Tag Archives: photographic history

Hatteras Girl: Dixie Burrus Browning Remembers Island Life During World War II

libsohn 1

When thirty-year-old Brooklyn photographer Sol Libsohn visited Hatteras Island, North Carolina, in 1945 to take a few photos for Standard Oil, he probably didn’t realize that he’d soon end up creating what many consider the definitive portrait of “old” island life on the Outer Banks.  Twenty years later, completion of the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet ushered in a new world on Hatteras.  Some things, like health care and education, got better.  But cars, tourism, and the collapse of the old maritime culture have taken their toll.

Made as stock commercial photos for use in the oil company’s magazine, Libsohn’s images are enormously popular on the coast.  His idyllic, romantic vision of island life before the roads came in is far from accurate and leaves much unsaid, but Libsohn beautifully captured the archetypes of the old days and ways, before they began their slow disappearance in the 1960s. Yet the actual stories of Hatteras are still hidden in these pictures.

The engineers and roughnecks who descended on this part of North Carolina in the final months of World War II were coming to one of the more remote and hard-to-get-to parts of the American South in those days.  Culturally distinct from the rest of the state and often at loggerheads with it, the inhabitants of these scrawny barrier islands were both isolated and at the center of a great Atlantic crossroads.

Famous as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Hatteras and the treacherous Diamond Shoals became the deathbed of many a ship in the days of sail.  Some island families even came here by accident, stranded on their way to other ports of call.  Though the mainstay of life was always fishing, a frequent lucky windfall — shipwrecks — brought exotic goods and even scarce household items. Bananas, canned food, clocks, bedsteads, and sometimes cars, all of which could be legally salvaged or auctioned off, came to Hatteras in the hold of wrecks.  In this place where wood is scarce, it is remarkable that many old Hatteras houses were built from doomed ships or the cargo of wrecked lumbering vessels.


dbb 6(NC Route 12, today the only highway on the Outer Banks, was a dirt path seventy years ago.)


Sol Libsohn, who died in 2001, came to Hatteras to illustrate the theme “There’s a drop of oil in everyone.”  Petroleum, in fact, was at the center of a forgotten drama enacted here during the early years of World War II. The little-known “Battle of the Atlantic,” when German U-boats sank hundreds of merchant marine vessels and oil tankers transporting war goods to Allied Europe, was waged from Newfoundland to Texas, but the waters off the Outer Banks became one of the major targets of Hitler’s underwater navy.

Most of the older generation who lived on Hatteras in those years can remember an ominous glow on the horizon, glimpsed over dunes at night, as stricken tankers burned at sea a few miles out.  In a strange boost to North Carolina tourism, recreational divers are now rediscovering and photographing some of these vessels — and their attackers.  In 2014, the German submarine U-576 was found thirty miles off Cape Hatteras.  Forty-five German sailors died when it was sent to the bottom on July 14, 1942.


u-352(U-352 was sunk off “Torpedo Alley” on May 9, 1941, and is one of the most visited dive sites along North Carolina’s coast.  Sumberged Sports.)


Many stories, some surely mythic, proliferated about German crewmen rowing into towns like Morehead City on rubber dinghies at dark to watch movies in local theaters.  A media blackout and the sheer remoteness of the place kept most Americans from knowing much about the war waged off North Carolina’s beaches in 1941 and ’42.  Local lore, now told by adults who were children back then, recalls the horrible fate of sailors at sea.  Bodies — American, English, German — would sometimes wash up on what became Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, horribly disfigured after swimming or floating through burning oil slicks on the ocean’s surface.

At war’s end, Standard Oil began exploring the bottom of Pamlico Sound for domestic petroleum deposits.  For a while, an oil derrick even sat near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, vying with it to be the tallest structure around.  The oil men gave up after drilling shafts down to 10,000 feet and finding nothing.  Recently, plans for another go at offshore drilling along the Virginia and North Carolina coast have sparked controversy, especially after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Roy Stryker, who headed the Farm Security Administration’s Information Division and launched the career of many of the great documentary photographers of the 1930s and ’40s, worked with Standard Oil to send the self-taught Libsohn to Hatteras, purportedly to show the uses of oil.  A Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Libsohn had knack for getting along with working-class Americans.  He went on to create a great record of many of the stock subjects of Edward Hopper’s America — “late night portraits of drivers and their vehicles,” his obituary in the New York Times runs, “waitresses and diners, roadside attractions, small towns along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. . . the hurly-burly life in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  He taught at Princeton for years.  Most of his images are housed at the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives in Kentucky.


dbb 12

(Dixie Burrus.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


Dixie Burrus Browning was fifteen years old when Libsohn photographed her in June 1945.  She doesn’t recall why he took her picture.  Her father was Maurice “Dick” Burrus, a Hatteras native who had played professional baseball for teams in Philadelphia, Boston, and Indianapolis and was once scouted in person by the great baseball manager Connie Mack.  After returning to Hatteras Island at the start of the Great Depression, Dick Burrus became a commercial fisherman and a Texaco dealer — perhaps the reason why Libsohn photographed his daughter.

Dixie married Lee Browning at age 20.  They raised their children in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the couple lived for forty-nine years before returning to the Outer Banks.  Dixie has written over a hundred romance and historical novels and is a prolific painter who runs a studio in Buxton.  She spoke to me in her home in December 2008 and told me about life in Hatteras back in the ’40s.


dbb 13


Dixie Burrus Browning:  My daddy was a baseball player.  He played first base with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Braves and some minor teams.  And he had a hernia.  That ended his career.  Unfortunately, he stocked away everything in the stock market, and he got out of baseball in 1929, so you can imagine what that was like.  Perfect timing.


dick burrus 1


dick burrus indianapolis


If you really wanted to understand Hatteras, you had to be here, living on collards and crokers during the Depression, when most people didn’t even realize there was a Depression, because they went right on living the way they always had.  And it was a subsistence thing, pretty much.  But you could hunt.  You could fish.  You didn’t have to have licenses for everything, because there wasn’t any law down here.  No sheriff.  You didn’t have to have a driver’s license, because there were no highways.  It was a good place to grow up, but Lord, I’m glad my children didn’t grow up here.  And my grandchildren?  Children today, in this generation, they couldn’t handle it.

My brother was a year and a half younger than I am.  When he was about twelve, he became captain of daddy’s shrimp boat.  Daddy was a Texaco dealer, but he had a shrimp boat.  It had a crew of two, a captain and one mate, I guess you’d call them, and they were both Hyde County farmers who didn’t know a whole lot about running a shrimp boat.  And so finally daddy fired them, and my brother Steve at age twelve became captain of a shrimp boat.

And during one of the hurricanes, what you’d do was, you took the boat offshore and anchored it so it’ll swing into the wind.  And so Steve took the trawler off into the sound and anchored it and rode out the storm in it.  And nobody worried about it.  Now can you see a twelve-year-old given that responsibility today?

It was a working thing.  Up at 3:30 in the morning.  And they all headed out, in a row, early in the morning before daylight.  And the first person who found the area where there was shrimp, I can’t remember if they threw a flag over it or what, but then all the trawlers slowly circled, dragging that area all day.  And the first day Steve came in as captain, he sold high man.  He had caught more than anybody else that was out there and that was a big thrill.

He died a good while ago, just before he turned fifty.  [Steve Burrus worked for IBM and helped install computers on nuclear submarines.  He succumbed to a rare brain cancer in 1981.]

And then we hunted, too, when we were children.  We had a bolt action rifle, and for safety’s sake, I carried the bolt and walked behind Steve, who carried the rifle.  And we followed the shoreline looking for geese, ducks, anything edible.  And if we saw something, by the time we got the rifle back together again, they were gone.  So we never shot anything, but people did.  We had stewed goose with rutabagas.  We had sea turtle.  That is the best meat.  It’s un-P.C. to talk about it now, but I don’t give a damn about P.C.  It was delicious meat.  One flipper would feed the family, but it was awful to clean.  It had layers of gobby, sticky fat and leathery skin.  But it was the sweetest, best meat.  It was the color of beef, I guess.  But it was milder than beef.  It was just delicious.  Turtle stew, turtle hash, anyway you wanted to cook it.  Turtle burgers, we had those, too.


dbb 5(Dixie Burrus and Little Lee Peale, 1940s.)


But other than what we could catch or hunt here, we depended on the freight boats.  They came over a couple of times a week with whatever didn’t sell on the mainland.  You know, hamburger that was black.  And we grew up having canned milk, because you couldn’t get bottled milk that was fresh.  It would have been sour by the time it got here.  These weren’t refrigerated boats.

And we traveled on the freight boats, too.  My momma was from Elizabeth City, my grandmamma lived there.  And it was about an eight-hour trip.  They had absolutely no passenger accommodation.  One space for cars.

I have a ship model I did of my granddaddy Dozier Burrus’ boat.  The ship was called the Hamlet.  He bought the Hamlet after he retired from the West Indies trade.  He used to take daddy and daddy’s brothers with him on some of the runs.  Occasionally he’d take his daughters, too, to go up to Baltimore City or Washington City.  The West Indies trade was rum and molasses, mostly.  They sailed down to the Caribbean.  I don’t know that he owned the ships that he was captain of.  One of them — I loved the name! — was called the Bessie Mae and Annie.  I named a painting after it.


dbb 11(Almy Burrus and Capt. Ethelbert Dozier Burrus at the wheel of the Bugeye.)


My daddy’s mother was Achsah Williams.  She died when daddy was about six years old.  (He was the youngest of a slew of children.)  And granddaddy brought a new bride home, Miss Maggie.  Maggie Douglass, from Wilmington.  He left her here with his children while he went off to sea again.  So we had Miss Maggie when we were growing up.  And she’d tease us and play with us and walk to the beach every morning with old paint buckets to get gravel for the chickens she kept.  She kept our chickens.  She lived in the back part of our house.  Her clothes she made out of Pillsbury feed sacks.  Bloomers that would tie.  Cotton stockings that she didn’t darn — she would patch them with a gingham patch.  She wore high-top tennis shoes and sun bonnets.

After she died, we were packing away her things, and in the bottom of the trunk, there were two golden earrings and a black chiffon blouse.  And it just struck me:  Miss Maggie was a young woman with dreams, and she married Granddaddy Dozier and he went off and left her at home.  I’ve often wished I could go back and talk to her and just hug her.  I wrote a novel about her, The Mariner’s Bride.

Lots of ships got sunk around here by the German submarines in World War II.  I remember taking a walk on the beach after they blew up the Australia and seeing a metal lifeboat with bullet holes all down the side of it.  It had been strafed, obviously.  There was just a straight line of machine-gun holes right down the length of it.  And part of a carton of containers or something.  K-ration, or C-ration, or one of those rations, small cans.  The container had what looked like blood stains on it.  We didn’t touch any of that stuff.  And there were old pieces painted grey that were part of the deck gear that we recognized as such.  But you know, you’re kids, you can’t drag everything home.  There was stuff everywhere.  The beach was littered.  And we chased a muskrat all around there.

I know Shank Austin found a body there.

It was really rough.  Even as a child, it was the reality at that time.

I remember one specific night when everything rattled.  Everything that was glass in the house, including the window, just rattle-rattle-rattled.  It was enough to wake you up.  I woke up and looked out the window.  It was over the Slash, through the marsh.  We had a pretty clear shot of the ocean.  You couldn’t see the ocean itself, because there were houses and things in between, but you could see three distinct glows at night.  You could see the glow of burning oil.  The German submarines had gotten three of them that night.


the slash(A man, probably Millard O’Neal, walks over “The Slash” in Hatteras Village.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


My uncle, Uncle Almy, was in charge of the Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station, which at that time was on the north end of Ocracoke Island.  He and his crew went out there in open boats.  I’m not sure if that was when the Australia was torpedoed (you know, I was a child then, I get things mixed up), but Uncle Almy and his crew saw the surviving sailors on one of those ships.  The stern was up in the air looking down at the water and the tanker was surrounded by burning oil.  The surviving crew members had to dive in and swim under.  Not many of them made it.  Somewhere I have pictures of Uncle Almy and I think one or two survivors when they got back to the station.

After the Australia was sunk, they had a vendue.  That’s traditional down here.  They’ve been doing that for the past couple of hundred years.  There was a wreck commissioner who came down.  He would oversee the sale of things.  And daddy bought some things off the Australia.  He bought the Texaco flag.  Big, bedspread-sized, wool bunting.  And he bought some of the semaphore flags, but not all.  Momma put an old quilt in between the layers and quilted them together.


dbb 15 - mv australia(The Texaco tanker Australia went down off Diamond Shoals on the night of March 16, 1942, en route from Texas to Connecticut.  Four crewmen were killed in the explosion.)


dbb 8(Two survivors of the Australia at Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station.)


dbb 7(Local Hatteras islanders next to the wreck of the Australia.)


dbb 16 - uboat(U-332, which torpedoed the 11,000-ton tanker Australia in 1942, was sunk by an RAF Liberator bomber in May 1943 off Cape Finisterre in northwestern Spain.  All 45 of its crewmembers died.  This photo shows the crew of a similar boat, U-576, found off Cape Hatteras in 2014.)


The first time I went to New York was with Ernal Foster and my daddy.  I was maybe ten or eleven years old.  I had long pigtails.

I remember coming out of the Holland Tunnel.  There was a woman standing outside the tunnel dressed in a man’s suit.  That made such an impression on me.  There was nobody else in sight.  No cars, no traffic, no nothing.  It must have been in the wee hours of the morning.  I thought that was the strangest place, New York.

Out on Long Island, we stopped at a place called Pop’s Pony Yard for me to ride a pony.  Never mind that I had ridden bareback on the beach here at Hatteras.  There was me in a dotted Swiss dress with a long sash and my pigtails, sitting on the back of the pony, jogging along.


dbb young 1(A young Dixie Burrus, around 1940.)


I graduated in a class of three at Hatteras High.  It would have been more, except that the boys, as soon as they got to be sixteen, they’d leave here and go sign up with the Merchant Marine.  So our class kind of leaked.  I think we got the kind of teachers that couldn’t get a job anywhere else.

Just about the sickest I have ever been (and I was always prone to sea-sickness) was traveling back from Elizabeth City on one of those freight boats.  There were two boats named the Cathleen and the Mallinson, but I can’t remember which one it was.

Anyway, it was a freight boat, loaded up to the gills except right up in the forepeak.  And then there was all that cargo.  There were just planks like this that held it back.  We left late in the afternoon, and it was already rainy and stormy, and the water was real rough.  I think there were two other girls and me.  We had been to Louisburg to a Methodist youth retreat or something like that.

So when it started getting kind of rough — and, as I said, there were absolutely no amenities — they sent us below.  We opened the hatch up in the forepeak, and climbed down a ladder, and sat on upturned cases or crates or whatever.  And by then the water was sloshing about mid-way up our shins and we just sat there.  And the bow was rocking back and forth.  And we were getting sick.  And every time the boat would go like this, with all that freight piled up behind us, the boards would creak and groan.  And like I said, it was an eight-hour trip.  In pitch darkness.

First one and then other of us would get sick.  It was hot, miserable, stifling, stinky and I couldn’t stand it anymore.  So I climbed up the ladder and just got this much of me outside and closed the hatch over here.  And it was real foggy then.  Still rough, not raining, but just foggy.  But I could breathe, and the seas would wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over.  And it was refreshing.  Then all of a sudden this figure materialized, just head and shoulders, because the rest of it was foggy, and he said: “SON. . . You got to go back below!”

Several of the old men called all children “son,” male or female, it didn’t matter.

But they haven’t called me “son” in a few years.


dbb 10(Dixie Burrus heading out to Diamond Shoals.  More of her photos are available at the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society’s website.)


Stephen Taylor, staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Advertisements

Smith Cemetery: After a Fire

prairie burn diptych 1 1000px

The Smith Cemetery is located on State Road 63 in Vermillion County, Indiana, two miles southwest of the small Wabash River town of Perrysville and about three miles east of the Illinois state line.  On the surface, this one-half-acre spot looks overgrown and uncared-for.  In fact, it is a complex memorial to the past and one glimpse of a hopeful future.

Since the early 1980s, this small shard of waving botanical life has been coaxed back into existence by naturalists.  As a fading sign at the gate, put up by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, announces, the cemetery is a prairie restoration, meant as “a memorial to the Indians and early settlers to whom these grasses and flowers were once familiar.”  The irony, of course, is that those first white settlers initiated the destruction of the once-vast prairies, which once covered about a third of North America – the same grasslands this restoration itself pays homage to.  While intended as a memorial, there is no more sadly appropriate place for the prairie’s tenuous survival than in a cemetery.  For as an ecosystem, it is as broken as can be.

When this part of western Indiana was first settled by whites in the 1820s, prairies were the defining feature of the post-glacial landscape.  The scenery presented was beautiful enough to move even the future destroyers of that great ecosystem to rhapsody.  Though technically part of Indiana (once an immensely wild territory mostly covered in dense forests, with prairies along its western edge), this area of the state forms part of the geography of the fabled Illinois country, an open region whose grasslands brought many early visitors to mysticism and tears.  As settlers began to come in, just two hundred years ago, these glacial plains, flattened thousands of years earlier by the last ice sheets, were anything but devoid of beauty and variety.  Today, significantly reduced by modern agriculture (though farms have created a beauty of a different type), this country strikes us as monotonous.  But it has been made so by humans.

Lucian Caswell, one of the early settlers of Rock County, Wisconsin, came with his family west from Vermont in 1837, at the age of ten.  Caswell’s description of the prairie would have been fitting for much of this landscape that once stretched from west-central Indiana to the southern shores of Lake Michigan and to very edge of the North Woods, then west toward the Mississippi and Missouri.  In an unpublished memoir written in 1914, he reminisced about the sublime grandeur of seeing his first prairie fire, which, though often frightening and deadly to humans and animals, were essential to the life and regeneration of the grasses and prevented the encroachment of forests:

“There were no roads but we struck out across the great prairie before us, headed towards Lake Koshkonong.  No more beautiful landscape was ever painted.  Nature, the greatest artist of all, had fairly outdone itself.  The Indians as they always did every year, had burnt out every foot of ground and the land was as clean as a yard.  You could see the wild gophers, at a great distance running here and there, and the flowers in the large beds of an acre or more in all directions, the grass just springing out of the ground forming a background, all together a picture that dazzled the eyes and made one smile whether in good mood or not.

“ –– somewhere in Walworth County, we saw our first prairie fire.  Usually the Indians burn over all the ground in the fall.  Here and there a small piece escapes the fires.  We came to a strip of unburned prairie.  The dead grass was thick and the temptation too great.  All agreed we must set this on fire; so we stopped and began to prepare in the old fashioned way with steel punk and flint to strike fire.  However, one of our party drew from his pocket a little box he had been saving up and said he had something new and he would try it.  He opened a small box of matches, the first that any of us had ever seen or heard of.  The box contained about fifty little sticks with sulphur on one end of each, for which he had paid seventy-five cents in Milwaukee and brought along for an experiment.  He struck one of them according to directions, and lighted the dead grass, to our great astonishment and wonder how that could possibly be.

“Well, the fire spread rapidly, as there was quite a strong breeze, and soon we saw what we had never seen before, although often read and heard of, a prairie on fire.  We watched it till it had run some miles away, and then reluctantly started on our journey.”

Caswell remembered that this was a great sight “for Vermonters who had been accustomed to look upon rocks, hills and woods.”  (See his “Reminiscences of 1836-1914,” an unpublished manuscript at the Hoard Historical Museum, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.)


Schwarm_PR_Image

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Prairie fire near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1997.)


three trees

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Three trees burning, Z-Bar Ranch, Chase County, Kansas, 1994.)


kingman2

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Grass fire near Kingman, Kansas, 1997.)


fireandmoon

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Fire and moon, along Bloody Creek Road, Chase County, Kansas, 2006.)


The explorer William Clark, a Kentuckian, also wrote of the deep beauty and tragedy of prairie fires as he ventured onto the Northern Plains for the first time.  On October 29, 1804, while traveling on the Upper Missouri near the Mandan Villages in what became North Dakota, Clark noted the following entry in his (erratically-spelled) journal, probably the first historical account of a makeshift “fire shelter,” which wildland firefighters now use as a last resort to protect against heat:

“The Prarie was Set on fire (or Cought by accident) by a young man of the Mandins, the fire went with Such velocity that it burnt to death a man and woman, who Could not Get to any place of Safty, one man a woman & Child much burnt and Several narrowly escaped the flame — a boy half white was Saved un hurt in the midst of the flaim. Those ignerent people Say this boy was Saved by the great Spirit medisin because he was white — The Cause of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother who perhaps had more fore Sight for the pertection of her Son, and less for herself than those who escaped the flame, the Fire did not burn under the Skin leaving the grass round the boy This fire passed our Camp last about 8 oClock P.M. it went with great rapitidity and looked Tremendious.”


MG108_II_C-1_Prairie-Fire

(Fighting a prairie fire, 1912.  MG108 II C 1, University of Saskatchewan Archives.)


stuart-prairie-fire-1912

(Big Prairie Fire, Stuart, Nebraska, November 7, 1912.)


In his masterpiece , an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

In his masterpiece Vestal Fire, an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

Yet “anthropogenic” fire (that of the hearth and torch) virtually created European culture.  Fire-mastery allowed Europe’s inhabitants not only to domesticate an unwelcoming post-glacial wilderness and many of its creatures, but more importantly, to domesticate themselves.  The process was already underway seventeen millennia ago, when the earliest clear depiction of fire’s effect on human beings was created.   As the poet Clayton Eshleman writes in Juniper Fuse, his beautiful attempt to unearth the meanings of Upper Paleolithic cave art, Europeans’ conquest of fire went hand-in-hand with the invention of art itself and all the transformations that ensued.  Pyne and Eshleman agree that fire’s incorporation into hunting restructured human understandings of their encounter with animals and allowed a mental “separation of the human out of the animal.”  It was a psychological process fabulously documented in the shamans’ or hunters’ visions scrawled in red ochre and black manganese dioxide on the walls of Lascaux Cave in the French Pyrenees, rediscovered in 1940 after 17,000 years in the dark.

The “theft” of fire marked a huge shift not only in terms of human survival:  it irrevocably altered the human mind and led into realms beyond the merely physical.  Fire and art’s conjunction in subterranean places created signs of what could be interpreted as the earliest human spirituality, depicted (disturbingly) in symbols of man’s growing dominance over nature and of his spiritual separation out of it.  Read like this, Lascaux becomes a potentially frightening prologue to much of what follows in human history.

Later Western attitudes toward wildfire take root in one reading of what happened at Lascaux, the deep-seated fear that we are not in control, that since we are no longer animals, what is natural is ranged against us.


lascaux cave art

(Hunter and bison disemboweled on a spear, Lascaux Cave, France, 15,000-13,000 BC.)


Stephen Pyne writes of what Europeans at home, and later overseas, feared to lose when fire occurred naturally in the wild, the very sense of control that defined European perspectives on unshackled nature:

“There was literally no place in Europe for the primordial fire.  It went the way of the auroch, the lion, the mastodon, and the mouflon – extinct, bred to domestication, recorded in art, or nurtured in the social zoos of preserved ritual.  The originating fire survived only in ancient ceremonies, like vanished bison recorded on Aurignacian rock art…  Desired fire belonged on hearth and altar;  unwanted fire appeared along the rough fringes of an unraveling society, in the cracks of disintegrating cities, amid the rubble of collapsed civilizations.  Intellectual Europe saw fire as an atavism, as disorder and destruction, as nature gripped by delirium tremens.  But wild or tame, fire persisted…

“Europe’s temperate core – not shaped by a well-defined fire season – granted humans an unusual degree of control over fire, and encouraged the belief that fire was, in principle, a strictly human agency, that it was a convenient tool but not an essential process… Fire was, so the saying went, a good servant but a bad master.  The keepers of Europe’s flame accepted this condition as normative.  They distrusted free-burning fire and sought to cultivate it from the landscape and ultimately replace it with the industrial combustion of fossil fuels.”

As Europeans re-settled the North American continent, these imported attitudes toward wildfire were quickly replicated, even in landscapes (like the Midwest) where fire was a critical part of the ecosystem and extremely common, especially in the spring.  The European insistence, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic, that landscapes should be not wild but a garden under human control spelled the doom of these ancient American places.

Today the defining feature of Indiana is certainly no longer prairie and old-growth forest.  Only a handful of scattered places still give an impression of what Indiana looked like even 150 years ago.  This state is, in fact, one of the most profoundly man-altered landscapes in the U.S.  (Iowa, a sister state, is estimated to have had, in the 1860s, more biological diversity than any other American state.  Today, it has the least.)  Yet the difference does not lie only in the presence of local family farms that replaced old ecosystems after the first waves of settlers “busted” the sod and denuded the land of trees.  These family farms, too, are disappearing rapidly.  The defining feature of Indiana today, by contrast, is industrial agriculture, increasingly run by corporations, sowing monocrops of corn and soybeans, and the much blander human culture that often comes with this form of so-called “farming.”

Where hundreds of species of prairie grass once flourished, only a handful of plants now grow.  Much of this old natural diversity was literally ripped out of the earth by steel plows.  Yet prairie seeds occasionally still survive in earth that has not been tilled repeatedly by agriculture, such as in a handful of cemeteries, and in other seemingly unlikely places, including military buffer zones, bombing ranges, and railroad rights-of-way.

No single generation destroyed the land by itself, however.  The demolition of prairies, wetlands, and forests was merely begun by the early generations of settlers, their bones buried under prairie grass at the Smith Cemetery.  As for the memorial “brought back” by the DNR in their name, the irony is that probably none of these pioneers (mostly Pennsylvanians, some of them Quakers) would have wanted to be buried under tallgrass, in what (to their eyes) would look like a horribly abandoned, dilapidated burial ground.  The cemetery, in fact, was kept mowed into the 1970s, then abandoned.  But since gravediggers have done the only deep “tilling” here, prairie has survived intact, rooted in its pioneer-laden soil, off and on for generations.

One of the early settlers who lived nearby, along the banks of Jordan Creek near where it flows into the Wabash, was Jacob Hain.  Born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1799, he became a farmer and was buried at the Smith Cemetery in 1876 next to his parents, John and Catherine Hain, who (as their single stone proclaims) died “on the same day” in 1830.  Yet Jacob Hain’s florid obituary in a newspaper, The Hoosier State, does not suggest that he would have been happy being memorialized by a stand of semi-wild prairie, today resurrected over his grave:

“Another Pioneer has gone from among us and leaves the member less of those sterling, noble men, who were the first to lay the foundation of civilization in the beautiful Valley of the Wabash,” the obituary reads.

“The subject of this sketch was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, December 1st, 1799, and at the age of 10 years emigrated with his father to Virginia, and from thence at the age of 21 to Vermillion County, Indiana.  Stopping first near Clinton, he went from here to Coleman’s Prairie, and thence to said Prairie, located two and one-half miles south west of Perrysville, and was the first man to break sod on the prairie.  There were then ten Indians to one white man, and he was therefore, one of those men to whom the present generations owe so much; whose strong arms, invincible courage, and patient, plodding industry transformed a wilderness into flowing fields and gardens and replaced the wigwam of the savage with churches, school houses and comfortable refined houses of civilization…

“The deceased closed his eyes peacefully, and with a hope that was cheering to his friends, on the 15th of March 1876, at the ripe age of seventy-six years, three months and fourteen days, and was laid away by kind and appreciative neighbors, in Smith-Cemetery, where he helped dig the first grave, and which he had lived to see become an extensive city of the dead.”


olathe kansas 1 900px

(Unidentified woman, Olathe, Kansas, circa 1910.  Personal collection of the author.)


The solid work of old antebellum stone carvers survives here next to flexible prairie grasses that bend with the wind.  The work of the old craftsmen of the 1830s, though often illegible, has been solid enough to outlast many of the farms and lineages of farmers that succeeded them, and all but a few broken remnants of the ancient prairie itself.   Ironically, the earliest pioneers’ stones, made from slate, which weathers much slower than sandstone, have often survived in a better condition than the monuments erected to their children and grandchildren.  After the 1860s, craftsmanship and material for gravestones diminished in quality, and many names are lost altogether.

A few hours south of Chicago, next to a noisy state highway, the grass here stops just short of the road, dying in a sharp line marked by an old concrete fence post at the edge of a soybean field.  This is a piece of a broken land, not a romantic, expansive grassland.  The sounds of birds and the wind-tossed grass are certainly here, but come amid the constant sound of trucks on the four-lane highway to Chicago.  Beyond the gate, a farmer’s field is doused in gallons of life-killing chemicals and pesticides.

I have visited the place several times, in different seasons:  in early autumn, when the grass was high enough to cover all but the big marble stones of the wealthier farmers who had died after the Civil War, their monuments rising like obelisks, while totally enveloping the small markers of the earlier pioneers;  then, in the first week of April, I visited again, just a few days after naturalists had set fire to the cemetery.

A late-winter cold front was just coming through, and struck by the bizarre sight of a cemetery covered in ashes, I photographed it in a 40-mile-an-hour wind, pelted by sleet and rain, interrupted by times when the wind died off entirely and sunshine came through the clouds in great beams.  It was not easy scenery to look at:  a totally incinerated burial ground.  The ash over the graves was so fresh that my feet knocked up clouds of it as I stepped over the scorched bones of deer that had probably died there last fall or huddled down in the grass for warmth that winter.  The gravestones had been turned orange by fire, a discoloration that was temporary and would wash off.  But tiny blades of bluestem were already popping up.  Within days of the burn, life was coming back.  I could not escape the symbolism that gives a Christian cemetery its meaning, that of death and resurrection, and how the stones gave even deeper meaning to the annual death and rebirth of the prairie in the weeks around Easter.


tintype 1 500px

(Tintype of a woman, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


tintype 2

(Tintype of a girl, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the land has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The poet Edgar Lee Masters, in 1915, may have caught onto Klett’s later insight.  In the “epitaph” delivered by Rutherford McDowell, Masters’ small-town photographer in Spoon River Anthology, we hear this graveside lament for the landscapes the poet imagined the first cameras captured in the eyes of early settlers:

They brought me ambrotypes
Of the old pioneers to enlarge.
And sometimes one sat for me –
Some one who was in being
When giant hands from the womb of the world
Tore the republic.
What was it in their eyes?
For I could never fathom
That mystical pathos of drooped eyelids,
And the serene sorrow of their eyes.
It was like a pool of water,
Amid oak trees at the edge of a forest,
Where the leaves fall,
As you hear the crow of a cock
From a far-off farm house, seen near the hills
Where the third generation lives, and the strong men
And the strong women are gone and forgotten.
And these grand-children and great grand-children
Of the pioneers!
Truly did my camera record their faces, too,
With so much of the old strength gone,
And the old faith gone,
And the old mastery of life gone,
And the old courage gone,
Which labors and loves and suffers and sings
Under the sun!


tintype 3

(Tintype of a man, around 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


I made a few images in this place.  None were well done, as I had a thing for a “toy” camera at the time.  At best, I was knocking together a few sketches for better work in large-format that I still have not made.  Like much of the past, these pictures strike me now as suspiciously bleak and grim, “suspicious” because I know that (in Clark’s phrase) there was a “Tremendious” beauty and color there that I failed to capture.  (Larry Schwarm, surely, has made the most sublime photos ever created of prairie landscapes, of the Flint Hills on fire at night.)  Klett’s technique was far more sophisticated than mine, but instead of Geological Survey photographs, I used gravestones to pinpoint one exact spot on the earth’s surface and show some elements of the natural variation it undergoes throughout the year.  In this case, more than seasonal variation was involved.  Rather, it was the dramatic aftermath of a prescribed burn.

These admittedly un-lively photos, however, maybe have less to do with “history” than in how we see history – with a sadness tinged with nostalgia that often characterizes our approach, also, to nature.  “Nature” has become, by some definitions, a historic thing:  I believe this is a wildly inaccurate point-of-view, though there is some truth in the perspective.  Yet the photographer Jeff Whetstone, who, in the simplest definition of his work, documents humans among nature, says that “When I see nature, now, I don’t think of it as something we are necessarily separated from.  But what I do see is a great sadness, this tremendous sense of loss in nature and in ourselves.  I see a great ruin.”

We live in amid those ruins.  In the end, these photographs, like the Smith Cemetery, are a memorial for an ecosystem, the grasslands, taken where the grass was buried but clung to life, and where, somehow, it might eventually outlast even us.  Yet as with all things touched by nostalgia, longing is an active emotion.  Sometimes a crippling, debilitating illness, nostalgia was first diagnosed hundreds of years ago, a spiritual “disease” of Swiss soldiers separated from home.  But a love and desire for the past, even for those people who began the destruction we see the results of now, can be a positive force for activism and change.  If a hunger for the past helps an ecosystem cling to tenuous life, that hunger is no sickness at all.


smith 9 800px

(Smith Cemetery, before and after a prairie burn.  Perrysville, Indiana.  October 2010, April 2011.)

smith 7 800px

 smith 6 800px

 prairie burn diptych 4 1000px

 smith cemetery 09-2010 4 800px

 smith cemetery 09-2010 16 - blogspot

 smith 4 800px

Sinipee of the Driftless

trempeleau wisconsin 4

 When the explorer Zebulon Pike voyaged up the Mississippi in 1805 in his failed search for the river’s headwaters in northern Minnesota, he was transfixed by the stretch of country between what became northwestern Illinois and the future site of Minneapolis.  Pike described it as “the most mountainous and beautiful in the entire valley of the Mississippi.”  Indeed, the scenery here is astonishing and often unexpected to drivers crossing the great river or traveling up the Great River Road from Keokuk, Iowa, toward Galena and La Crosse, all the way to the Twin Cities.  Compared to the huge flatlands to the east and west, this part of the valley is a great relief.  Americans today are perhaps as unprepared for the amazing beauty of the Mississippi Valley as Pike must have been when he first came up the river, having no idea what he would find there.

Situated at the heart of the unique geological area known as the Driftless, the bluff country along the upper Mississippi is a masterpiece of nature’s chisel.  The beauty goes on for miles, into the heart of this landscape where four states come together.  The Driftless is virtually the only part of the Midwest that was not flattened by glaciers during the last Ice Age.  Its trout streams and breathtaking topography are often compared to the cozy valleys of the Southern Appalachians and the karst country of central Kentucky.  Wider expanses in the interior evoke the Flint Hills of Kansas.  Due to the nature of the sloping terrain, big industrial agriculture has never been feasible in this dramatic place, and in recent years it has become home to movements in “alternative” organic farming and sustainable living.

And while the Upper Midwest was settled mostly by Germans and Scandinavians, when settlers first began to move here in the 1830s, the contours of this unique land must have immediately appealed to Southerners.

Such a man was Peyton Vaughn, who arrived from North Carolina around 1830.  Coming with his wife, Vaughn purchased a small tract of land about a half-mile from the Mississippi near the mouth of Sinipee Creek.  If he climbed the impressive bluff on his property, Vaughn could have seen for many miles up and down the great valley.  Four miles downstream was the future site of Dubuque, Iowa (then a part of Wisconsin Territory), which was chartered as a town three years after Vaughn arrived in the area.  The most important nearby settlement, however, was Galena, Illinois, three miles inland from the Mississippi on the Fever River and about twenty miles south of Sinipee Creek.  Galena was rapidly becoming the center of all activity in this region.

Vaughn settled in what was known as the Lead Mining District or Mineral District, a general term including much of what later became the state of Wisconsin.  The Driftless region, in the southwestern part of this territory, was incredibly rich in lead ore, which at that time promised even greater fortunes than gold and was more abundant.  The valuable mineral could be melted into lead bars for easier export downstream and was eventually shipped to the East Coast and to Europe, where manufacturers turned it into a range of products – from bullets to pipes to newspaper print.

In fact, it was lead, not agriculture, that was the primary lure drawing settlers to Wisconsin in the 1830s.  (A growing population led Wisconsin Territory to be carved out of Michigan Territory in 1836.)   Lead mining was so important to the early economy that it led to the state’s nickname, “The Badger State.”  Miners dug into hillsides like burrowing animals, and a lead miner – not a farmer – stands next to a sailor on the state flag.  The center of mining operations in Wisconsin was clustered around the U.S. Land Office at Mineral Point, thirty-five miles from the river.

Today, Mineral Point is one of the most beautiful small towns in the Midwest.  Most of its unique sandstone architecture dates from the late Federal period, which lingered into the 1830s, when mining was dominant here.  Many houses were built by Cornish miners who resettled from England and built diminutive buildings resembling those of the Old World villages they came from.  Pendarvis, a Wisconsin state historic site, is the best known of them.  It sits across the road from a spot, once mined, called the Merry Christmas Mine, now restored to grassland and woods and called the Merry Christmas Prairie.


2

(J.E. Whitney, Views on the Upper Mississippi, circa 1865.  New York Public Library Digital Collections.)


800px-Tornado,_1878_damage,_Mineral_Point,_Wisconsin,_by_J._L

(J.L. Nye, Tornado damage, Mineral Point, Wisconsin, 1878.  New York Public Library Digital Collections.)


The problem for early Wisconsin miners was that in order to get lead to market, they had to sell it to middlemen in Galena, the region’s only shipping port.  Railroads, still a new innovation, had not reached this far west, and roads for ox-drawn wagons were primitive at best and not ideal for carrying a heavy product like lead.  In the 1830s, Galena’s monopoly as a shipping port guaranteed its position as a wealthy and cultured town, which it remained until after the Civil War.  Its famous architecture dates mostly from its boom days.

Peyton Vaughn, who survived the violence between whites and the Sauk during the Black Hawk War of 1832, was neither a miner nor an enterprising industrialist.  He operated a cable-pulled ferry on his property for a year or two.  Then he became aware of his great luck in having bought land here.  A group of twenty-three investors from Mineral Point determined that the mouth of Sinipee Creek would be the ideal location for a port to rival Galena.  In 1838, they started up the “Louisiana Company” (presumably because everything shipped downstream would eventually go to New Orleans.)  They offered Vaughn $12,000 (at that time a huge sum of money) for a piece of his river frontage.  In exchange, Vaughn agreed to use half of the money to build a suitable hotel at the site, which he would become proprietor of.  In the August 4, 1838, Iowa News of Dubuque, it was announced that “the object of the company is to establish a depot for the lead made in the district… The landing is excellent, and reached with ease by the largest of boats.  The name given to it is Port Sinipee.”

When town lots were laid out, they sold for large sums, as much as $2,000.  Port Sinipee showed every sign of being caught up in a real estate frenzy.  Carpenters and craftsmen came from Galena, Dubuque, and other parts of the territory, and homes, shops and warehouses rapidly sprang up.  Mechanics and merchants came to oversee the construction of docks for the barges that now began to wander upstream from St. Louis to take on lead ore.  By the spring of 1839, about twenty buildings had been erected.  It is unclear whether they were of quick, shoddy construction, or solid like Vaughn’s hotel.  Vaughn, for one, put all his effort into building the best edifice he could make, far exceeding the expectations of the Mineral Point investors.  He built his hotel of local stone, two-stories high, with walls two feet thick.  “The lower floors were of oak, those above of pine, the timbers of oak and red cedar.”  Sitting at the base of the bluff, pure spring water is said to have passed right under the hotel.  A fine ballroom occupied much of the second floor.  Vaughn’s “Stone House,” though never entirely finished, was no primitive frontier tavern, for sure.  It would have been one of the finest buildings in Wisconsin at that time.

A Methodist church was established.  General stores carried “large stocks which included costly furniture and delicate chinaware that one would not expect to see offered for sale in such a wild country.  Miss Isabel Fenley had in her living room a large, much prized mirror that was purchased at a store in Sinipee in 1840.”

By far the most interesting man to show up here and tie himself to its rising fortunes was the engineer, newspaper correspondent, and photographic pioneer John Plumbe., Jr.  Plumbe’s remarkably tragic and unexpected story spans the history of mining, frontiers, and photography alike.

Born at Castle Caerinion in Wales in 1809, Plumbe immigrated with his parents to central Pennsylvania in 1821, where his father operated the first metal screw factory in the United States and helped drive the first railroad over the Alleghanies.  John Plumbe, Jr., studied civil engineering, presumably in Philadelphia.  While in his twenties, he worked on the construction of the first interstate railroad back East, between Petersburg, Virginia, and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.  Seeing prospects for success in the west, he eventually followed the expanding frontier, ending up in the vicinity of Dubuque, Iowa, when it was still a booming new town.  Noticing his talents, the Louisiana Company of Sinipee, located just a few miles upriver, hired the twenty-eight year old engineer to do surveying at the port and assist in laying out lots for the buildings that were projected to rise.  Plumbe’s diary from these years, beginning October 17, 1838, is a record of his daily comings-and-goings during the quick rise and fall of the burgeoning town of Sinipee.


plumbe diary 1

(John Plumbe’s diary, State of Wisconsin Collection, University of Wisconsin-Platteville.)


One of the oddest turns in Sinipee’s history and Plumbe’s own story occurred shortly after he came to Dubuque.  Plumbe was a wild dreamer and a “jack of all trades,” never consistently tied down to one profession or one vision of his own career.  Yet he was undoubtedly tireless, even obsessed, with the several professions that he pursued, from engineering to photography.  It was his tireless effort to promote Sinipee, in fact, that led to his laying the first seeds of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Ironically, while the port’s existence was tied directly to the huge significance of the river as a transportation artery, Sinipee itself, as the “birthplace” of the railroad, would play an indirect role in the eventual eclipse of the Mississippi as the main highway through Middle America.  On December 14, 1838, John Plumbe met with investors from Mineral Point and citizens of Sinipee at Vaughn’s Stone Hotel.  From a certain point-of-view, this date can be considered the birthday of the railroad that would eventually traverse the U.S.  Plumbe proposed petitioning Congress to fund a new rail line linking Milwaukee on Lake Michigan to Port Sinipee on the other side of Wisconsin, the first link in a series of lines that would (he hoped) connect the Eastern U.S. to Oregon.

At this time, existing rail lines in Europe and America were short, sometimes not more than a few miles long, and trains rarely moved at a speed faster than ten miles an hour, and even that was fast enough to make the Duke of Wellington – the victor of the Battle of Waterloo – faint from dizziness while taking a short train ride during his old age.  Plumbe’s proposal, however, was unanimously supported by the investors and a resolution was forwarded to Congress by Wisconsin’s territorial delegate.  The War Department later approved funding for a survey of the proposed route, which eventually culminated in the completion of a cross-country railroad thirty years later, its final golden spike driven into desert ground in Utah in 1869.

Tragically, neither Sinipee nor John Plumbe would participate much further in the railroad or in the economic prosperity of the country.  The town fell victim to one of the ever-present causes of “town demise” in the 19th-century Midwest.  This was the destructive force of rivers and the persistence of water-borne diseases.  In the spring of 1839, only a few months after Plumbe optimistically touted Sinipee’s importance to a nation being covered in rails, spring floods on the Mississippi inundated the town.  The water itself did relatively little damage and the town’s inhabitants simply waited for the swollen waters to recede.  Yet stagnant pools left by the flood bred a deadly array of diseases.  Always a colossal nuisance near inland rivers, mosquitoes spread malaria in proportions far worse than what settlers here were used to.  Sinipee’s citizens fell ill in large numbers.  At least sixty of them, perhaps a quarter of the town, died.

Once a place was known to breed fever and other “bug” diseases (then sometimes called simply the “ague”), it was difficult to get other people to move there, even with great predictions of a coming fortune.  As Sinipee’s inhabitants began to drift away, others were reluctant to buy their vacated property.  After all, if the spot was so promising, why had the sellers left?  By the beginning of 1840, it seems only the Vaughn family remained, though “wildcat” currency bearing the name “Sinipee, Wisc.” was still being printed four years later.

Thedore Rodolf, a Louisiana Company investor, rode into town in 1840 and claimed to find it all abandoned:

“When we finally rode down the ravine to the Mississippi River, and the bankrupted city burst upon our view, a singular sensation took hold of me.  The buildings were all new, showing no sign of decay or deterioration by usage or the weather, having stood there but a little over a year.  I expected momentarily to see the occupants come out to bid us welcome.  There, was, however, not a living being to be seen or heard. . .  I think not even a bird gave life to the desolation.  The quiet of a church-yard reigned. The houses, all painted white, seemed to loom up as monuments of departed greatness.”


1484160_1_l

(“Wildcat” banknote issued to “J. Davis,” July 10, 1844.)


By 1850, a large frame house was all that was left of Sinipee’s business district.  In the years after the epidemic hit, the little port’s buildings were dismantled bit by bit for re-use in the mine shafts at Mineral Point.  Wooden planks were carried over the ice on the river to Dubuque, still a growing town whose importance would have been far greater to Wisconsin miners if it had been on their side of the river.  Payton Vaughn died around 1845.  His wife lived in the grand Stone Hotel until her death in 1861.  Their son later moved onto a farm up the bluff, a place called Sinipee Heights, which overlooked the town site.

When the uninhabited Stone Hotel burned in 1904, its ruins were left where they fell.  Distanced in time from its “heyday,” folklore began to circulate about famous guests who once stayed or danced there.  It was claimed that Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis lodged at the hotel while they were stationed at Fort Crawford, the remote frontier outpost upriver that became Prairie du Chien.  Davis and Taylor were certainly in the vicinity during the 1832 Black Hawk War.  (The future Confederate president protected the defeated chief Black Hawk during his journey to prison, earning the leader’s friendship and admiration.)  But the story of them stopping at Vaughn’s hotel in Sinipee cannot be true.  Though there is a “wildcat” banknote from Sinipee issued to one “J. Davis” in July 1844, the future Confederate president had resigned his military commission and left Wisconsin three years before the town of Sinipee came into existence.

Jefferson Davis’ experiences during these years were truly romantic.  He fell in love with Taylor’s beautiful daughter Sarah Knox Taylor at Fort Crawford, married her against her father’s wishes in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1835, then went back South with her, down the Mississippi, where she died of malaria near their plantation outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, after only three months of marriage.  Struck down by grief, Davis plunged into eight years of gloomy seclusion.

It has often been said that Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were similar men.  Both were native Kentuckians and sons of the frontier, both had served in the Black Hawk War on the Upper Mississippi, both were reluctant fighters who felt called by duty when the Civil War erupted but had already seen death themselves and would have been happy to stay away from it all.

They were alike in another way, too:  Davis and Lincoln had both lost their first loves and their personalities were shaped by that experience.  Lincoln, in his twenties, in New Salem, Illinois (like Sinipee, abandoned not many years later), nearly committed suicide when his great love Ann Rutledge, a bright and beautiful pioneer girl of 22, died of typhus in 1835.  Like Davis, he was desolated by her loss.  Lincoln spent weeks roaming the woods of the Sangamon River country in despair.  Yet it was his response to pain, many thought, that “deepened” the young Lincoln and made him great.  The poet Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote the epitaph on Ann Rutledge’s gravestone in Petersburg, Illinois, when she was moved out of a lonely pioneer grave years after Lincoln’s assassination to lie in honor in the town cemetery, included her voice in one of the few poems from Spoon River Anthology that spoke for real historical figures.  “Out of me unworthy and unknown,” Masters had her say, a wraith by her own graveside, “the vibrations of deathless music, with malice toward none, charity for all. . . I am Ann Rutledge who sleeps beneath these weeds, beloved of Abraham Lincoln, wedded to him, not through union but through separation.  Bloom forever, oh Republic, from the dust of my Bosom!”


plumbe 6

(Unidentified woman.  Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48)


“Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor had also disappeared from Wisconsin by the time Sinipee came into existence.  In 1838, when Payton Vaughn built his hotel, Taylor was commanding troops in Florida during the Seminole War and never came north again.  Both Taylor and Davis, however, traveling by military steamboat, would have sailed by the bluff towering over the site of Sinipee many times.

After the town’s demise, the optimistic engineer John Plumbe also left the area, returning east at first.  As Sinipee’s buildings were dismantled and used elsewhere, Plumbe was in Washington, D.C.  There, around 1840, he set eyes for the first time on a new invention that had come into the world around the same time as the locomotive and which would revolutionize it as much as any new kind of travel.  Just three years after the Frenchman Louis-Jacques Daguerre, drawing on the work of Henry Fox Talbot in England and others in France, presented the world with a new art form, the daguerreotype, John Plumbe saw one of these amazing images in a Washington gallery.  Fascinated, he took up the art of photography (then three just three years old), became a skilled practitioner of daguerreotypy within a few months, and quickly set up over twenty commercial portrait studios.   Plumbe’s studios were scattered from Boston west to Dubuque and overseas to Liverpool and Paris, where he sought to compete with Daguerre himself.

Pioneering a process for transferring images to lithographs an invention he called the “plumbeotype”   the Welshman and failed promoter of a port town in the Driftless became known briefly as the “American Daguerre,” advertising himself as a “professor of photography” just a few months after he learned to make these images himself.  He may have worked briefly for the photographer Matthew Brady in New York or Washington.  Plumbe made portraits of many of the famous Americans of the time, including the writer Washington Irving, the historian George Bancroft, naturalist John James Audubon, and the enslaved artisan of Monticello, Isaac Jefferson.  He is also credited with making the earliest photographs both of a sitting U.S. President (James Polk) and of the White House and U.S. Capitol building.


plumbe 8

(John Plumbe, Jr., Self Portrait, 1847.  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)


Walt Whitman, then the little-known editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, paid a visit to Plumbe’s New York City studio in July 1846.  It was almost a decade before Leaves of Grass appeared, but the revolution in human vision brought about by photography certainly flowed into Whitman’s own radical new vision of the world once he encountered this art form.  He was obsessed the daguerreotypes ability to capture “reality.”

Plumbe’s studio was “at the upper corner of Murray street and Broadway, commonly known as Plumbe’s Daguerreotype establishment” and Whitman thought it “a lion of the great metropolis.”  He must have had his own portrait made there.  One of the best early daguerreotypes of the poet is sometimes attributed to Plumbe.  As Whitman wrote on the front page of his newspaper, on July 2, 1846:

“Puffs, etc., out of the question, this is certainly a great establishment!  You will see more life there — more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty, (for what created thing can surpass that masterpiece of physical perfection, the human face?) than in any spot we know of.  The crowds continually coming and going — the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men, the idler, the children — these alone are enough to occupy a curious train of attention.  But they are not the first thing.  To us, the pictures address themselves before all else.   What a spectacle!  In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces!  There they stretch, from floor to ceiling — hundreds of them.  Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech!  How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact.

“You are indeed in a new world — a peopled world, though mute as the grave.  We don’t know how it is with others, but we could spend days in that collection, and find enough enjoyment in the thousand human histories, involved in those daguerreotypes. . .   There is always, to us, a strange fascination, in portraits.  We love to dwell long upon them — to infer many things, from the text they preach — to pursue the current of thoughts running riot about them. . .  Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality.”


whitman2

(Walt Whitman.  Daguerreotype attributed to John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48.)


Always an engineer at heart, however, Plumbe may have turned to photography mostly as a means to make money and keep his transcontinental railroad dream alive.  By 1848, he found himself in financial trouble and sold off his portrait studios.  When the Forty-Niners began to go west to California, the photographer ditched his art and went with them, though not just to look for gold.  Plumbe surveyed land around Sacramento and was a customs inspector for the port of San Francisco in 1852, where he continued his involvement in railroad schemes.

He may have encountered another man who had come west from the Driftless.  William Stephen Hamilton, the youngest son of Alexander Hamilton, who was six years old when Aaron Burr gunned down his father, came to southwestern Wisconsin from New York City and became a lead miner near Mineral Point during Galena’s boom days.  He, too, fought in the Black Hawk War and founded a mining town, Hamilton’s Diggings, which later disappeared.  (It was located near present-day Wiota, Wisconsin, on a branch of the Pecatonica River.)  Hamilton loved the Driftless but went to California in 1849 to dig for gold.  He died of yellow fever and was buried in a mass grave in Sacramento.  Before his death, he told a friend that he would “rather have been hung in the ‘Lead Mines’ than to have lived in this miserable hole (California).”

Like William Stephen Hamilton, Plumbe also failed miserably in the Far West.  A bad fate seemed to dog him everywhere, as all of his businesses and dreams failed.  Returning to Dubuque in 1854, just a few miles from the ruins of ill-fated Sinipee, he opened a milling business with his brother Richard.  But that endeavor, too, was crushed during the national economic panic of 1857, when he lost what little savings he had.

Struggling against a deep sense of frustration and failure, prolonged depression, and the effects of malaria contracted at Sinipee twenty years earlier, the 48-year-old John Plumbe cut his throat with a razor at his brother’s home in Dubuque, Iowa, in May 1857.  As a suicide, this great man — one of the forgotten figures of American photography — was buried in an unmarked grave overlooking a great vista of the Mississippi, in Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery.  Lost for almost 150 years, the grave was recently identified by local historians and a memorial erected.

The graves of the epidemic victims at Sinipee were also mostly unmarked, though they still sit atop the majestic bluff, whose summit can be reached by a difficult hike.  The ruins of the Stone Hotel were used as fill during the construction of Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 11, which when completed on October 15, 1934, flooded the old townsite.  Only the graves on the bluff remain today.

The site of Sinipee is now the Fenley Recreation Area off Bluff Hollow Road in Grant County, Wisconsin, and is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

JOHN PLUMBE :  A GALLERY

 

plumbe 4

plumbe - george bancroft

plumbe 7

plumbe 2

plumbe 1

plumbe 5

plumbe us patent office dc 1846

plumbe 3

City West: Lost Metropolis of the Indiana Dunes

dunes 11

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.


dunes 22

(Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


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.


dunes 3b

(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.”


dunes 21b

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


aep-inn153 600px

(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.


dunes 28

(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.


Danielwebster


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.”


dunes 6

(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.


dunes 9

(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.


dunes 15

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

 dunes 4

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

 dunes 20

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

 dunes 10

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

 dunes 32

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

 dunes 30

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

 aep-ins87

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.

 aep-inp12

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

 dunes 25b

(Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)