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Cedar Lake: Resort and home through the ages

Derby Hotel, circa 1923. East side of Cedar Lake where Sandbar Grill is now located. It was built about 1904.

CEDAR LAKE — Lake County residents drive to Chicago for work and pleasure, but a century ago, the flow was in the other direction.

This town once hosted trainloads of Chicago tourists looking for a boat ride, picnic, a cool dip and a getaway among the affordable summer cottages and lodges that once dotted Cedar Lake's shore.

One of these hotels, known as the Lassen Resort, was assembled from an "ice barn" and boarding house for workers who had harvested ice from the lake for Armour Bros., which needed it in pre-refrigeration days to preserve its nationally known meats.

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Cedar Lake: Resort and home through the ages

Lassen's Hotel, circa 1923. At the location of the Park of the Red Cedars/Cedar Lake Town Complex. The hotel was built in 1920.

The Lassen family operated the hotel, dancing pavilion and restaurant built out over the lake, until shortly after World War II, according to the Cedar Lake Historical Association's website. Today it's the Lake of the Red Cedars Museum and offers a glimpse of Cedar Lake's former tradition as a resort destination for Chicago's high society.

The lake, a haven for farmers, fishermen and developers of every stripe, had its origin in the Wisconsin Glacial Episode about 12,000 years ago when glacial-melt water carved it.

Native American Paleo-Indians and archaic woodland people occupied the area in the millenniums before the historic tribes, such as Potawatomi. But Scott Bocock, the association's historian, believes the Potawatomi were latecomers.

"From the research I've done, the earliest ones recorded by the French were the people of the Illinois confederacy and the Miami," Bocock said.

He said French explorer Robert de La Salle was the first known European to visit Northwest Indiana about 1680 as he was crossing the continent looking for a passage to the Far East.

Bocock said settlers first started making land claims around Cedar Lake in the 1830s. 

"Their last names were Wilkinson, Wilson and Fancher," Bocock said. "One of the first prominent families in Cedar Lake was the Ball family -- Hervey, Jane and their son, Timothy Ball."

Timothy Ball would write a history of the county, mentioning Cedar Lake and nearby West Creek woods as hunting grounds Indians were reluctant to leave. "Having seen Cedar Lake myself in 1837, when its waters and the large marsh south of it literally swarmed with fish," Ball wrote.

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Cedar Lake: Resort and home through the ages

Sigler House, circa 1906. Was built about 1890 on Cedar Lake's western shore.

Settlements appeared around the lake, such as West Point, a community drawn on paper near 133rd and Morse Street by Judge Benjamin McCarty to capture the prize of being named the seat of county government.

Solon Robinson's Crown Point won that competition, and West Point faded, but eventually, the Coleman Hotel was built there to house not politicians but tourists who flowed in after completion of the Monon Railroad.

John Shedd, who later helped finance construction of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, ran another of the ice-harvesting companies. Dr. William Scholl started his famous shoe-making business here.

Chicagoans who had bought second, summer homes here and then became impoverished by the Great Depression were forced to sell their Chicago homes and live year-round here in their cottages on 25-foot-by-25-foot lots. Their septic systems, little more than a 55-gallon drum that eventually rusted out, oozed sewage into the lake, he said.

The pollution prompted several efforts to incorporate the homes and businesses around the lake into a town, but efforts in 1914, 1933 and around 1950 were resisted by residents who didn't want higher taxes.

Eventually, Dr. Robert King, "considered the father of Cedar Lake," and others won an Indiana Supreme Court decision in the late 1960s to create a town government and apply for federal grants to build a sewer that now pumps wastewater to a treatment plant in Lowell.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.