Indiana Dunes
Administrative History
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THE EARLY YEARS (continued)

"First Save the Country, Then Save the Dunes," 1917—1919

On December 20, 1916, Mather submitted his report to Secretary Lane who approved the report and forwarded it to Congress in early 1917. To help promote the park cause, Stephen Mather used his own money to publish and distribute the report. Thereafter, the outlook appeared bleak. Senator Taggart, the champion of the dunes in Congress, left office following his electoral defeat. Another vocal champion, Stephen T. Mather, was silenced when he suffered a nervous breakdown in the spring of 1917 and could not lobby for the park. The crippling blow came on April 6 when national priorities inexorably changed as the United States entered World War I. With revenues targeted for the national defense, any Congressional expenditure for the establishment of a Sand Dunes National Park appeared doomed. The popular slogan "Save the Dunes!" became "First Save the Country, Then Save the Dunes!" [17]

Undaunted, the National Dunes Park Association and other preservation groups were determined to continue the save the dunes campaign. Supporters took the Prairie Club's annual outdoor festival concept and expanded it into a historical pageant called "The Dunes Under Four Flags." The dunes pageant would tie the area to American history while portraying the beauty of the duneland through dance, music, and poetry. The Dunes Pageant Association, incorporated in Chicago in February 1917, commissioned Thomas Wood Stevens, president of the American Pageant Association, to compose a pageant similar to his other successful shows in Newark and St. Louis. Memorial Day 1917 was the first performance at the Waverly Beach blowout—a natural amphitheatre amidst the sand dunes—in the present—day state park. It was rained out, but the following weekend, 25,000 people jammed into the area for an unforgettable pageant with 600 actors. It was capped by a stirring grand finale, singing the national anthem. [18]

The pageant enjoyed widespread publicity thanks to area women's clubs. Newsreels spread the event throughout the country. Petitions proliferated. Each member of Congress received a copy of the pageant brochure. One author contends the pageant spawned a civil religion and a formidable political constituency for saving the dunes by creating a "community united by mutual sympathy." [19]

As United States involvement in the war deepened, NDPA members acknowledged their inability to halt the despoiling of the dunes during the conflict. They vowed to renew the fight "the minute the war is over." [20] They kept the issue before the public, however, as witnessed by what one Chicago columnist wrote in 1918:

Unless the State of Indiana or the United States takes the matter in hand, commercial plants will crowd the entire lake frontage. The matter resolves itself into a decision of humanity. Shall the million[s] of mill workers be condemned to the slavery of labor without recreation in the big plants on the lake shore, or shall they be given the privilege of open—air spaces and pure air in which to renew strength and courage in their brief hours away from the mills? [21]

While the war ended in late 1918, the Sand Dunes National Park initiative floundered badly in 1919, faced by the post—war prosperity and the mounting opposition of politicians and business interests. [22] Evidence of this fatal NDPA pessimism can be seen in the May 15, 1919, meeting of the Chicago committee. The group conceded that a prolonged educational campaign was needed to convince Congress to "purchase" the national park. After that arduous process, there would be no dunes left to save. The group admitted the NDPA should drop the national park struggle and pursue administration of the Indiana Dunes by the State of Indiana itself. [23]

Establishment and Development of the Indiana Dunes State Park

In 1919, William P. Gleason, superintendent of the Gary Steel Works and president of the Gary Park Board, succeeded A. F. Knotts as NDPA president. Gleason convinced U.S. Steel to donate 116 acres of lakeshore near Miller Woods (first called Lake Front Park, later Marquette Park) which became the first tract of the Indiana Dunes to be reserved for the public good. [24]

This success was accompanied by a feature in National Geographic magazine which showed the intricate beauty of the pristine dunes, but warned: "under commercial occupancy the growth of centuries could be destroyed in a short time. It would be a catastrophe if this opportunity for preserving an incomparable breathing spot on Lake Michigan should be neglected." [25] In addition, the Chicago chapter of the General Federation of Woman's Clubs convinced the national organization to designate November as "Save the Dunes Month" with each chapter devoting one program to study the Sand Dunes National Park proposal. Their rallying call was "Women of the East, let us join together to secure the first National Park east of the Mississippi River! Women of the West, who realize the advantages of the preservation of Natural Scenery, help us to save the finest specimens of Dune formation in the world!" [26]

The movement away from Federal involvement accelerated nevertheless. Origins of Indiana's interest in establishing its own State Park System began in 1916, when an Indianapolis business leader and municipal reformer recommended the State establish its own park system. A member of the Indiana Historical Commission (IHC—overseer of the State centennial), Richard Lieber found himself chairman of the IHC's State Park Memorial Committee. By the end of the year, Lieber succeeded in raising private funds to purchase McCormick's Creek Canyon and Turkey Run which became Indiana's first state parks. Lieber also called for the acquisition of a portion of the Indiana Dunes for a state park. In 1919, the Indiana Legislature approved the formation of the Department of Conservation and Republican Governor James P. Goodrich appointed Lieber its first director. [27]

By late 1920 or early 1921, National Park Service Director Stephen Mather and Assistant Director Horace Albright were convinced the fight for establishment of the Sand Dunes National Park was fruitless. Combined with scant political support in Indiana, the new Federal administration of Warren G. Harding ushered in a new era of Republican conservatism which nixed the plan. No dunes park bill was introduced before Congress. More importantly, Mather and Albright no longer believed in the cause. With industry's relentless push on each end of the lakeshore, Indiana Dunes was "unacceptable for National Park status." Albright recalled, "Mr. Mather was just too busy to get back to the Dunes project and he gradually came to the conclusion that the only hope for them lay in the state park movement." [28]

Mather abdicated saving the dunes to his friend Richard Lieber. Both men organized the first national meeting of state park employees in 1921. Two years later, they reassembled at Turkey Run State Park where the National Conference on State Parks formed with Mather the first president and Gary's Bess Sheehan (NDPA officer) its secretary. Indiana's park system was the model in the United States and its leader redoubled his efforts to add the Indiana Dunes to its fold. [29]

Lieber had the full cooperation of the preservation groups who favored Federal involvement, namely the National Dunes Park Association, Prairie Club of Chicago, and the Nature Study Club of Indiana. In January 1921, Governor James P. Goodrich left office, but not before he endorsed the Indiana Dunes State Park proposal. In his inaugural address, Governor Warren McCray likewise embraced the concept. McCray proposed that if Calumet interests could raise $1 million, he would ask the Legislature for matching funds. Senators Robert Moorhead and Charles Buchanan were sent to visit the dunes. Highly enthusiastic, Buchanan introduced a bill to establish the Indiana Dunes State Park.

In a 1921 speech to a duneland gathering of Hoosier newspaper editors, Lieber explained that nowhere else in the Midwest could the working class better relate to its American heritage. Lieber, a German immigrant, saw the dunes in the shadow of Chicago and Gary as a safety valve on the ever—boiling social melting pot. Reserving the beautiful dunes as parkland could only further the "Americanization" process. [30]

When the Gary chapter of the NDPA voted in 1922 to abandon the effort for a national park in favor of a smaller state park, the organization, except for some of its stalwart members, effectively died. Gloomily acknowledging the collapse of hopes for National Park Service involvement and the Indiana Legislature's reluctance to act on the state park bill, Lieber declared in his 1922 annual report that it was now "the privilege and duty of Indiana, with private assistance, to preserve this heritage and God—given spot." [31] Lieber proposed purchasing 2,000 acres along three miles of lakeshore. To finance the venture, he called for a two mill tax increase on each $100 of personal property over seven years.

To assist Lieber's campaign, a new champion emerged to save the dunes: Bess Sheehan, NDPA secretary. Sheehan was also the energetic head of the Dunes Park Committee of the Indiana Federation of Women's Clubs which represented 600 units. With this powerful lobby group behind her, Sheehan personally took the issue directly to each legislator. The capstone was a January 26, 1923, stereopticon lecture before a special joint evening session of the Legislature to which the solons' wives were invited. Sheehan spoke for two hours, eloquently presenting the argument and showing the beauty of the area. The effort paid off. On the last day of the session, the senate passed the bill with some help from former U.S. Senator Thomas Taggart. In a letter, Bess Sheehan confided her previously hidden apprehension to her friend, Catharinne Mitchell:

The people here [NDPA Gary chapter members] all gave up the struggle; seemed I was the only one who stuck. Had I known how discouraged the others were I guess I would have given up too. I only began to sense it about the time I began to dare to hope for success, and that was the eleventh hour. [32]

On March 6, 1923, Republican Governor Warren McCray signed the bill authorizing the Indiana Dunes State Park. A new battle, however, was about to begin. The Indiana Dunes had changed considerably since Stephen Mather issued his national park proposal in 1916. The Dunes Highway, or U.S. Highway 12, now provided Chicago motorists fast, easy access to the area. The new roadway, agitation over which segment of lakeshore the State intended to purchase for the park, and the platting of two resort communities (Dune Acres and Ogden Dunes) caused land speculation to escalate. Land prices skyrocketed as real estate interests acquired large tracts of land.

With the prices escalating, Lieber realized it would require more time to raise enough funds for the park. Compounding the problem, no Indiana tax money could be used until the two mill assessment expired in 1930. To save the dunes from complete commercial exploitation, Lieber could not wait that long. He and Bess Sheehan began an ambitious fund raising drive which concentrated on wealthy Calumet citizens and industrialists. Indiana schoolchildren also sent in their pennies, but for the next two years, the results were disappointing.

Lieber broke the stalemate when he invited Indiana's new Republican governor, Edward Jackson, on a dunes tour in May 1925. Jackson was so impressed by what he saw and by Lieber's plea that the area might soon be lost that the governor authorized the Dunes Purchasing Board (a division of the State Conservation Commission) to expend some of the $200,000 in tax revenue to purchase 500 acres of duneland. Both Lieber and Jackson hoped this action would induce the Calumet's entrepeneurs to take notice of Indiana's determination to establish the new park. On August 29, 1925, Mount Tom, 110 acres owned by John O. Bowers (a Gary attorney), became the first tract acquired. Bowers sold at half the market value to set a precedent. The same month, the boundaries of the new park were announced. This act was followed in early 1926 by a generous $250,000 donation from U.S. Steel's Judge Elbert H. Gary. Sears and Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald gave $50,000. [33]

On July 1, 1926, four years ahead of original plans, the Indiana Dunes State Park opened to the public. In the first three months, nearly 63,000 people came. In tribute to the man who first placed the save the dunes issue before the American people a decade before, Richard Lieber erected a bronze plaque of Stephen Mather on a stone memorial in the center of the new park. [34] Reflecting on their long struggle, Bess Sheehan, in a letter to Lieber, declared the Federal park effort had not failed, but simply took a new form:

What did happen, as I have analyzed it, was, that the encouragement and interest then gathering momentum in state officials, state organizations and a few Indiana men and women of vision, induced the Indiana leaders to believe that it would be easier and quicker to create a state park, than a federal, and with the rapidly encroaching civilization, time was very precious. I should therefore prefer this statement to convey the thought that the encouragement forthcoming from Indiana people was the determining factor in the change from the federal to the state park idea. [35]

Modest physical development of the state park took place rapidly following opening day. State workers enlarged the existing parking lot at Waverly Beach to an 850—car capacity and Fort Creek in this vicinity was channeled into a culvert. Nearby Duneside Inn, a converted farmhouse, was fashioned into a tourist hotel. By far the greatest development was the pavilion. Completed in the fall of 1929, the limestone structure included a bathhouse on the second level and a restaurant and store (to service tourists and area cottagers) on the lower level. A fire lookout tower stood at the summit of Mount Jackson as did the "State Cottage," a summer home for Indiana's governors. A campground was available to the public as were a series of trails which linked the three "mountains" of the park—Mts. Tom, Holden, and Jackson—collectively called "Tremont."

Roads were scarce in the park area. Two were in the vicinity, but only one connected to the park. Constructed in 1931, the main entrance from Highway 12 was six—tenths of a mile long amidst a 500—foot wide right—of—way donated by Samuel Insull, Jr., owner of the Chicago, South Bend, and South Shore Railroad. [36]

Other development pressures necessitated the construction of Burns Ditch (1923—26). This large drainage canal which connected the Little Calumet River to Lake Michigan decimated much of the "Great Marsh" by drying the landscape out and permitting forestation of the area. [37]

Established and developed before the onset of the Great Depression, the 2,182-acre Indiana Dunes State Park was indeed a reality. Richard Lieber intended to keep it simple; the lakeshore would be developed in one area and the interior dunes kept as near pristine as possible, "serviceable [largely] for public welfare organizations; a place where we can bring the weary and hopeless ones, especially bring the little orphans into the sunlight." [38]

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Last Updated: 07-Oct-2003