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Poets, Ports and Politics – The Long Battle for a New Kind of Park

NPS Director Steven Mather and others tour Indiana Dunes in 1916.

National Park Service Director Stephen T. Mather (far left foreground) and others on an October 31, 1916, inspection tour of a proposed Sand Dunes National Park. Image from Photographic Archives, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore celebrates its 42nd birthday on November 5th, but it joined the national park system only after a lengthy labor and difficult delivery. Interest in a national park on the southern shore of Lake Michigan can be traced back to at least 1899, and according to the park's administrative history, it was the first area considered for addition to the newly-established National Park System by the agency's first director, Stephen T. Mather.

In October 1916, Mather conducted hearings in Chicago to gauge public support for a possible "Sand Dunes National Park." While there, Mather and another early leader of the NPS, Stanley Albright, traveled out to the Dunes, and Albright subsequently submitted a report to the Secretary of the Interior.

In his administrative history of the park, NPS historian Ron Cockrell notes that Albright's report on the 1916 visit "represented a potential turning point for Federal land acquisition policy, for the Park Service director proposed the government purchase the land for a national park from private interests, a practice hitherto verboten by Congress….Mather identified a strip of lakeshore twenty-five miles long and one mile wide for acquisition for a Sand Dunes National Park."

An apparently promising start toward park status was derailed by the First World War, local politics and then the Great Depression. Five decades would pass before legislation authorizing the park was signed on November 5, 1966, and by that time, "progress" had taken a serious toll on about half of the twenty-five miles of lakeshore identified by Mather.

The story of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a classic example of debates that continue to the present day: parks vs. "progress," preservation vs. recreation. It pitted conservationists and advocates of a new kind of national park against powerful business and political interests. A famous American poet even got into the fray. Carl Sandburg wrote:

The Dunes are to the Midwest what Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite is to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity. Once lost, the loss would be irrevocable.

In addition to a desire to preserve the area's natural resources, there was an element of "working-class pride" in the effort to establish a park in the dunes. The park's administrative history includes this quote from a circa 1918 newspaper clipping, "Miss McCauley's Column." The author also took a fairly broad view of what was considered a "national park":

"Should public regard or private means procure it for the country, it will be the only national park within reach of millions of workers for weekend pleasure. The Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Adirondack, White Mountain, and other national parks always will be sacred to the few who have money and plenty of time. Here is a chance for the powers that be to show regard for the working people of the middle West, who are, after all, the pillars of America. Could there not be at least one national park within reach of the masses of the citizens and their children?"

There was ample cause for concern by those who valued the area's scenic and recreational values. A park publication notes:

In 1916, the region was booming with industry in the form of steel mills and power plants. Hoosier Slide, for example, 200 feet in height, was the largest sand dune on Indiana's lakeshore. During the first twenty years of the battle to save the dunes, the Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana, manufacturers of glass fruit jars, and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company of Kokomo carried Hoosier Slide away in railroad boxcars.

Once the Indiana version of Mr. Peabody's coal train had hauled away the sand, Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) bought the denuded area as the site for a power generating station.

Although key components of a possible park continued to be lost to development, a small area was set aside by the state in 1926 as Indiana Dunes State Park. A determined private group, the Save the Dunes Council, conducted a national fund-raising effort, and succeeded in purchasing and protecting small parcels, including the 56-acre Cowles Tamarack Bog.

Senator Paul Douglas became a champion for a national park, introducing the first bill proposing the area in May 1958—and unleashing a torrent of criticism, since Douglas was from neighboring Illinois, not Indiana. Douglas was described by opponents as a "Chicago carpetbagger plotting against Indiana's economic development, and working to establish a park to placate the minorities of Chicago." The battle for this park was clearly not going to be an easy one!

The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 linked the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, spurred renewed calls for a major port and other industrial development in the area, and intensified controversy over the proposed park. The hopes of park supporters were raised in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy supported a plan for a National Lakeshore. In what has been called the Kennedy Compromise, a plan was eventually developed which linked authorization of the park with the construction of the Port of Indiana.

Progress on Indiana Dunes stalled once again after Kennedy's death, and it took the support of Lyndon B. Johnson to help finish the job. In his 1965 State of the Union address, President Johnson declared that additional parks, seashores, and recreational areas were needed to meet the needs of a growing population. Among his proposed additions were two units on the Great Lakes: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Even with White House backing, it was a fight to the end. House Interior Committee Chairman Wayne Aspinall stated:

Exhaustive hearings were held by the National Parks and Recreation Subcommittee both in the field and in Washington. Every conceivable argument for and against the proposal was heard. I can honestly say no other park proposal has been given more intense consideration in this session of Congress than has been given H.R. 51.

Passage of the bill in 1966 created the Lakeshore on paper only. Unlike many earlier parks, which were created simply by transfer of existing federal lands to the NPS, Indiana Dunes would only become a reality after a grueling and sometimes contentious process of land acquisition. It would take another six years for the following notice to appear in the Federal Register:

Notice is given … that there has been acquired within the boundaries of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore an acreage which is efficiently administrable for the purposes of said Act and, therefore, the Lakeshore is hereby established. September 8, 1972 Rogers C. B. Morton, Secretary of the Interior.

Trivia fans take note: this notice was actually published on September 20, 1972, so you can take your pick for the date the park was "established." Thirty-two more years would pass before the last piece of Lake Michigan shoreline property within the boundaries of the park was acquired.

So, what was the result of all that work? As you'd expect at a national lakeshore, there are opportunities for swimming, boating and fishing, but the park also offers a variety of other activities, including bird watching, hiking, horseback riding, camping and winter activities. True to the vision of supporters, the park has an active environmental education program for students from nearby urban areas.

The area's natural resources may come as a surprise. Indiana Dune's 15,000+ acres are home to more than 1,135 native plant species, and the park ranks seventh in plant diversity among all the national parks in the United States. You won't do any mountaineering on Mt. Baldy, but the lakeshore's largest moving dune is an impressive 126 feet high and is moving inland at an average rate of four feet per year.

In the end, about thirteen of the twenty-five miles of dunes and shoreline originally proposed for protection in 1916 by Stephen Mather were included in the park, which now receives about 2 million visits a year. More information for planning a visit is available by mail, phone or e-mail.

Congressman J. Edward Roush, sponsor of the House bill that finally resulted in this park, described part of the reason supporters persisted for so many years:

If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than with sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them with a glimpse of the world as God really made it, not just as it looked when we got through with it.


Current Superintendent Costa Dillon has been giving talks throughout Northwest Indiana and the Chicago area about the park's tremendous challenges to adapt to the growing industry, increasing population base and the development that goes along with it. He's hoping to re-engage a new set of dedicated individuals to take over for the groups that helped establish the park. A main goal should be to have the growing population take pride in the park again, especially in the Chicago area since it's so easily accessible by public transit, and to capitalize on it being a "national" park for everyone to enjoy. There is clearly a lot of work cut out for Costa and the park so that the next 42 years continue to keep the wonderful natural resource and historic sites intact.

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