to the 1830s, when early European settlers first came to the area.
They first arrived with their families in 1834. More families followed gradually and on April 12, 1836, Portage County was created, covering about 36 square miles in Northwest Indiana. An election was held three weeks later with 29 men casting ballots.
“The Pottawatomie were the first settlers to this area,” said Kathy Heckman of the Portage Community Historical Society. “Farmers found many arrowheads and other Indian implements on their land. The early families to this area included Blake, Crisman, McCool, Robbins, Wolf, Dorr, and others buried in our four township cemeteries of Blake, McCool, Robbins and James/Schrock cemeteries.”
Early businesses included a saw mill and cheese factory, with plenty of farming done on the fertile land where crops grew and cattle grazed. Large quantities of sand were also shipped to Chicago after railroad development began in the 1850s.
“Before it became a town, Portage consisted of three villages of McCool, Crisman and Garyton,” said Heckman. “My dad was born in Garyton and although I was born in the Gary hospital I was raised in Garyton. These communities combined to become the town of Portage and later the city of Portage.”
Although the railroads enabled farmers to ship crops, livestock and dairy more easily, it didn’t bring huge growth to the population of the area. While Gary, Hammond and East Chicago thrived, it wasn’t until after World War II that there was significant growth in Portage.
“I can remember Portage before we had any stop lights and Willow Creek Road ended at Lute Road where the Lute family farmed and had a big beautiful barn. They had barn dances occasionally at Lute's Barn in the 1950s,” said Heckman. “On the southwest corner of Willow Creek Road and Central was Slanger's Farm, and Butch Slanger would stop traffic for his cows to cross to the field where the shopping area and Burger King are. Mr. Slanger either sold or donated his land to build the police station, the library, the post office and city hall.”
During World War II some of the farmers went to work in the labor and steel industries and it was the beginning of big changes to the largely agricultural area. Later farmers would sell off land that became subdivisions to provide housing for the boom that the area saw as new jobs became available. In 1959, National Steel’s Midwest Division opened a plant that provided 1,600 jobs in Portage Township. The Port of Indiana was built in 1961, providing even more jobs. Another 6,000 jobs became available when Bethlehem Steel Company added a facility located partly in Porter Township in 1963.
The population skyrocketed from just over 2,000 in 1950 to close to 12,000 in 1960 and it’s continued to grow every decade since. According to 2010 census reports, the population was 36,828 at that time.
Even through the decline of the steel industry in Northwest Indiana, Portage continues to thrive. The history of the city of Portage and Portage Township has been preserved in documents and displays by the Portage Community Historical Society.