Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Tourism Board hears plans for Porter trolley track to the Dunes and museum

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

A touch of history may be coming to the Porter/Munson Place area, one that’s on wheels.

On Tuesday, the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitors Commission board of directors was the first to hear of an ambitious new project proposed by the non-profit Railhead of the Dunes Transit Authority to lay track for vintage South Shore cars to carry visitors from Indiana Dunes Visitor Center to areas of Indiana Dunes State Park.

The effort would require approval and collaboration with all involved parties including the PCCRVC, the Indiana Dunes State Park, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the Town of Porter.

Before that is undertaken, as the first phase of the project the group looks to construct a museum attraction next to the Visitor Center in the next year that would house a 1908 wood coach baggage car used by The Chicago, South Shore and South Bend Railway Co.

Porter resident Sherrill Newman is project manager for Dunes Railhead and a board of local residents including PCCRVC member and railroad enthusiast Richard Riley is forming.

Newman said the timeline of the project is expected to be five years or more and will be done in three phases: construct the museum facility, complete the electric railway from the Dune Park Station to the state park, and extend the railway to the Visitor Center.

The organization is working with an unnamed donor – who Newman only describes as “a longtime resident of the area”– who has amassed a collection of railroad tracks that if laid would be two miles long, overhead line material, bridges, and other parts at a private yard in Michigan City and is willing to donate them for the new railway extensions.

The bridges in the collection are ones that transported the South Shore cars over the Pennsylvania and Wabash Roads in Gary and catenary bridges that carried trolley wire along a railroad west of the Lake-Porter county line on U.S. 12.

“There is a good 50 years of collected material which is unbelievable,” Newman said.

The donations to the nonprofit could be used by the Town of Porter as a local match to apply for federal funds if available, Newman suggested.

Several attempts have been made to link Lake Michigan beaches and communities by rail since the 1920s, Newman said. The National Lakeshore in the early 1970s purchased rights-of-way to link development at West Beach by rail.

Having a method to provide transportation between the interstate, the highways and the parks to alleviate traffic congestion in neighborhoods like Porter Beach is one of two primary goals the Railhead group has in mind.

The other primary goal is to “be a catalyst for development of the Munson Place Industrial Park and its frontage on U.S. 12,” Newman said.

“The Munson Place development begs to be used for other recreational rather than industrial services. Shopping, restaurants, and lodging would be much more appropriate adjacent to the Visitor Center,” Newman said in her project description. “A project of Lake Erie Land Company, this 40-acre parcel (located at the intersection of Ind. 49 and U.S. 20) has languished for over a decade.”

The Railhead project hopes to promote shopping centers, dining and lodging at Munson Place whose sole tenant currently is the Vistior Center. The Center’s parking lot would have to be expand.

Newman said the project will display and operate six vintage railcars, most from the South Shore Line in the 1920s. She said roughly 40 vintage trolley facilities have been built in North America and have made a significant impact on tourism for their areas.

Riley, who is the owner of the Riley’s Railhouse in Chesterton, agreed that this could raise Porter County’s visitor numbers. “People seem to really love trains,” he said.

PCCRVC President Mitch Peters inquired what the role of the tourism board would be and what is in the cards for funding.

“What is it you want us to do?” asked Peters.

“Just to be aware of the project and be part of the discussions. There will be many, many meetings to come,” said Newman.

A transportation consultant is willing to work with the Railhead group on determining a plan of action. Figures estimating how much the project will cost will come out of a feasibility study.

The project will soon have a website. Newman said ideas are welcome and there will be public input sessions scheduled later.

“We want this to be a project folks want and enjoy not one that doesn’t work for the area,” she said.

Newman gave the same presentation later to the Porter Town Council asking their support for the feasibility study.

PCCRVC Executive Director Lorelei Weimer said she believes the project and the museum would be a fine fit for other tourism projects in the works linking with the Dunes-Kankakee Trail and Porter’s Gateway to the Dunes.

She said attempts have been made to get a shuttle system from the Visitor Center to the State Park but funding has never materialized.

Weimer said the project carries multiple elements that would connect tourism with the community, history and the rail industry.

Calendar of Events deadline Oct. 29

In other business, Weimer said community event organizers must turn in their submissions for Indiana Dunes Tourism’s Calendar of Events 2013 by Oct. 29 in order to be included. A form can be obtained from the Visitor Center.

Also, Promotions Director Ken Kosky said after speaking with several writers at the Society of American Travel Writers conference in Indianapolis last month, Porter County tourist sites were featured in Chicago Life and the Toronto-Star, Canada’s largest newspaper.

For September, 7,503 people stopped by the Visitor Center which brings the year-to-date total to 68,816.

In the treasurer’s report, the October collection check was $158,422 from the local Innkeeper’s Tax. Weimer said the collections are much higher than last year’s due to several hoteliers sending in back payments. Normally collections for this time of year come to about $100,000.

 

Posted 10/11/2012