Chesterton Tribune

Historians mark Morgan Park centennial with a look back at town's first subdivision

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In 1937 Walter Crewson, a graduate student in geography at the University of Chicago, described Morgan Park in this way in his master’s thesis, Chesterton, Indiana A Study in Urban Geography.

“Separated from the rest of Chesterton by the broad, swampy valley formed by the meandering Coffee Creek, it stands like an island in the residence pattern of the community. . . . Homes are distinctive in their construction and in the manner in which they are maintained. . . . Beautiful maple trees line each of its streets, and add to its air of well-being.”

“Like an island in the residence pattern of the community”: as Morgan Park celebrates its 100th anniversary this year as Chesterton’s first subdivision, it remains a community within a community, not just by virtue of its geography—bordered to the west by Coffee Creek, to the north by the Norfolk Southern, and to the east by Ind. 49—but by virtue too of a particular spirit, a home pride, a consciousness perhaps of traditions not yet quite lost.

On Thursday Betty Canright took the Duneland Historical Society on a slide-show walk of Morgan Park, as it was and as it is.

In preparing her program Canright played archaeologist, sifting through a mass of materials: the archives of the Chesterton Tribune, land titles, city directories, telephone books, census reports, Sanborn maps, and old photographs. The result was a then-and-now snapshot—actually a series of then-and-now snapshots—of a neighborhood which has matured and mellowed as gracefully as the Schwedler maples planted there have.

Morgan Park was the creation of the Chesterton Reality Company (CRC), founded by Tribune publisher Arthur Bowser, Chesterton Bank officers Edward Morgan and Charles Jeffrey, and a couple of railroad men. For 20 years Bowser had been Chesterton’s biggest and loudest booster, and with the CRC he put his money where his mouth was, with the idea of course of making some money. The premise of Morgan Park: Chesterton would be an ideal place for the mill workers of the newly built-from-scratch Gary to reside, linked as it was by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern commuter service. Thus began, in principle at least, the suburbanization of Chesterton.

Named for Chesterton’s early settler, John G. Morgan, Morgan Park made an initial splash, with 80 of the 259 platted lots—priced at $100 to $150—purchased within two weeks of the subdivision’s official announcement in the Tribune on June 13, 1907. Still, the lots were small—33 feet by 132 feet—and at least two were needed for the construction of a home.

(Some of the lots appear to have been bought by speculators, since only seven months after it went on the market the Tribune carried an add offering “FREE LOTS” in Morgan Park for “intending home builders.”)

Two years later, in 1909, a dozen houses had been built, all of them still there. They were raised by saloon keepers, railroad men, a horse and buggy dealer, and people with the familiar names of Ameling, Bedenkop, and Morgan. For all of these 12 homes Canright managed to unearth old photos, and the then-and-now comparison is striking: the sapling Schwedler maples lining whole streets of vacant lots; a steam engine heading west along the railroad tracks on a winter’s day, Morgan Park looking all the more empty for the flat expanse of snow.

Over the years Morgan Park grew, of course, though sometimes in fits and starts: 19 homes by 1921, 24 by 1924, 58 by 1931, 61 by 1939—not much home building during the depression. And then, in the post-war years, a boom: 104 homes by 1954. Eventually Morgan Park became, for all practical purposes, built-out: 132 by 1990, 149 in 2007. In some of these homes four generations of the same family have lived. And in one of them—in the 300 block of Roosevelt St.—only one family has ever lived at all, four generations of Tons.

Yet the houses of Morgan Park tell only part of the story. Canright—who has lived with Warren in the 300 block of East Indiana Ave. since 1951— recalled the other part on Thursday: the “social events, festivals, dances, and picnics”; “tennis tournaments on the courts at the Edward Morgan home, horseshoe tournaments at the Verne Vedell home”; parties in the Seventies when “a block of Landman Street was closed off and residents enjoyed food, games, and fellowship”; and only a week ago, at the home of Jon and Charlotte Kroft, a neighborhood picnic, a marvelous way for Morgan Park to begin its second century.

Canright recalled other things too. The night in July 1952 when Babe the Elephant, hired to give kids rides by Smedman’s Econo-Mart, escaped and wandered down East Morgan Ave., then north down Wilson Street, then across the railroad tracks, and finally to the banks of Lake Palomar. The summer when John Read hired a pony for the summer, again to give kids rides. The day in 1961 when, from her own home, she saw the Kennoy house at 324 E. Indiana Ave. burning, dropped everything, and called the Chesterton Fire Department, making use of a plaque just made by her Cub Scouts with the CFD telephone number on it.

Many of the Schwedler maples are dying now, Canright noted. More than 500 of them, imported from Holland, were planted in Morgan Park, and they flourished as the neighborhood did. But age and storms have taken their toll. Gradually the town is replacing them, with Deborah maples, and since 1995 65 Deborahs have been planted in Morgan Park, 23 in this year alone. An apt symbol of the neighborhood’s continuity, as some of the old families remain, joined by new ones, and together keeping Morgan Park’s spirit alive.


Posted 10/19/2007