Chesterton Tribune



Historical Society program: Burns Harbor at 50, a town of contradictions

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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.

When Bethlehem 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 in Indiana.

The town offers close neighbors and narrow roads, for those who prefer that. For others, large lots and privacy are also abundant.

Though new development has appeared in recent years, residents still pay the same amount for their monthly sewer bills as they did 16 years ago.

When Bethlehem 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 things.”

The presentation 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.”

Poparad’s 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

The Duneland 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.


Posted 10/26/2017




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