The road ends at the Indiana dunes, with a JFK tale seldom told

So, barreling through rush hour and construction on Interstate 80/94 between Gary and Hobart, via Hammond, isn’t the way I envisioned the last leg of my Natural Indiana guidebook journey. Neither was photographing a Queen Anne’s lace with an egret calling overhead, while the PA of an industrial packaging plant reverberated from across a chain-link fence.

But ending it in Indiana dune country always was the plan. Aside from the hill country I’ve lived in for 45 years, of the 12 Indiana natural regions explored in the past four years, the dunes were most familiar. And in every relevant way – history, nature, geography, demography – the Hoosier sand hills are one of the nation’s most spectacular natural environments and conservation stories.

"To the Midwest," Carl Sandburg wrote in 1958, the Lake Michigan dunes are what "the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity."

Of the nearly 250 natural areas explored from Ohio River to the Michigan State Line since 2013, the 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is the only one that is managed by the U.S. Park Service.

Indiana dune country – Lake, Porter and LaPorte Counties – is actually Great Lakes moraine country. The shoreline dunes most often associated with the region – from Mount Tom to Mount Baldy – are but a small part of the state’s Northwestern Morainal Natural Region, which formed during its epochal evolution from Glacial Lake Chicago to contemporary Lake Michigan some 13,000 years ago.

Moraines are ridges of glacial debris – boulders, gravel, sand, dirt – that were deposited by the last ice sheets to cover the region. In Indiana, the most recent was the Wisconsin Glacial, which retreated from the state 13,600 years ago, according to the Indiana Geological Survey. Today’s Lake Michigan was formed by the Wisconsin’s meltwaters.

The Valparaiso Moraine is Lake Michigan’s largest. It's U-shape stretches from the Illinois-Wisconsin State Line through Northwest Indiana and a hundred miles into Michigan. Between the Valparaiso and the lake, geologists believe, at least seven different Lake Michigan shorelines formed and reformed. The Dunes Lakeshore features examples of four – the present, Tolleston, Calumet, and Glenwood formations.

Natural characteristics include sand hills covered with grasses, savannas and forests, with low-lying areas in between that range from sand prairies to swampy wetlands. More than 350 bird species live in or pass through the Indiana dunes. Its biodiversity ranks near the top of all National Parks.

The National Lakeshore’s 15,000 acres – composed of two separate land blocks permanently protecting more than 15 of Indiana's 40 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline – surround the 2,182-acre Indiana Dunes State Park and the 159-acre Marquette Park in the Miller area of Gary.

These 17,000-plus acres protect the southernmost reaches of the Great Lakes. Miller Woods and Marquette Park occupy Lake Michigan’s southernmost point. In places, the dunes tower 200 feet above the lake.

Within them lie three National Natural Landmarks – Pinhook Bog and Cowles Bog in the national lakeshore and Dunes Nature Preserve in the state park. Named for University of Chicago botany professor Henry Chandler Cowles, who studied the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cowles is considered the birthplace of ecology.

And it all was nearly lost, save for a walk in the Rose Garden between President John F. Kennedy and an Illinois congressman named Paul Douglas, as related to me in the 1990s by Save the Dunes Council’s Herb Read.

In the post-World War II era, all of Indiana’s politicians – Republican and Democrat alike – were hell-bent on industrializing the dunes, from Gary to Michigan City. And a deal had been struck to do just that, before a reporter interviewing Kennedy in 1962 read the documentation on the president’s desk – upside down.

The reporter called the Douglas, who had led congressional efforts to save the dunes. Douglas called Kennedy, who, during a walk in the Rose Garden, told the Republican to disprove a pro-industry report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Douglas called Read, told him to be at meetings in Washington the next day to present the flaws in the Corps’ case. “By the way, what are they?” the senator asked. “I don’t know,” Read replied. “We haven’t found them yet. But we will.”

Herb and another dunes advocate named George Anderson boarded an overnight train to D.C. and, along the way, discovered the Corps had exaggerated benefits from the lakeshore development.

The Kennedy administration demanded a compromise. Congress authorized an 11,700-acre Dunes National Lakeshore in 1965.

Photographs: Top, Mount Baldy, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore; Second, Cowles Bog, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore; Third, Dunes Nature Preserve, Indiana Dunes State Park; Bottom, Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes State Park.

Editor's note: The quotes from Herb Read are excerpted from Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana, by Steven Higgs, Indiana University Press, 1995.


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