Whiting, Before There Was a Whiting
By John Hmurovic
Lena Vogel didn’t like the sand. Her complaint was a common one in 1890s Whiting. “There were an awful many sand hills on John Street, where we lived,” Lena remembered a few years later. “There were no sidewalks or streets. We waded in sand up to our knees.” Sand was everywhere.
So, if Standard Oil had not come here; if the industrial barons of the early 20th century had not decided that Northwest Indiana was a wonderful place to locate their mills, refineries and factories; if Chicago had not grown into a major world city, would our naturally sandy corner of Indiana be like the Indiana Dunes? Would we now be part of the Indiana Dunes National Park?
It’s a silly question, of course. The mills, refineries, and factories came, and Chicago grew. The national economic trends of the late 1800s set all of that into motion and made it almost inevitable that we’d become an industrial area. But the recent designation of the Indiana Dunes as a National Park makes this a good time to look back at our own area, less than 30 miles from the Dunes, and what it looked like before the refinery came.
Did Whiting and Robertsdale have sand dunes that were comparable to what we see today at Indiana Dunes? The quick answer is “no.” To understand why, you need to know two things. First, the winds in our area generally come from the west. Second, look at a map of Lake Michigan’s southern shore. You see that Whiting and the Robertsdale part of Hammond are on a curve that connects with the western part of the lake, while Michigan City and the Dunes are on a curve that connects with the eastern shore of the lake.
Sand dunes are formed by winds. Because we are on the curve connecting with the western shore, winds out of the west generally blow sand into the water, not onto the Whiting-Robertsdale shore. But westerly winds in the Dunes area, blow sand from the lake onto the shore, where it piles up. That doesn’t mean we were sand free. We did have ridges of sand, some of them large. They were formed by wind and waves. But our sand ridges were not as impressive as what exists at the Indiana Dunes.
So, in our imaginary world of no refineries, no mills, and no factories, we might not have qualified for inclusion in the Indiana Dunes National Park, if tall sand dunes were all that mattered. But, it’s very likely that we would have been included if overall natural beauty was also considered. As hard as it might be to imagine in our industrialized/urbanized community, modern day Whiting-Robertsdale was built in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
“There were all kinds of woods and birds, and the whole place was so pretty,” said Emma Thamm, who moved to Whiting in 1883, six years before the oil refinery arrived. Henry Theobold, who arrived in 1886, remembered the thick growth of bushes along the lakeshore, running from Wolf Lake to today’s Front Street in Whiting. “There used to be a lot of wild grapes growing there,” he said. “One winter we picked 75 gallons.” Henry Schrage, Whiting’s first postmaster, said “There were lots of berries, and we started the season with strawberries, then gathered raspberries and cranberries.”
The abundance of food attracted tens of thousands of birds and waterfowl to the area, as did the abundance of water. Today, we have Wolf Lake and George Lake in Whiting-Robertsdale, and Lake Calumet just to the west in Chicago. But before the arrival of industry, there were two additional lakes in the area: Hyde Lake, just west of Wolf Lake in today’s Hegewisch neighborhood of Chicago; and Berry Lake, in the vicinity of the present-day Marktown neighborhood of East Chicago, right on the Whiting-East Chicago border.
Berry Lake was “a beauty spot, which is still cherished in the memory of the older inhabitants,” said an account in the Whiting Sun newspaper from 1906. By that time, the lake was mostly gone, drained by Standard Oil so they could expand the refinery. Berry Lake was lined with hundreds of birch trees, which the 1906 newspaper article called, “about the most attractive tree in Whiting twenty years ago.” Calumet Region historian Archibald McKinlay wrote that Berry Lake was, “Eden-like, full of fish and water lilies, its banks lush with berries, especially raspberries, and luxuriant with woods, topped at the lake’s northern end by birches that stood like sentinels guarding a magic place.”
On Berry Lake, early Whiting pioneer Heinrich Eggers had one of the most beautiful hunting and fishing lodges in the area. On George Lake, Charles Kreuter had one of the best-known hunting and fishing resorts in the area, according to Calumet Region historian Powell Moore. And near the location of today’s Mascot Museum, close to Lake Michigan, Frank Reinhart operated another sportsman’s retreat. Most of those who came to those resorts were men from Chicago who liked to fish and hunt.
Ducks, geese and deer were abundant. So were muskrats, and thousands of frogs. James Henry Johnson, who worked as a telegraph operator at the train station that was in the vicinity of Reinhart’s lodge, said, “There was plenty of duck hunting and frog catching among the settlers in Whiting.”
Like Berry Lake, Hyde Lake also gave way to the desire for more industrial expansion. The remaining lakes (Wolf, George and Calumet), today look nothing like they did before the arrival of industry. All have been altered by industrial expansion.
But before industry came, the lakes helped make this a very appealing area for wildlife. The lakes were not, however, the only attractions. There were numerous swales, which are shallow bodies of water situated between ridges of sand. These ridges of sand mostly ran east to west, parallel to Lake Michigan. They were created by the glaciers which covered this area as recently as 11,000 years ago. As those glaciers retreated to the Arctic, they created a series of sand ridges at what became the southern end of Lake Michigan. At one point, for instance, today’s Ridge Road in the Munster/Highland area, was the southern tip of the lake. Ridge Road is built on the ridge of sand that was once the southern shore of Lake Michigan. As the glacial ice melted, the lakeshore gradually moved north, creating more ridges of sand at each of its new southern edges.
These ridges, which were numerous in today’s Whiting-Robertsdale area, were almost impossible to navigate by pioneer travelers. To travel south to north on foot, for example, meant you had to climb over a ridge of sand, descend into a shallow body of water, climb over another ridge of sand, wade through more water, and repeat this process over and over again. That’s why historian Powell Moore said that “the site of Whiting was one of the most uninviting portions of the region.” It was “a wilderness of sand and swamps covered with a luxuriant growth of marsh grass, wild rice, and scrub oak.”
The sandy, marshy land of Northwest Indiana is the main reason why this part of the state was the last part of Indiana to be settled. It was also the reason why Standard Oil selected Whiting for its refinery. The land was too rough for settlers: “You bring me to this sand hole!” Emma Thamm screamed to her husband after their arrival in the 1880s. But large companies, with lots of money, felt they could tame the ground and rebuild it to serve their needs.
Still, even for Standard Oil, the richest company of the late 1800s, the Whiting environment was not easy to bring under control. An August 1889 map at the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society shows what the land looked like when Standard Oil arrived. F.C. Rossiter, a surveyor and civil engineer from Chicago, drew a map of what appears to be the part of the refinery that is near 129th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard. It shows that Standard Oil had to level numerous sand ridges, fill in the muddy and water-filled areas between those ridges, and clear out an abundance of timber and other plants growing on and in-between the ridges.
Construction of the refinery had started just three months before Rossiter drew his map. To tackle the enormous job and change the landscape of this area forever, Standard Oil hired 1,500 men. “The sand ridges were leveled,” Moore writes in The Calumet Region, his history of Northwest Indiana, “and the intervening sloughs filled in.” The wagons used by the workers, pulled by horses, were equipped with wide tires to navigate the sand. Hay and straw were laid down to create roads, designed to keep the wagons from getting stuck in ruts of mud and sand. Still, Moore writes, “Horses stumbled and fell while pulling the heavy vehicles and earth-moving machinery.” Workers, meanwhile, had to deal with swarms of mosquitoes, and probably the sand fleas which early pioneers complained about as a constant nuisance.
In the end, of course, the refinery was built, and the town grew alongside it. Much of our area’s natural beauty was eliminated. In the 130 years since, development reduced the natural areas even further, and pollution soiled much of what remained. Today, nature is making something of a comeback. Fifty years ago, it was almost unheard of, for instance, to see deer in this area. Today, they join wolves, beavers, ducks, swans, geese, herons, and numerous birds and fish, in giving us a hint at what it must have been like before industry came.