Ecology and conservation in the Dunes
Beginning in the first years of the twentieth century, while U. S. Steel and private developers were leveling the duneland in Lake County, Indiana, Dunes preservationists began calling for the establishment of a national park further along the Porter County lakeshore. Advocates of the park included scientists and progressive reformers from throughout the region, but the largest number of supporters came from Chicago. The goals and tactics of these environmentalists reflected contemporary trends toward scientific rationalism, a developing wilderness ethic, and progressive urban reform efforts.
Henry Chandler Cowles
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Henry Chandler Cowles, professor of botany at the University of Chicago, attracted scientific interest in the Dunes as a focal point of American ecological study. His research and publications highlighted the region as an ideal locale for examining the interactive evolution of plant communities and land forms.
Prairie Club Bulletin, 1917
A diverse group of Chicagoans--including those who sought spiritual rejuvenation from nature, progressives who hoped that contact with nature would act as a curative for the effects of urbanization, and scientists who believed that evidence of the process of evolution could be found in the ecologically diverse duneland--established the Saturday Afternoon Walks Club specifically dedicated to escaping the confines of the city during weekly hikes. The Indiana Dunes of Porter County soon became their favorite destination, as a site out of the reach of urban development but only a short train ride from Chicago. With participation in the hikes increasing from 30 to 300 within the first year, and to more than 4,000 within two years, Walk Club members decided to establish a more formal organization to coordinate activities: the Prairie Club.
Dunes Under Four Flags, 1917
On Memorial Day in 1917, Prairie Club members staged a massive festival on Waverly Beach in the Dunes in an effort to generate public support for a national park. Attracting an audience of more than 40,000 enthusiastic supporters from throughout the region, the pageant represented the pinnacle of early Dunes preservationists' optimism. In an amphitheater of sand, nearly a thousand actors portrayed Indians, European explorers and fur traders, U. S. soldiers, and city planners, while dancers performed the roles of waves, wind, nymphs, birds, and "tree hearts," in a representation of "the march of civilization to and through the region." The final scene of the pageant--in which the developers of City West (a city founded in the 1830s to compete with Chicago) realize that their dream city is doomed to failure--concludes with a clear message on behalf of Dunes preservation. "I never believed down in my heart," one of City West's developers admits, "that we could tame these sands to city ways . . . They're beautiful, but God made them just to play in the breeze."
Indiana Dunes, n.d.
Although early twentieth-century efforts to establish a national park in the Indiana Dunes failed, in 1923 preservationists convinced Indiana legislators to create a state park that stretched for three miles along the lakefront in Porter County. The remaining thirteen miles of the county's shoreline remained open and soon became contested ground, as industrial interests, residential developers, and environmental preservationists battled for control.
"Ogden Dunes Sandpiper," 1939
As a result of the popularity of the Indiana State Park and the accompanying increased recreational use of the shoreline, more affluent Chicagoans and Hoosiers began to recognize the Dunes' potential as a retreat from city life. While the state park provided members of the working class with a place for temporary escape, private homes along the lakeshore served as refuges for the wealthy and an investment opportunity for real estate developers. Towns like Ogden Dunes, which was incorporated in 1925, grew slowly at first (by 1930, the town had fifty permanent residents). This 1939 newsletter, edited by Helen Reck, includes references to new residents as well as advertisements for land sales by Nelson Reck. In the 1950s, several of these residents, most notably Dorothy Buell, led the fight for Dunes preservation.
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