Industry dots the
shore of Lake Michigan, interspersing trees, pristine dunes, metal, and
smog. Chicagoans may call their neighbors just over the state line “Indiana
Hicks” while the rest of the state is reluctant to claim them either. The
people of the region are resilient, sometimes seeming gritty and bitter like
the morning air that surrounds the mills, yet still kind enough to help a
stranger. Northwest Indiana is home to many contradictions. The Town of
Burns Harbor is no exception.
In recognition of
the 50th anniversary of its incorporation, former Chesterton Tribune
and Michigan City New-Dispatch journalist Paulene Poparad brought a
detailed sketch of the history of Burns Harbor before the Duneland
Historical Society at its October meeting last week.
First settled in
1833, incorporated on Sept. 9, 1967, “Burns Harbor is a 6.9-square mile town
of contradictions,” Poparad said. A trinity of air separation towers signals
one’s proximity to Burns Harbor, but what passersby traveling I-94 don’t
know is that deer often congregate at their base.
This happens not
too far from one of the most modern integrated steel mills in the world,
which sits on the fringe of Burns Harbor, and employs more than twice as
many people as live in the town. Population at the time of incorporation was
1,330, which a master plan predicted would swell to 10,000 by 1985. This
fact, when Poparad mentioned it, was met with laugher and scoffing from all
corners of the room.
Burns Harbor may be
a small town, but it has never been one with quiet or empty streets. U.S.
Highway 12 was constructed in 1923 and U.S. 20 in 1932. Drivers knew to be
extra cautious or even avoid the Burns Harbor stretch of U.S. 20, as it had
no stoplights or posted speed limits. The construction of I-94 and widening
of Ind. 149 displaced many homes, contributing to the town population
decreasing to 788 by 1990.
Steel sought to build a mill on Burns Harbor’s lakefront, contradiction
reared its head again. The mill would bring thousands of jobs to the area,
but some residents were in staunch opposition to its proposed presence and
potential to negatively affect the Dunes. Construction was authorized in
1962 in spite of this opposition, but it did lead to the formation of the
Save the Dunes Council, which is now one of the oldest environmental groups
The town offers
close neighbors and narrow roads, for those who prefer that. For others,
large lots and privacy are also abundant.
development has appeared in recent years, residents still pay the same
amount for their monthly sewer bills as they did 16 years ago.
Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001, Burns Harbor lost 85 percent of its tax
revenue. What could have been a 466-percent take hike for residents was met
with a slashed town budget. Contributions from local businesses and
volunteer efforts were integral in maintaining municipal operations during
this time. In another contradiction, Burns Harbor survived the death of the
company that helped fund its incorporation.
Those in attendance
at the meeting appreciated Poparad’s manner of presentation and knowledge.
Dorothy Meyers, recording secretary for the Duneland Historical Society,
said she enjoyed listening, and the information was new to her. Tim Cole,
who introduced Poparad, praised the delivery of the presentation: “She’s
well-spoken and has the experience and put togetherness you need for these
also reminded lifelong Burns Harbor resident Marilyn Arvidson of her own
family history and childhood. She recalled swimming for 10 or 15 cents in a
turquoise blue pool at the Sauk Trail Boy Scout Camp. She is a descendent of
the Brickner Family, one of the first families to settle Burns Harbor.
Poparad took a
moment to say that the photos of historic homesteads and buildings she
showed are available on the town’s website. Interested residents can view
photos of the one-room Bailly School house, the Haglund house, and the
Hickory Grove Dairy Farm of the 1880s, among others. Poparad encouraged the
audience to document the current events and state of their community: “Today
we might not think of our homes as anything historical, but to our families
and future generations, they may well be.”
presentation was based on a 2010 Westchester Museum exhibit on the history
of Burns Harbor, which is now a permanent historical display in the Town
Hall lobby at 1240 N. Boo Road
Historical Society meets 7:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month in
February, March, April, May, September, October, and November at the
Westchester Library Service Center, 100 W Indiana Ave. in Chesterton.
Membership is $10 a year per individual.