Griffith grew up around the railroad junction on what is now South Broad Street.
Five rail lines formed the junction and more than 180 trains passed through daily, in what was one of the largest railroad interlockings in the world.
Coming in from the west, the Grand Trunk Western crossed the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern (EJ&E) and New York Central Joliet Branch, the EJ&E branch headed east toward Porter. The Erie Lackawanna and Chesapeake & Ohio joined south of the junction and then crossed the other three.
“Griffith was a big hub for railroad lines and a lot of the city’s history is connected to that,” says Brad Miller, director of Indiana Landmarks Northwest Field Office in Gary's Miller Beach area.
It’s a history easily found today.
“Because our railroad history is important, several of our historic buildings related to earlier railroad times have been preserved and moved,” says John Volkmann, Griffith clerk treasurer.
And several are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Grand Trunk Depot, constructed in 1911 by the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, the last of the town’s four depots, and the three-story EJ&E Interlocking Tower built by the railway in 1924 to control rail and auto traffic on Broad Street, where it stood for 75 years.
“Both were moved to the Griffith Historical Park and Railroad Museum,” Volkmann says of the park at 201 S. Broad St., where railroad artifacts including several restored rail cars, a Pullman sleeping car and Caboose No. 503 are on display. The old depot is now a museum run by the Griffith Historical Society.
The town’s dedication to railroads was so intense that instead of being named for Chicago real estate developer Jay Dwiggins who, with his brother Elmer laid out the town in 1890 (with plans to call it Dwiggins Junction), it most likely is for E.P. Griffith, who in 1870s mapped the terrain and set the grade for the Grand Trunk Western. For a while it was known as Griffith’s Section, before being shortened to Griffith.
Before their company went bankrupt, the Dwiggins brothers had big plans for Griffith, advertising the area as “Chicago's Best Factory Suburb.”
By the time Griffith was incorporated in 1904, it still was pretty sleepy—the population was about 500. It added 23 more by the time of the 1910 Census, and was served by two saloons, a small foundry, a hotel, two schools, a glove factory and a collection of homes. The most significant of these that still stands is a Queen Anne-style built around 1875 by Peter Govert, one of the early settlers.
By the 1920 Census, Griffith's population was 630.
That same year, two entrepreneurs with banking experience built the Griffith State Bank, which according to the National Register of Historic Places application form, is a Colonial Revival style building with a temple-like appearance adorned with such flourishes as a pedimented entry and an interior barrel-vaulted ceiling. Other significant details include a terrazzo floor, Doric columns, a raised stone portico in the center bay and friezes with engravings of money bags, quills and ledgers. Opening in 1921, the bank was on the southeast corner of Main and Broad Streets, a prominent corner in the town’s commercial center.
Miller notes that it was recently placed on National Register of Historic Places.
Despite being in the rail hub, the bank closed temporarily after the stock market crashed in 1929. After reopening, it survived four more years before closing for good. In 1940, the building became the Samuel B. Woods Branch of the Griffith Public Library until a new facility was built in 1967.
Over the next few decades, numerous businesses operated in the bank including a sign painting company. In need of preservation and restoration, the Griffith State Bank was purchased by Breanne Stover, who grew up in Griffith.
“I had always loved that building and told my husband that we should buy it if it became available,” says Stover.
She is familiar with old buildings. She bought the Great Lakes Naval Academy's laundry facility and moved it to Griffith, to operate Our Textile Hive, an industrial laundry providing services for contractors at the steel mills and other clients. Stover and her husband, Ed, who owns Ca Strata, a historic preservation construction company and has worked on such restoration projects as the Chicago Lyric Opera House and Wrigley Field, are repurposing the bank into an event space called The Bankquet and will move her store Bee & Me Boutique into the building.
“The restoration is really coming along,” says Volkmann. “They’ve tuckpointed the building and put on a new slate roof.”
The Stovers also hired Knesek Screen, Window & Lamp Repair in Crown Point to restore the bank’s original windows.
Stover lobbied for the historic designation with the help of Partners in Preservation, an Indiana Landmarks program.
“It helped cover half the cost of having a preservation consultant successfully nominate the property to the National Register” says Miller. “The bank will continue as part of the town’s history.”