A century ago, the battle over the Indiana Dunes was intense. Industry was gobbling up the Dunes, and what we now know as environmentalists were trying to save what was left.
This weekend's Dunes pageant is an echo of the one in spring 1917 that was staged to make the pitch for creating a national park in Indiana. Battles over the Dunes saw some milestones 100 years ago this month.
The nation had the new National Park Service, created on Aug. 25, 1916, and its first director, Stephen Mather, was from Chicago. He immediately began pushing to create a national park in the Indiana Dunes. The Prairie Club of Chicago also wanted to see the Dunes saved. But not everyone was on board.
The editor of the Chesterton Tribune blasted the park proposal. On Sept. 15, 1916, The Lake County Times subhead said, “Chesterton Editor Mad As Wet Hen, Denounces National Dunes Park Plan.”
“Ex-Senator A.J. Bowser of Chesterton, who is among those that believe that every sand hill in the 26 miles between Gary and Michigan City will within a short time hold a great steel plant, denounces the national park scheme in this issue of his weekly, the Tribune,” The Times reported.
The Times story said there was “room enough in the dunes to pack a couple of hundred steel plants the size of the monster Gary works,” an entertaining bit of hyperbole. In fact, there was a lot of wheeling and dealing going on then, with proposals being announced without actually coming to fruition. A lakeshore railroad that would have destroyed much of the dunes was proposed 100 years ago but never built. In fact, land was set aside for another steel mill that was never built.
The Prairie Club members and other environmentalists were right to be concerned about the rate at which the Dunes were being gobbled up. The famous Hoosier Slide was gone by the 1920s, having been mined for glass being made by the Ball brothers in central Indiana.
The Chesterton editor was distressed that the land not used by industry at that time would be protected from job-producing development.
One of the efforts to promote the national park was the 1917 Dunes pageant. Today, a slick video would be created.
But back before televisions were ubiquitous, live theater was all the rage for promoting social causes.
And what a pageant it was. Held at Port Chester, about where Ogden Dunes is today, the pageant told the history of the Dunes in the setting the Prairie Club and others in the Indiana Dunes Pageant Association hoped to preserve. The aim was to show off the natural beauty of the Dunes and show its connection to American history.
The booklet produced for the pageant gives a lot of background, along with the script for the pageant and credits for the many people involved in the production.
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Mather “gives unbounded praise to the sand dunes as objects of scenic beauty and scientific interest, and estimates that from 9,000 to 13,000 acres of sand dune country should be included in the project,” the booklet said. Buying a strip of land one mile wide and 15 to 20 miles long would cost $1.5 million to $2 million ($28.2 million to $37.6 million in 2016 dollars).
“The beauty of the trees and other plant life in their autumn garb, as I saw them recently, was beyond description. They constitute a paradise for the artist and writer,” Mather’s report to Congress stated.
“In my judgment, a large section of this dune region should be preserved for all time. Science and education virtually demand that it be safeguarded forever. The dunes are accessible to 5 million people and are ideally located in the center of population,” Mather said.
Through the use of whites dressed as American Indians — the pageant wasn’t exactly politically correct by today’s standards — and interpretative dance, the sales pitch for the national park was made.
It wasn’t a great success. The weather was terrible on May 30, 1917, the first day of the pageant.
“Disappointed and Disgusted Crowds Invade the Sand Dunes – Nymphs Shiver as Rain Pours on Spectators – Repeated Sunday,” the subhead on the story read the following day.
Thousands showed up, huddled under umbrellas, but actors’ voices were ultimately drowned out by thunder.
The show was repeated the following weekend.
The national park that was promoted by the 1917 Dunes pageant didn’t materialize right away, but that didn’t stop the Save the Dunes movement.
Women’s clubs managed to get the new Indiana Department of Natural Resources to create Indiana Dunes State Park, the site where the Dunes pageant was held, in 1925. The battle to create a national park waged for four more decades.
Finally, in 1966, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore — the national park for the Indiana Dunes — was created by Congress. The law also allowed Indiana Dunes State Park to be added to the national park but only if the state agreed to donate it.
The 1917 pageant, being reprised this weekend, is a charming but often overlooked part of the campaign to save the Dunes. Learn more about today’s pageant events at https://savedunes.org/dunes-blowout/.