city west: lost metropolis of the indiana dunes

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When the dune country at the south end of Lake Michigan was opened to settlement in the 1830s, land speculators and profiteers drew up plans for new towns along virtually every creek and river, as “times were big for a boom,” it was said.  Early on, as several of these towns vied to become the great metropolis of the lake and dominate the shipping and mercantile interests of “the Northwest,” the playing field was wide open and Chicago’s future as a great city was never taken for granted.

Chicago, in fact, was not much of a town at the start of the 1830s.  As an imperiled place called Fort Dearborn, stuck on the edge of a hostile prairie, it had been abandoned outright just two decades earlier, at the outbreak of the War of 1812, when its besieged inhabitants – in a scene similar to one in The Last of the Mohicans – struck out for the relative safety of Fort Wayne in Indiana Territory.  The doomed Chicagoans did not make it much more than a mile down the beach when the Potawatomi attacked, capturing some and killing others during a battle in the dunes.  The military post was not immediately re-built, and by 1833 Chicago’s population numbered just 200, rising to about four thousand by the end of the decade.  Its name did not help:  Chicago was named for a skunk-infested swamp.  Beset by the same diseases, fires, and other misfortunes that led many frontier towns to an early grave, “So far as men could see,” its rivals later said, “Chicago had no cinch at the outset.”

Michigan City, Indiana, another lakeshore settlement, was considered a strong rival.  The lumber that built early Chicago came almost entirely from the other side of the lake and the construction of new cities throughout that region depended on small lumbering camps and mill towns that sprang up in Indiana and Michigan.  The sands of the Indiana Dunes at first held great potential for success as emigrants came to the western Great Lakes before the Civil War and vied to make their town the great emporium of the West.

Indiana, however, was not originally given a lakeshore.  Though what had been called Indiana Territory extended at one point all the way north to Lake Superior in what is now Minnesota, by 1816 when it was formed as a state, the size of Indiana’s territorial sway had been drastically reduced.  When Michigan Territory’s southern boundary was drawn, that line extended across the end of the lake to the border with Illinois.  Jonathan Jennings, Indiana’s territorial representative in Congress and later its first state governor, successfully had the boundary moved north ten miles to give his state a sliver of lake frontage.  Twenty years before railroads revolutionized America, Jennings, like so many others, envisioned a future full of sloops, schooners, canals and slow travel by water.  By 1840, Michigan City was Indiana’s only port on the Great Lakes.  But it was not the first settlement on the lake.

The first European establishment thought to have been built in the dunes was a French post called the “Petit Fort,” perhaps a name given it by later historians who did not know what the French actually called it.  Built sometime around 1750, this was a minor outpost at the mouth of Fort Creek, sometimes called “Wood Creek.”  Like Joseph Bailly’s later trading post, built just a few miles away in the 1820s, the Petit Fort was probably the private residence of a French fur trader, perhaps with a small chapel attached to it for the use of itinerant Catholic missionaries.  After victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, the British took control of this small wooden fort, but by December 1780, had already abandoned it, as the surrounding area was quite remote.

During the Revolutionary War, the abandoned fort was the site of one of the only “battles” (really a skirmish) fought in what became Indiana.  Augustin de la Balme, a French-born fur trader at Cahokia on the Mississippi River, who opportunistically supported the American rebels, set out during the autumn of 1780 to plunder British posts in Michigan.  La Balme met a gory end at the hands of the British ally, Miami Chief Little Turtle of Kekionga (Fort Wayne), the most powerful man in this corner of the Great Lakes, who slaughtered La Balme and all his men in a battle along the headwaters of the Wabash River that November.  A separate raiding party, fourteen-men strong, plundered British Fort St. Joseph (later Niles, Michigan) before striking out westward along “the Route of Chicagou.”  This was the Sauk Trail, an ancient path, which led them to the Petit Fort.  On December 5, 1780, the Cahokia raiders were overtaken there by a British lieutentant and Indian warriors, who “killed four, wounded two, and took seven Prisoners.  The other Three escaped in the thick Wood.”  Three of the prisoners were brought back to British Detroit.  The rest were taken captive by the Indians.

 

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(Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb, http://www.inportercounty.org)

 

When the Quebec-born trader Joseph Bailly came to Indiana in 1822, he settled less than three miles from the mouth of Fort Creek.  His failed port town, “Bailly”, platted in 1833 but never built, was situated just down the beach from the old site of the Petit Fort.  But “Bailly” was not the only “dream city” envisioned along this shore.

Though Michigan City already existed in 1837 – Congress had found $20,000 to build a harbor there – its future was as uncertain as Chicago’s.  Michigan City owed its existence to the Buffalo & Mississippi Railroad, which sought to connect Lake Erie to a new harbor on Lake Michigan, though the best location for that harbor was in dispute.  The rails would then extend southward to link up with what the railroad’s proponents imagined were navigable waters on the Illinois and Kankakee Rivers, thereby connecting Buffalo, New York, to the Mississippi River and the west.  Canals and dredging projects were part of this ambitious plan.

Bad blood caused divisions within the company.  Soon, several entrepreneurs from the “official” harbor town at Michigan City broke away and formed their own company, the Michigan City & Kankakee Railroad.  In 1836, the harbor did not yet exist, so a few hopeful profiteers simply moved their money four miles down the beach.  A new “metropolis” was platted – City West, the most romantic “dream city of the Calumet,” as Indiana’s lakeshore is called.  At the site of the Petit Fort, long since vanished (perhaps it was an omen), City West was projected to rise as the great city of Middle America.

Engineers made soundings that convinced some investors that the water off the mouth of Fort Creek was deeper than that of the harbor envisioned at Michigan City.  Today, it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to understand how the planners of City West intended to turn Fort Creek, a tiny stream, into a harbor with a canal connecting it to other interior waterways.  Yet in 1836, preparations for constructing a great city were being made here.  Optimism like this is one reason why the U.S. plummeted into a huge economic depression in 1837, during the summer of City West’s short, romantic life and rapid demise.

A plat map, signed by Jacob Bigelow, “President of the Michigan City and Kankakee Railroad Company,” was drawn up that summer.  It bears the date July 12, 1837.

 

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(Copy of a plat map of City West as envisioned in 1837.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

Bigelow’s map survives in the Porter County Surveyor’s Office in Valparaiso.  It shows a rather fabulous town, which (had it succeeded) would have dwarfed all the other frontier settlements on the lake.  Containing about ninety blocks, City West was divided into hundreds of lots and would have housed thousands of people.  To attract investors, the map noticeably exaggerates the size of Fort Creek.  Streets were named for the landscape and the elements of nature:  Elm, Oak, Pine, Willow, Walnut, Water, and Pearl.  Others were named patriotically:  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.  Oddly, though there were many streets with names such as “Rhode Island Street” and “South Carolina Street,” none were named for Indiana.    Bisecting the town, a ditch – the Michigan City and Kankakee Canal showed that the town planners hoped to connect Fort Creek to the Little Calumet River.

City West’s “authors” – Bigelow, Bradley, Hobart, and William Morse – had huge land investments here.  Unlike some investors in western land, though, they lived in their “city.”  Morse dammed Fort Creek and built a sawmill, where he turned pine trees into planks, and the construction of houses began.  “The prospects seemed bright and hopes were high;  settlers were coming;  houses were being erected.”

Lots were cleared of trees and underbrush and great heaps of cut lumber piled up.  Space was found for gardens.  A sloop that had wrecked on the beach was salvaged for its contents.  In its hold, a store of potatoes was found.  “Curious Indians, always peaceable,” a pioneer remembered, “came up along their trails from the interior, or by water in their birch canoes and camped on the beach nearby to watch the operations of the whites. . .”  About twenty American families came.  With straggling adventurers and single men, the population may have reached 200 – no impediment to optimism, as this was the size of Chicago just a few years earlier.  A general store and a warehouse were erected.  A blacksmith moved in.  “Several of the dwellings were quite costly, place and period considered.”  Jacob Bigelow built a wooden hotel and tavern, called The Exchange, which contained twenty-two rooms and was probably the largest building between Chicago and Detroit.  As other hotels were built, this became a gathering place for prospectors in the Calumet region and for emigrants headed farther west to Illinois and Wisconsin.  Before new houses were constructed, families stayed in the big wooden hotels.  Morse’s residence was considered the finest in town.

Hervey Ball and Amsi L. Ainsworth were two prominent settlers at City West.  Ball had come from Augusta, Georgia, where he was a cavalry captain in the local militia and “owned fine horses,” yet he and his wife Jane Ayrault, were originally from Holyoke, Massachusetts.  No ordinary settler, Ball was a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont.  The family lived at City West for one short summer in 1837, the only time the place flourished, then moved farther west to Lake County, Indiana, where Jane Ball was remembered as a doctor and dentist to early settlers on Red Cedar Lake in the 1840s.  She also ran a boarding school.

Their son Timothy Ball was born in Massachusetts in 1826 and came to Indiana with his parents when he was eleven.  His romantic memories, written over sixty years later, are one of the few records of life in City West.  (Ball became a Baptist minister in Crown Point, Indiana, and died in Alabama in 1913.)  The beautiful summer of 1837 was his first in the west.   He had never seen anything like Lake Michigan, and the experience was burned into his memory.

 

TimothyBall

 

There were no teachers or preachers in City West, he recalled, and the town never had a church or a school.  Children who came with their parents had to be educated at home.  But since the town had sprung up in the summer, nature became a school of sorts, and the new scenery and experience of frontier life were enough of an education, anyway.

Though his memories are undoubtedly those of an old man remembering childhood City West could not have been quite the idyll he describes Ball left a vivid enough description of the place.  His memories should be taken for what they are, as longing and nostalgia for a beautiful, unspoiled place of memory, of something primordial in the soul, which explains so much of the appeal of the Indiana Dunes to those who have come here for 150 years.  Pinned between steel mills and within sight of the third largest city in America, the dune country (mercifully preserved by generations of activists and artists) represents what Ball aches for in his memoir something pristine and still youthful, ancient as this place is.

Ball remembered Potawatomi children from nearby Baillytown and “white boys” from Michigan City who would frequently pass through on ponies and ride along the beach.  An Indian hunting party from Green Bay came down the lake in birch-bark canoes and sojourned here to watch the burgeoning “city” arise.  The presence of educated and ambitious Easterners meant that, unlike in some frontier places, social distinctions were rife in City West:  “Of young ladies proper,” Ball wrote, “there were not more than five or six.  Of young misses there were, of the ‘first set,’ five.”  Children and adults alike trekked into the dunes, where they harvested sand-hill cherries, huckleberries “blue and black, low bush and high bush, growing on the flats and on the high sand hills, that overlooked so many miles of that blue lake, ripening the 1st of July till frost came, ready to be gathered by the quart or by the bushel.”

“Toward the cool of the evening,” at sunset, women and children strolled on the hard beach sand washed by waves.  They climbed amid the great “blow-outs” and crawled to the top of sand bluffs to look out across the grandeur of “the broad expanse of water, sometimes seeing the white sail of a distant vessel.”  Yet City West was not big enough to have a thriving social life.  Its girls were denied “balls and evening parties.”  Instead, in “lazy hours,” they went berrying, read books on the beach, or basked in the warm sun “on the banks of fine, clean sand.”  The sails of ships they saw, “bound in or out of Chicago, [were] destined soon, as they fondly believed, to be seeking City West instead.”

Though the town was apparently healthy, there were burials there that summer.  A cemetery, now lost amid shifting sand dunes, was situated just back from the shoreline.  Young Timothy Ball deepened his summer education when he got his first introduction to death here.  At City West, he wrote, he “learned the intense sadness and loneliness of death in a pioneer settlement and the loneliness of a pioneer burial in the wilderness;  and here [I] learned how colonies were planted in the American wilds.  Those months seem now like years of ordinary life.”

 

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(Brooks Photo, View from Mt. Tom at Waverly Beach, Indiana, 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

 

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(Wind erosion uncovering adventitious roots of Populus deltoides, Miller, Indiana, 1907.  University of Chicago Department of Botany Records, AEP-INN153.)

 

The main stagecoach route west from Detroit ran directly through this area, and in the early years immigrants and travelers typically drove down the beach:  the hard-packed sand was far easier to ride a wagon or horse over than the swampy country located just back of the dunes.  What was called the Chicago Road roughly followed the old Sauk Trail.  Settlers were not the only travelers found on it.  Several well-known tourists visited the young towns springing up in the West.  Every one of them was entranced by the duneland scenery.

A year before City West was born, the 34-year-old British writer Harriet Martineau traveled across northern Indiana en route to the Illinois prairies, which she had heard of and had a longing to see.  Martineau left Detroit on June 15, 1836, and got to Michigan City, Indiana, six days later.  Stagecoach journeys at that time were exhausting, involving travel on the roughest roads imaginable.  Martineau wrote that there were a dozen eggs in the stagecoach and that the Chicago Road was so rough that each of the coach’s inhabitants was asked to hold an egg throughout each day’s journey to keep them from being smashed.  The trip west from Detroit was, she remembered, jarring but comical.  As they drove into Michigan City, “the driver announced our approach by a series of flourishes on one note of his common horn, which made the most ludicrous music I ever listened to.  How many minutes he went on, I dare not say;  but we were so convulsed with laughter that we could not alight with becoming gravity, amidst the groups in the piazza of the hotel.  The man must be first cousin to Paganini.”

Martineau had no idea what she was about to see, as she walked out toward the lake.  Though City West’s birth was still a year in the future, what she wrote of the scenic wonder of the dunes would have been the same if she had come the following summer.

“Such a city as this was surely never before seen,” she rhapsodized about Michigan City, which would have been similar to City West.  “It is three years since it was begun;  and it is said to have one thousand five hundred inhabitants.  It is cut out of the forest, and curiously interspersed with little swamps. . .  New, good houses, some only half finished, stood in the midst of the thick wood.  A large area was half cleared.  The finished stores were scattered about;  and the streets were littered with stumps.  The situation is beautiful.  The undulations of the ground, within and about it, and its being closed in by lake or forest on every side, render it unique.”  Martineau and her friend were eager to see this “mighty fresh water sea.”  European tourists even today are awed by the existence of these massive freshwater lakes in the middle of North America.  Martineau’s first view of Lake Michigan was no exception.

 

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(Sun’s Farewell Kiss, Lake Michigan Camera Study, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

“We made inquiry in the piazza; and a sandy hill, close by, covered with the pea vine, was pointed out to us. We ran up it, and there beheld what we had come so far to see.  There it was, deep, green, and swelling on the horizon, and whitening into a broad and heavy surf as it rolled in towards the shore.  Hence, too, we could make out the geography of the city.  The whole scene stands insulated in my memory, as absolutely singular; and, at this distance of time, scarcely credible. . .  Immediately after supper we went for a walk, which, in peculiarity, comes next to that in the Mammoth Cave, if indeed, it be second to it.  The scene was like what I had always fancied the Norway coast [to be], but for the wild flowers, which grew among the pines on the slope, almost into the tide.  I longed to spend an entire day on this flowery and shadowy margin of the inland sea.  I plucked handfuls of pea-vine and other trailing flowers, which seemed to run over all the ground.  We found on the sands an army, like Pharaoh’s drowned host, of disabled butterflies, beetles, and flies of the richest colours and lustre, driven over the lake by the storm.  Charley found a small turtle alive.  An elegant little schooner, ‘the Sea Serpent of Chicago,’ was stranded, and formed a beautiful object as she lay dark between the sand and the surf.”

The following summer, in 1837, the burgeoning town of City West was visited by another famous traveler.  Daniel Webster, the “Great Orator”, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, who had run for the White House, was visiting Chicago with his wife and daughter while cruising the Great Lakes on a steamer out of Buffalo that summer.  He had made enormous investments in western land and served on the board of the Buffalo & Mississippi Railroad at Michigan City.  This was his second visit to the Midwest.

 

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Shortly before the Fourth of July, men from the two rival railroad companies convinced Webster to come east from Chicago.  It took money to build towns and harbors and Webster could pull strings back East.  Coming by stagecoach, he stopped at City West, probably on the morning of July 4.  “The Whig portion of the community was quite excited,” Ball remembered, and “a good breakfast was prepared at the Morse residence.  After breakfast, as the citizens, men and boys, had gathered near the house – girls did not go out in those days as they do now – the great ‘expounder of the Constitution’ came out to be introduced to the inhabitants of City West.  There he stood before us, the great lawyer, statesman, and orator, tall in form, massive in intellect, the man of whom we had heard and read, but whom we had not expected to see standing upon our sandy soil.  He soon took his seat again in the coach and passed out from us on to Michigan City.”

Webster, however, apparently thought Michigan City had better prospects.  On the Fourth of July, he stood at the foot of the Hoosier Slide, a majestic 175-foot-high sand dune that was carted away to be used as landfill and in glassmaking before 1920.  Webster gave a speech and predicted a grand future for Michigan City and its railroad, though it was said that the citizens had treated him so well that “he was rather tipsy when it came time for his speech.”

 

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(Hoosier Slide, Michigan City, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

Unfortunately, wild land speculation (such as Webster’s own) was already driving the United States to financial collapse.  A few months after City West was born, the country was sunk into the Panic of 1837, antebellum America’s equivalent of the Great Depression, which squashed many frontier towns.  Fueled by unscrupulous “wildcat” money-men on the frontier, American banks collapsed, businesses failed, unemployment skyrocketed.  The disaster was partly caused by the prosperity that came before it.  The “panic” lasted into the mid-1840s.  All of this occurred while nature, too, was gradually being despoiled.

With no money to dig a canal, extend a rail line, and build a harbor or even a pier, and watching Congress’ favors given to Michigan City, the promoters of City West scattered.  Its promise never returned.  The spot was simply too close to its rival to be a success.

Rapidly abandoned, the bones of the “city” were left where they stood, a ghost town and potential stage-set for a western just a year or two after it was built.  By 1839, Ball remembered, “few if any were left in the once promising and pleasant little city.”  Property was confiscated by creditors.  Land which at the peak of the boom went for several hundred dollars an acre was sold at a cent per acre, Ball claimed.  “Such dire disaster defies depiction, and my poor pen capitulates,” lamented another observer.

The ruined town, though, remained an adventure spot for children.  Sarah Stonex, daughter of pioneer settler Jacob Beck, remembered the fate of City West and what was left behind.  Around 1840, she went with some other curious children to take a look at the empty new houses that had been left to nature.  (This scene must have been repeated in parts of suburban America after the housing bust of the 9/11 decade.)  “They found one, counting closets and all, which was divided off into twenty-two rooms.  This must have been the ‘Exchange’ or the Bigelow hotel.”  Timothy Ball had left with his family.  Like Sarah Stonex, he also came back, “in the midst of the fruit season of 1840,” when he was about 14.  Ball and a friend, caught too far away from home around dusk, decided to sleep over in the deserted town.  “The houses were there but the place was solitude.” They checked into the abandoned Exchange hotel, found it not to their liking, moved into another house, having “entered such as took their fancy,” then ate dinner and fell asleep.  The next day they walked around the empty streets, “bathed in the lake and departed, first gathering an abundance of fruit, without seeing another human being.”

Some of the houses were being swallowed by sand dunes.  But before it fell into decay, most of City West’s residences were simply carted off.  One of the hotels (maybe the 22-room Exchange) was dismantled and hauled to nearby Chesterton in 1850.  Chesterton was still called Coffee Creek and was not much bigger than City West had been.  Rebuilt as the “Central Hotel”, this structure survived until the spring of 1908, when it burned down, “thus suffering the fate common to many of its original associates.”

On a night of wild thunderstorms, probably in 1853, whatever was left of City West finally passed out of existence.  No one saw it happen, but a forest fire, caused either by lightning or debris from passing trains, broke out and consumed the town.  Its charred ruins were swallowed by the constantly moving dunes.  “By the shifting sands and the processes of nature, the last vestige of this early competitor of Chicago” was obliterated.  Having born and died the very year of photography’s invention in France, no images (unless they were drawn or painted) were ever made of it.

Another spot, called “New City West,” existed from about 1845 to the mid-1870s.  When a trolley line was completed, this spot was renamed Tremont after the “three mountains” (tre monti, in Italian) located nearby.  (These are three massive sand dunes, Mount Tom, Mount Holden and Mount Green.)  A post office was set up here in the 1840s, alongside a cooper shop manufacturing hoops, buckets, tubs and barrels from oak and hickory harvested in the surrounding woods.  During a great lumber boom after the Civil War and during the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, this area served as a shipping point for timber cut throughout the Calumet River region.  A shipping pier extended about 600 feet into the lake near the mouth of Fort Creek (today it is called Dunes Creek).  As timber resources declined and the lumbering industry died here, the pier went into disuse.  It rotted or blew away in a storm before 1900.

 

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(Brooks Photo, South Shore Line station, Tremont, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

A commuter rail station on the popular South Shore Line, which brought thousands of tourists from Chicago and South Bend every summer, survived at Tremont, but land acquisitions during the creation of Indiana Dunes State Park and the national lakeshore caused the place to dwindle away as an active community by the 1960s.  The spot is now called Waverly Beach and is the gateway to the state park, located off U.S. 12.  At the mouth of Dunes Creek a large bath house and pavilion sit near the shoreline, next to a large parking lot.  This was the site of City West.

 

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(Hotel and parking lot, circa 1930, at the site of City West.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

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(Dining room at the Pavilion, Dunes State Park, at the site of City West.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

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(Indiana Dunes State Park, June 1928.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

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(Brooks Photo, Shady path on Stewart Ridge, Dune Park, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

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(Man on ice and snow, Indiana Dunes.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

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(Man on ice and snow, Indiana Dunes.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

 

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Advancing dune in an area denuded by steam shoveling, Dune Park, Indiana.  Lantern slide, circa 1907.  University of Chicago Department of Botany Records, AEP-INS87.

 

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General view of established dunes, Chesterton, Indiana, circa 1907.  University of Chicago Department of Botany Records, AEP-INP12.

 

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(Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

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