Chesterton Tribune



Just the facts ma'am Township museum traces history of local police departments

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The men and women behind the badge are best known from TV -- Lt. Theo Kojak, Sgt. Joe Friday, LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, and Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry.

But the Westchester Township History Museum wants Dunelanders to familiarize themselves with their own hometown heroes.

The newest museum exhibit “Police Departments of Westchester Township,” running through April 28, charts the milestones of the Chesterton PD, Porter PD, Burns Harbor PD, and Dune Acres Police Commission.

It is essentially a sequel to last year’s “Fire Departments of Westchester Township” said museum curator Serena Sutliff who found out while researching that the history of each police department goes farther than one would guess.

“I got a lot more information than I had expected,” she said.

One thing she learned was that the departments have worked in conjunction with each other many times despite being separate entities.

“The stories are really interesting,” she said.

Sutliff dug through issues of the Chesterton Tribune from the 1920s to collect information for the exhibit. Like many newspapers in the days of “sensationalism,” she said the articles were written in “vivid” detail that sometimes swayed off the path of political correctness.

Peace officers and marshals

in Chesterton

The exhibit relates how the Chesterton PD got its start.

Prior to 1900, before any departments were formally established, “peace officers” and a constable would keep order in the town with assistance from the Porter County Sheriff.

When they eventually had the funds to do so, the Town of Chesterton hired Joseph Stephens as its first town marshal. Stephens led a pack of watchmen who monitored the town and checked to see if all doors were locked in the downtown every night.

One night watchman on April 6, 1902, discovered flames and smoke in the downtown area that escalated into the greatest fire disaster in the town’s history, leaving many of the buildings along Calumet Street south of the railroad tracks in ashes.

In 1909, one marshal responded to a robbery of the Chesterton Bank in his first few days on the job.

Chesterton’s first long-term marshal was George H. Bush (no relation to the U.S. presidents) who held the role for 18 years starting in 1924 until his death in 1942. Sutliff said Bush was known as “a big stickler” for people in the town to obey the rules. He strictly enforced a town speed limit of 15 miles per hour and all dogs had to be on leashes.

CPD saw many developments in the 1960s such as moving into a new building at 8th Street and Broadway where it still is today. The marshal system was replaced with a police commission board in 1967. At the same time, there was an upswing of crime in the area, Sutliff said, as the town’s population rose with the coming of Bethlehem Steel and increased tourist traffic for the Indiana Dunes.

The town now has a total of 26 full time officers, 15 reserve officers, seven civilian employees and two canines.

“Bat signal” prototype?

Years before the caped-crusader Batman was drawn into the comic book universe in 1939, Chesterton had its own version of the “bat signal.”

Sutliff said that in the 1910s the town installed a light on top of the Smith & Sons store on the corner of Calumet Road and Broadway. Whenever a phone call came in for the town marshal, the operator would switch on the light to alert him.

Porter PD

Porter relied on constables like Frank Wannegar and the County Sheriff before it incorporated in 1908.

Wannegar became Porter’s second town marshal after Emile Busse and kept the title for more than 20 years.

Their role was “fairly quiet,” the museum research reports, as many incidents fell under the jurisdiction of the game warden or the state troopers after 1933. One bit of drama did occur, however, in 1922 when Wannegar was shot in the thigh by a saloon patron after an argument over change received.

Porter town marshals throughout the 1950s patrolled Johnson’s Beach (now known as Porter Beach). During that time, only the day marshal and night marshal represented the police force with the addition of a third officer in 1958.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the town created a police commission and then in 1997 moved the department to its current location on Francis Street.

Wannegar’s marshal’s badge is one of the items on display in the exhibit.

Burns Harbor, Dune Acres

In its infancy, the Burns Harbor Town Council hired Kenneth Blank as the town’s first marshal in 1967.

The executives at Bethlehem Steel generously provided the town with a new building to be established as the first town hall and marshal’s office.

The department moved to the new town hall on Boo Road in 1981.

Then, dark days came in 2001 when the steel mill declared bankruptcy. The town lost 85 percent of its revenue and the Burns Harbor PD was reduced to two full-time officers, but many local businesses and neighboring towns pitched in to pull through the crisis, the exhibit recounts.

Today, with the steel mill recovered, the town employs five full-time officers.

Dune Acres immediately created a town marshal position when it was incorporated in 1923. The number increased to four part-time marshals by the mid-1960s. Their big job was to guard the entrance of the town and protect the homes that were seasonally unoccupied.

Bloody 20

As the municipal police departments’ typical days consisted of a few traffic stops and occasional drug arrests, Indiana State Troopers at the Dunes Park Post #1 dealt with matters of a more extreme nature.

Troopers put in long hours enforcing “Bloody 20” the stretch of roadway between Gary and the Michigan state line in the days before the toll road system. Their headquarters was at the intersection of U.S. 20 and Ind. 49.

It was “one of the deadliest roadways in America.” A particularly tragic year was 1951 when there were 362 crashes, 36 fatalities, and 262 injuries reported. Much of the traffic was alleviated once the Toll Road opened in 1956. The post in 1958 had 80 personnel, including 58 troopers and many detectives and lab technicians.

The post was moved in the 1970s to Lowell to consolidate operations. A historical marker for Dunes Park Post #1 was placed last year.

The wit and humor of one of the “Bloody 20” ISP troopers, Tim McCarthy, has also made its way into the exhibit. Sutliff has sporadically placed genuine McCarthy road safety sayings like “Drunk drivers are not very funny, but they can still crack you up.”

Death in Duneland

Coupled with the police exhibit is a bonus round for those with appetites for tales about crime and punishment.

Museumgoers can read about the first recorded murder in Porter County perpetrated by Francis Staves, who was sentenced to hang after killing a fellow sawmill worker in 1838.

They can also see the original prison records, conduct reports, and prison photos of Alonzo Powers who shot and killed William Tratebas at Trudell & Shaner’s blacksmith shop in 1895. Sutliff said the items were donated by a relative of Powers.

For those who are fascinated with the 1920s gangster culture of Chicago, the exhibit tells of how U.S. 20 and U.S. 12 were both popular spots for gangster’s disposing of bodies. One victim by the name of Edward (Ted) Newberry was dumped by gangsters a quarter of a mile from the Bailly homestead.

Then there is the plane crash in Jackson Twp. on October 12, 1933 where seven lives were lost as a bomb went off on its way to Oakland, Calif. Sutliff said it is believed that this was the first case of an in-air terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

One anecdote Sutliff tells is that a local witness to the crash took with him one of the propellers from the crash site and put it in his garage. For a little while, it was considered by authorities that the plane had crashed due to a missing propeller. The resident eventually notified police about the propeller he had picked up.

Museumgoers can also spend hours ogling museum researcher Eva Hopkins’ collection of newspaper clippings on nearly every murder and unsolved mystery that has happened locally over the past 50 years or so.

Photo exhibit next, Dunes later

Sutliff said the museum will next hold a photograph exhibit in May where visitors can help the museum identify people and places depicted.

And, in June, the museum’s summer exhibit will feature the Indiana Dunes.

Museum exhibits are free to the public. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.



Posted 4/18/2013