Last updated: December 29, 2022
Defender of the Dunes
Shy before her involvement in saving the Indiana Dunes, nature-lover Sylvia Troy metamorphosed into an indomitable defender- wielding newly learned strength and assertiveness on behalf of a cause. She was a resounding voice in securing the park’s first expansion bill, and for nearly a decade she vehemently protected the Dunes from further development and barrage of threats while leading the Save the Dunes Council at a critical time in the park’s infancy.
Quote by her:
“I view the Save the Dunes Council as a model of citizen action. This is the course democracy must take in the future to get results- individual involvement. The alternative is to sit back and let the powers that be make all the decisions”
Quote about her:
“I’ve never seen anyone so singleminded in my life— I don’t think she thought of a thing except the Dunes, and she would wear you down. There was no way you could avoid being impressed with her arguments, and if she had a weakness, it was that disagreement with her was the equivalent of domestic treason.” -Tom Dustin
Sylvia Cranberg was born November 4th, 1921 in New York City. She grew up in the Bronx, and discovered her love for the natural world on her annual trips to the Atlantic Coast with her mother. Sylvia adored the East Coast’s beaches, dunes, and ocean. She fondly remembered “one year we lived in a tent for the summer.” Miss Cranberg attended an all-girl public high school in the Bronx, and then attended Hunters College for women; both choices she attributed to for being “terribly shy.” She found refuge by hiking and biking in the nature of the Pennsylvanian countryside.
She graduated from college in 1944 and moved back to NYC and worked as a social worker while at night school getting her masters at Columbia. Sylvia met and married Jack Troy in 1946, and she “had to quit work” at school when she had her first child and the young family moved to Fire Island as Jack assumed the position of doctor.
Two years later in 1948, Sylvia and Jack moved to Whiting where they were surprised to find an industrialized lakefront. “On the map it looked fabulous. It was close to Chicago’s large medical centers and cultural activities and close to the shores of Lake Michigan, which I knew were beautiful from articles I had read in the National Geographic,” she recalled. But they found the industrial influences depressing, and quickly found respite at the Indiana Dunes State Park which provided a twice-a-week escape with her husband and daughter. “The Indiana Dunes are simply magnificent, it has a quietness, it’s simply lovely.”
Sylvia and Jack decided to move to Munster before finally relocating to Beverly Shores. Around 1960 Sylvia attended a dinner sponsored by Dorothy Buell's Save the Dunes Council at Jackson’s Restaurant in Miller. She recalled, “I was immediately impressed with the quality of the people, and I approved of their objectives. They were all nature lovers— non-political, non-activist, not organizers, not joiners, not cause-oriented. They sought out the Dunes because they loved it. They all came from somewhere else and joined together out of that love. As a group they lacked personal animosity and self-serving motivation. They trusted each other and were utterly devoted to Dunes preservation.” This initial gathering inspired Sylvia wholeheartedly.
As her first project for the Dunes, Sylvia began the Calumet chapter of the Save the Dunes Council.
“The people in Lake County [Indiana] already knew what industry—how industry could destroy the environment of an area. And they saw what happened to the lakefront in Lake County; and many of the people had lived there long enough to remember how beautiful the lakefront had been in Hammond. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh thirty years ago, the lakefront in Hammond was just beautiful.’ So they had already experienced what heavy industry can do to the area…”
Sylvia expanded the Council’s reach in Lake County whose members contacted thousands.
In 1962, the group lost one of the most important parcels of the dunes it was fighting to protect. Members were in a Senate meeting when they learned Bethlehem Steel had begun leveling the dunes they were there to save. “Terricide, we called it,” said Sylvia. “The killing of land. Even as Congress was deliberating on a bill to preserve the very area, industry unleashed its bulldozers to preserve the very area, industry unleashed its bulldozers and leveled those magnificent dunes.” She reflected:
“It was a low point of the struggle and a point at which the Council seriously considered giving up on the whole thing. They decided, instead, to fight harder and to save as much unspoiled land as they could – in big and little pieces – along the whole 15-mile shore.”
In a later interview she thought back to the Council’s early hopes:
“We were hoping to save it all. And we were very optimistic. But this was prior to 1970 when Earth Day began and the full flower of the environmental movement hadn’t really hit. If it had, I think we could have saved it all.”
From 1965-1967 she served an elevated role in Save the Dunes as Dorothy Buell’s assistant. “We spent a lot of time in church basements, school rooms… anyone who would listen… We learned about how Congress operates, how to prepare testimony.”
“We stressed the natural values of the area, the scientific value,” Sylvia recalled.
Sylvia helped garner the labor union’s support. “Organized labor came over to our side… These were all people who lived in the area and used the lakeshore. I don’t think we could have done it without the help of the unions.” Sylvia explained the sided conflict and Senator Paul Douglas’ invaluable support:
“Douglas set to work on a compromise the opposition couldn’t refuse. The state of Indiana had won its battle for a deep-water port near Burns Ditch, but it still needed 25 million in federal funds to build the harbor’s outer breakwater. Douglas lined up enough votes to block the funds unless a vote was also taken on park authorization. The battle raged. Was the issue ‘picnics versus paychecks?’ Should they ‘steel more of the dunes?’”
The Save the Dunes Council made personal visits to all 435 House members and all 100 senators. They taught themselves lobbying skills, how to prepare testimony, learned the importance of congressional committees staff, and the intricacies of the legislative procedure. In November of 1966, the Council’s efforts were rewarded with the authorization of an Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Sylvia proudly proclaimed, “It is a people’s park created by people’s interests.”
The Council assumed that it had achieved its goal and considered disbanding. Its members soon discovered, as their predecessors had learned when they won approval for the state park, that a park remains theoretical without money to pay for it.” In May of 1967, Sylvia urged locals to write their congressman to urge the appropriation of funds for the national lakeshore; “the Lakeshore cannot become a reality until funds are appropriated for the purchase of land.”
As Dorothy’s husband’s health failed and her responsibilities at home increased, Sylvia took more of the workload. In 1967, a reluctant, rather naive Sylvia Troy took charge of Save the Dunes, a position she would hold until 1976. This change, coupled with Save the Dunes losing their tax-exempt status from lobbying for the park, set the stage for a more forceful Save the Dunes.
“Sylvia exuded fire and determination.” She believed the Council’s “prime purpose is to defend the resource – to protect the park and its natural values which so many have worked so hard, so long, and so determinedly to preserve.” In 1967, Save the Dunes’ lobbying campaign secured an initial 1 million for land acquisition of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Sylvia recalled an early battle in a later publication by Shirley Heinz Land Trust:
In 1967, after the National Lakeshore has been approved by Congress but before much parkland had been purchases, the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend Railroad, which runs through the park, approached the National Park Service with a proposal to build an 800-car freight yard on 26 acres within the park boundaries between U.S. Highway 12 and South Shore tracks. Outrageous? We thought so, but without our intervention the freight yard would most likely be there.
Extensive meetings followed for nearly two years with the president of the railroad. Save the Dunes Council, and the National Park Service participating…
The wrangle continued, finally culminating in the South Shore presenting the Park Service with a written contract for the park’s approval of the freight yard. We insisted the matter first required the agreement of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Advisory Commision…At a momentous meeting of the commission at the Red Lantern Inn in Beverly Shores, all of the parties concerned were present, including the attorney for the Save the Dunes Council. The scene was set.
Our attorney read the contract aloud and proposed specific alternate wording to include environmental safeguards and protections for the park. He was backed by the commission. The railroad objected to the changes and withdrew the contract. This was a rare victory with no compromises for the park. The importance of a citizen watchdog group to protect the park was affirmed.
Sylvia wrote to Paul Douglas reflecting on the affair, “We had thought it hopeless. Our only explanation is persistent pressure by a great many people. The moral here, apparently, is never give up.” In 1968, Sylvia spoke out about building an airport in Chesterton, fearing the environmental impacts it would cause to the dunes and transportation issues to the area. “We have fought threats to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore from the land and from the water, and now we must fight this threat from the air.” The airport never materialized.
In early 1970, Sylvia discovered that private industry was actively sand-mining dunes within the boundary of the lakeshore, “...she worked herself into the kind of rage that produced instant results. She demanded that the NPS regional director view the damage…” That May, the park service’s regional director came to meet with Sylvia and Charlotte Read of Save the Dunes to discuss areas of concern. Sylvia told him, “Look, they’re hauling sand out by the truckload— you’re entrusted with the park and you have to do something.” She recalled, “I made a great big scene, said this has got to stop and it’s going to stop and that’s it.” Thanks to Sylvia, with evidence of illegal sand mining, officials agreed to initiate declaration of taking to protect the resources. “Troy grew to see clearly that the council’s two roles, legislative stimulation and agency oversight, would of necessity have to continue.”
Sylvia was a conservationist who contended that communication between the government and local groups left room for improvement in the early years of relations concerning Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In 1971, the National Park Service unveiled their plans for the development of West Beach. The Council had to travel to Indianapolis to find what the park’s development plans were. “An hour before daybreak, Save the Dunes Council President met future Executive Director Charlotte Read and Porter County Chapter Izaak Walton League President Herbert Read to begin the trip.” Up until then the plans had remained closely guarded with no public input.
They were left in shock as the plan was unveiled:
“...two Olympic size swimming pools… two steel bathhouses…a three-story parking garage…a pavilion, sports fields, winter coasting slopes, a manmade dune, a bandshell and amphitheater, an ice-skating rink, basketball courts, a viewing terrace overlooking the swimming pools, a general field game area, a boating and fishing lagoon, five day-use shelters, storage and maintenance facilities, an administration building, and sixteen residential units for NPS employees.”
After the meeting quickly ended, the conservationists went up to view the plans closer-up. After saying the plans were not public, the officials collected the documents and left. “They act like they’re handling C.I.A. documents,” Charlotte Read quipped, shaking her head. “No, they act like we’re the enemy,” Troy remarked.
Charlotte commented after their gloomy lunch together, “This is too dangerous to believe. We’ll change those plans…”
“They protested to the newspapers, to their congressional supporters, and to the Secretary of the Interior… A planning advisory group incorporating local and regional planning agencies as well as area citizens’ groups was created; and a new, more acceptable General Management Plan for park development eventually emerged.”
“Park service attitudes have subsequently changed. Local public hearings on General Management Plans are now required throughout the National Park system…” Today, local and regional groups share enormously improved dialogue with both government and industry.
In August of 1970, NIPSO filed an application for a permit to construct a nuclear power plant adjacent to its fossil-fuel Bailly generating facility at Burns Harbor. That October, Sylvia wrote an article against NIPSCO’s new Michigan City coal-burning power plant, fearing for its environmental impact and beautification of the shore. She alerted the public of two other power plant projects planned on the lakeshore; a Marquette plant in today’s Miller Woods and the Bailly nuclear plant next to Cowles Bog. “Let us preserve what remains of our beaches for public use and recreation for this and future generations!” The most active group that opposed the facility, known as “Bailly I,” was the Porter County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League led by Herb and Charlotte. They, along with Sylvia Troy and Edward Osann were instrumental in the decade-long battle to halt a nuclear power plant in the Dunes’ backyard. Eleven years after NIPSCO revealed their project, they announced they had abandoned their plans. “The anti-nuclear groups dragged Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceedings to a point where it was no longer feasible to build the plant.” “Ultimately the project became a victim of one lengthy delay after another,” said NIPSCO chairman of the time, Edmund Schroer. Sylvia reflected on their win, “I think it shows individual citizens have power if they wish to use it. It shows our system works and what democracy is all about.”
Sylvia alluded to a fiery contention shared by many conservationists and Save the Dunes members about Burns Harbor in an October 1971 Chicago Tribune article. The United States General Accounting Office had just provided Congress with a “scathing report” on Burns Harbor.
“Pollution from existing and future development in the Burns Waterway harbor area, unless adequately controlled, will have a detrimental effect upon the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore…The state of Indiana has not provided the manpower nor the financial resources necessary to adequately control the sources of air and water, pollution in the harbor area.”
“The GAO slapped the wrists of the Army Corps of Engineers for failing to investigate more thoroughly whether a change in the plans making the harbor smaller than originally expected has jeopardized economic justification for the harbor.”
“The report confirms everything that the conservationists have been saying about the project since the 1930s… From a taxpayer’s viewpoint, the report confirms our original estimate that the port would be a private port for two steel mills, not a public harbor, and there was no economic justification for the harbor.”
On May 7, 1972, The Times of Munster reported that in March, Sylvia Troy had gone to Washington D.C. with other region environmentalists and reversed an earlier decision not to provide an expansion report for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Officials came in May to conduct the field work to make the report, enabling the continued push for a park expansion.
Sylvia was a staunch advocate for funding the lakeshore. In May of 1973, she went to congress to testify when the park’s funding went from $2.3 million to $74,000.
In 1973, the lake experienced high water levels. The Beverly Shores area experienced exacerbated erosion due to the breakwater at Michigan City disrupting long-shore currents. That August, Save the Dunes Council filed a suit in U.S. District Court seeking to force the Army Corps of Engineers to modify the Michigan City breakwater; Sylvia fought for a permanent solution. “Mrs. Troy maintains that even the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the breakwater, admits it is a major factor in causing beach erosion to the west.” In fall of 1973, the Army Corps awarded a $2.5 million contract to place boulders along about 2.5 miles of shoreline. The boulders act as a barrier to protect remaining coastal dunes.
In 1972, Sylvia expressed concerns over the Cowles Bog Wetland Complex. The Council’s senses were heightened to the importance of buffer zones after it was discovered that an Indiana Toll Road Commission's salt pile was “bleeding” into the national lakeshore’s Pinhook Bog wetland. A corridor of man-made ponds known as the “greenbelt” exists between Cowles Bog and its industrial neighbors. “Uses are allowed in this that are incompatible,” Sylvia said. The area posed a serious risk of coal ash-pond seepage contamination, something that Sylvia and the Council alerted the park service and other officials about after they witnessed accelerated dumping in the area in 1973.
“‘They are apparently determined to destroy their section of the bog and worst of all endanger the remainder of the bog before legislation is even considered by Congress,’ Mrs. Sylvia stated.”
Despite the council’s desire of having no discharge in the area, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) offered to construct a dyke around the ash dumps to prevent pollution. Although an ecology committee had suggested a clay dyke, it was made with permeable sand. Save the Dunes Council would fight to include the “greenbelt” property in the 1976 and 1980 expansion bills. Although the greenbelt was never officially acquired by the national park, in the last expansion bill of 1992 stipulated that the property owner is required to maintain the natural state of the greenbelt, and must notify Congress three years prior to changing the character of the property.
Today, the EPA is prepared to clean up two hazardous waste sites adjacent to the “greenbelt,” a buffer zone between industry land zoned “high impact use” and National Park’s Cowles Bog Wetland Complex. “The cleanup approach that has been selected as the final remedy is intended to balance the need to eliminate contamination to IDNP while preserving its fragile ecosystems. Invasive or potentially destructive cleanup methods have not been selected…”
Sylvia developed contacts, expanded her associations with environmentalists, scientists, unions, and people in the media. She became a formidable asset to congressional hearings, where she would “work herself into a state of indignation sufficient to unleash the desired reaction at the desired time.” She successfully led the council through it’s first park expansion bill in 1976. On October 19, 1976, the South Bend Tribune quoted her:
“It is truly impossible to pay tribute to all the thousands of Americans who have worked so long and hard for the dunes… We have learned in our quarter-century of operation that preserving and protecting the Indiana Dunes does not end with the passage of a bill, but that continued citizen participation is necessary to make sure that future generations will enjoy one of America’s great natural resources.”
In the same year Sylvia stepped down from Save the Dune’s helm, she wrote, “It’s going to be a constant battle to maintain the quality of the water and the air… The whole history of the dunes has been one of compromise.” In July of 1981, the Vidette Messenger of Porter County reported that Sylvia and Charlotte had formed the “Northwest Indiana Clean Air Coalition” in response to a July 17 bill that granted steel mills three more years to comply with the Clean Air Act. By 1983 the coalition was bringing 20-30 environmental groups together to discuss and improve air quality.
Sylvia was one of the founders of Shirley Heinze Land Trust in 1981; in 1995 she said, “It’s a legacy to the future.” She was a life-trustee for the organization. In 1984, Sylvia was published in “The Indiana Dunes Story, How nature and people made a park.” At that time she was a trustee and the secretary for the group, who sponsored the writing project. Her chapter tells the story of the struggles and triumphs of citizens preserving the Dunes:
“Efforts to save the dunes are as old as the earliest attempts to destroy them; and interestingly, even the first steps to ensure preservation were the result of citizen initiative and grass roots action. The battle began when improved transportation radiating out from the fast-growing city of Chicago made the south shore of Lake Michigan accessible simultaneously to scientists, nature lovers, and commuters to factory jobs.”
Over the years, Sylvia reflected on the Council’s victory in securing a national park. “It is nothing short of miraculous… It’s just amazing the park is here when you think of the early opponents. Industry opposed it because they wanted development; they wanted to make money. Porter County would have been a duplicate of Lake County if they had had their way.”
At an interview in her home in Beverly Shores, Sylvia reflected:
“...I don’t think Paul Douglas could have done it without the help of Indiana citizens. I think I’m realistic about what we did, and it was a great learning experience, it was a great growth experience for me personally, and it was a great learning experience about how government operates. And it was a fascinating microcosm, you know, to watch a bill move through Congress, totally absorbing and fascinating experience… I think that the whole council experience changed me dramatically. Well, it was a vehicle for my own personal growth. It was a two-way— I frequently thought that the dunes did more for me than I did for it. [Laughs] It was sort of a two-way process. I mean, I learned about my own capabilities, about my own strength, about my own assertiveness on behalf of a cause.”
“We just took it step by step. Somehow it was a convergence of all these gifted people in various fields and it worked beautifully.” Sylvia spoke of the council in 2021, “It was very much a family and still is.”
Sylvia passed away on June 25, 2020 at the age of 98. Her fiery passion lives on in the individuals who fearlessly fight for what they believe in.
The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant.