Miller Woods is part of Indiana Dunes National Park. The Wolverine, Amtrak’s train from Chicago to Pontiac (and back), passes it and offers an opportunity to see ridge and swale topography.
June 19, 2022
J had thought to go to Sagawau Canyon or Chicago Botanic Garden, but the roads were too red and the delays too great for my tolerance (33+ minutes!). He suggested the National Park Service property closest to me — Pullman National Monument, about 20 to 25 minutes away via Stony Island, potholes and all.
A ranger who seemed happy to see visitors greeted us and gave us brochures and a neighborhood map. When I saw Cottage Grove and a Metra stop on the map, I realized I pass within a few blocks of the visitor center when I take Metra to Homewood or University Park. The Kensington station is at 115th Street and Cottage Grove. Pullman is near Lake Calumet, Big Marsh Park, Indian Ridge, and Dead Stick Pond, and not far from Hegewisch Marsh and Beaubien Woods. It’s a strange area, abandoned in part by industry, bisected by I-94 and its ceaseless noise, and only partially reclaimed by wetlands.
The visitor center is well laid out. Our ranger friend told us the second and third floors are being developed, and the building across the way, roofed with plastic sheeting, is being restored by the state of Illinois.
As someone who’s not from Chicago and who’s never fully embraced living here, I didn’t know much about Pullman or the economic and labor situation. From the 1890s, I know more about serial killer H. H. Holmes than anything else. Now I know a bit more.
A timeline on the wall shows the history of Pullman, from its association with luxury and its conversion to wartime production (twice) to its final delivery in 1981 to Amtrak. Mixed in are episodes of economic, social, and labor unrest, with federal troops called in, firing on and killing striking laborers.
Other exhibits include a gander at what a Pullman car looked like on the inside, with reproduced seats and ceiling. A video shows a porter at work putting up a bed and a couple commenting on the car’s luxury. Displays cover the Pullman neighborhood and the restricted life lower-level employees led — what would it be like to sleep, eat, and be entertained within steps of work, with little means to go anywhere else day to day?
Race is part of the rail labor story. While many Pullman porters (most? all?), like one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors, were African American, they were not allowed to join the new rail labor unions. In their conflicts with the upper business classes, the unions turned down help from people with whom they had common cause, apparently without seeing the irony. To be fair, it’s noted that labor leader Eugene Debs did not agree with this choice to exclude African Americans.
One great thing about the visitor center exhibits: They’re tactile and include Braille. Instead of, say, a flat drawing of a Pullman car, the graphic is grooved or carved so you can feel the shape and details. Sometimes Iv’e wondered if Braille is an endangered language but it seems not.
There’s also a spot where people, mostly children, can write their reactions. I wish I’d taken photos. One wrote that while capitalism has some benefits, it also creates problems, which are listed. That kid is smarter than the average bear, as we used to say.
The exhibits draw such observations out by asking questions about life for laborers, many immigrants, in the shadow of privileged and wealthy owners and leaders, and about the violence of the government response when rail service linking Midwest and West was severed. I’d like to think it wouldn’t happen again, but these are “interesting times,” with income disparity and other inequities driving unrest, overt and covert. While Pullman may seem to be in the distant past, the issues resonate today.
There is, of course, a very good gift shop, where we learned the author of one of the books for sale (which I was buying) was speaking nearby. His talk would have been half over by then, so I passed.
Afterward we drove around a bit to see some of the neighborhood’s highlights and housing. I especially liked the livery stable.
Next to the Lake Hotel, we found Gateway Garden. We’d seen a sign on a house about local honey; J discovered the property contained many, many beehives. They must have more than Gateway Garden to meet their needs. Unlike J, I didn’t see the apiary or meet the owners, but I wonder if they get complaints. I hope not.
See this article from May 2022: ‘Good memories’: Brothers revisit last Pullman passenger rail car they helped build
Every now and then I get an email updating me on my Google Maps photo statistics. As of today, these photos have 10,000+ views. The surprises? The chicken and the nondescript view of Lincoln Park Zoo’s south lagoon. That so many people are looking at Beaubien Woods. And that the photo of the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls didn’t make the cut as of today. Not looking like it will for a long time.
Finally, at six figures:
Down on the farm, May 20 and 21, 2015
When passing through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I stayed at Shady Oaks Farm Bed and Breakfast, which I think may have been for sale.
The house was large with an impressive dining room fireplace, but what I loved most were the rooms. To get to one of them, you went down a few steps, then up a few steps into the next room, all connected, set up for children. I can’t get enough of houses with oddities like this — multiple levels on one floor, attic rooms, mysterious little slanted doors or floors that sort of thing.1
As a farm, Shady Oaks featured horses, with two or three in a pasture and a pony in the stable. The B&B could accommodate travelers with horses too. On their website, they warned fussier visitors that theirs was a working farm, so there might be equipment, hay, etc., about the place. People had complained. Between the horses and the comfortable porch overlooking the pasture and the long drive ahead, I found Shady Oaks very hard to leave.
1 My favorite was my aunt’s second floor apartment in Altoona, Pennsylvania. When you walked through her bedroom and maybe down a step or two (memory fails), you found yourself in another bedroom — in another house. Those houses have since been torn down, and I doubt their like will be seen again in our present-day bland, cookie-cutter modern housing.
Last year’s Maple Sugar Time at Chellberg Farm was not productive. The daytime temperatures were too cold for maple sap to run. I remember someone saying they used water in the sugar shack — there wasn’t enough (or any?) sap for the demonstration. It was still fun and informative, even without the star attraction — maple sap.
This year’s a different story. Maple sap is pouring out of the sugar maples — literally. This extractor was filling every five to six minutes. At 2 p.m., the tub was about one-third full. By 4 p.m., it was nearly two-thirds full.
The warm air, sunshine, and freely flowing sap gave the day and everyone involved energy. We had our traditional Lions Club breakfast at 2, then checked out all the stations on the trail to the farmhouse.
After picking up some goodies (maple syrup, maple cream, maple water, and an Indiana Dunes National Park mug), we also visited Chellberg Farm’s current animal helpers, starting with Belgian team Bill and Jack.
After a stop at the Schoolhouse Shop and Tiger Lily’s for dinner, time to go home and rest my own sap.
Facebook has many flaws, but it does alert me when events I might be interested in are coming up. A few weeks ago I found out about the world premiere of Octave Chanute: Patron Saint of Flight, at Indiana Dunes Visitor Center. I knew the Chanute name vaguely from the old Air Force base, but I couldn’t have told you then where the base had been located or why it was named Chanute. This sounded like a way to get in a visit to Indiana Dunes, learn something, and spend what might be otherwise a dull winter afternoon, depending on the weather.
The parking lot was unusually crowded, and when J and I walked in about a half hour early, a good-sized group was watching Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability, a documentary on the history of Indiana Dunes and efforts to restore what can be restored. It’s meant to inspire, but it’s also tragic and depressing.
By the time Shifting Sands ended and Octave Chanute was scheduled to begin, the auditorium had filled up, even when extra folding chairs were brought out. Soon it was standing room only.
Simine Short, author of Locomotive to Aeromotive: Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution, and young director Paul Nelson introduced the film. I mention Nelson’s relative age because the audience was mostly 50 plus, possibly 60 plus, which disappointed me because I would like to see younger people interested in history. Of course, when I was younger none of my peers would have been interested, either.
Bridge 16, or the Portage Bridge
The presentation began with some technical glitches (flashbacks to every high school A/V club everywhere!), but my ears perked up at the mention of the Portage Bridge, accompanied by a photo I recognized immediately. Through this film, I found out Octave Chanute was the engineer behind the much-loved railroad bridge over the Genesee River at Letchworth State Park in New York.
Known for his bridges, Chanute was called in when the original timber trestle, the longest and tallest wooden bridge in the world when it opened in 1852, was reduced to ashes on May 6, 1875, after a train had passed over (spark?). Chanute’s iron replacement opened only 86 days after the fire. According to Short’s book, the piers were rebuilt and the uprights and girders strengthened in 1880, “making the bridge better than new.”
Although modern Norfolk Southern trains were restricted to 10 miles per hour over the Letchworth gorge, Chanute’s bridge lasted until 2017, when the Genesee Arch Bridge opened. The state of New York declined the offer of the 1875 bridge, the last of which was demolished on March 20, 2018. I’d been fortunate to visit the old bridge one last time in 2015. When I’d found out about the premiere of this film, I’d had no idea it would take me back to perhaps the most iconic of my childhood memories. I remember walking along those tracks with my brother during one of his visits.
But wait! There’s more!
My ears perked up again at the mention of Kinzua Bridge. I’d found out about Kinzua Bridge State Park when I was looking up Kinzua Dam, another place I’d visited as a child, for my 2015 swing through Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.
It turns out that Octave Chanute was behind the original 2,000-foot-long Kinzua Bridge (or Viaduct), built in 1882 at 302 feet above the narrow valley floor. Short calls it Chanute’s “most spectacular bridge.” She adds that the bridge was rebuilt in 1900 “to keep up with the increasing volume and weight of the coal traffic.” Carl W. Buchholz redesigned the superstructure on the original masonry foundation piers.
By 1959 the viaduct failed safety inspections and was closed to commercial rail traffic. Restoration began in 2002, but in 2003 an F2 tornado “tore eleven towers from their concrete bases. Investigators found that the anchor bolts, installed under Chanute’s supervision, had rusted over the past 120 years.” Over time, the materials had failed the design.
After seeing this film, I’m even happier that I had the opportunity to walk out on what’s still standing of Kinzua Bridge and get a look at the remnants resting in peace on the valley floor. Even destroyed, Kinzua Bridge is indeed a “spectacular” sight.
Why Indiana Dunes?
Of course, most of the film was about Chanute’s contributions to flight and relationship with Wilbur Wright (rocky; Chanute was an open source kind of man and Wilbur believed in closely held information). What’s the link to Indiana Dunes? With their lake winds, elevations, and soft sand, the Dunes were Chanute’s choice for safely testing their experiments — the Kitty Hawk of the Midwest.
Epilogue, March 8, 2020
Octave Grill in Chesterton is named for Octave Chanute. Found out they serve a Chanute burger.
August 10, 2019
Another Saturday, another trip to Indiana Dunes. First, J. and I detoured to Valparaiso because Rise’n Roll is open until 7 p.m. for the summer (although it’s too bad their customers don’t seem to know that). Afterward we were going to try a somewhat new Mediterranean restaurant, but the wait was longer than I wanted, so we went next door and waited just as long. My spur-of-the-moment decisions are not always logical.
Having watched the Perseid meteor shower, and possibly the International Space Station, at Indiana Dunes National Park West Beach several years ago, I keep wanting to recapture the magic. The NPS doesn’t host the event anymore; it’s at the state park beach these days, minus ranger and guest speaker. It doesn’t seem to be as dark at the beach, though, with Chicago lighting up the night across the way.
After staring at the sky for a while, my eyes play tricks. Stars blink on and off, then disappear entirely. Other lights move erratically, then also disappear. Even without the Perseids (we may have spotted one or two streaks), I saw an entire show.
August 11, 2019
For breakfast, we went to Round the Clock, the two-restaurant chain (Chesterton, Valparaiso). Contrary to the name’s promise, the restaurant closes at night and opens in the morning. This disappointed me vaguely. I didn’t expect Round the Clock to have hours!
On to the Schoolhouse Shop. I wanted to sip coffee with the birds and butterflies in the back area, but since they also had a ginger iced tea I went with that. The cashier told us there were frogs by the water feature if we wanted to sit there, but I opted for a spot closer to the bird feeders and flowers, where a black swallowtail repeatedly evaded me.
Eventually I wandered back to the water and heard a plop that sounded suspiciously like a frog jumping in. As I walked around the edge I heard a second plop. I still didn’t see anything, but a few seconds later I caught a movement followed by a third plop. Eventually I spotted one frog in the water, convinced no doubt he couldn’t be seen. I left for a few moments and when I came back one was perched on an overturned flower pot and another was half sunning on a wee ledge. Later I saw a third one hanging in the water, one leg askew, pretending to be dead or invisible. He reassured me of his health when I got too close. Someone on iNaturalist helped me identify them as green frogs.
I can’t tell you how much I hate to leave the Schoolhouse Shop, although I always do so poorer.
But we had a date with the Emita II, a tour boat moored in Trail Creek by the Old Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City. Last year I’d made arrangements for a tour, but the afternoon excursions were canceled due to choppy waters. I was glad to have a chance to try again. The clouds were gathering but Lake Michigan looked as calm as it ever does.
We arrived early enough to get a table by the rail that would be on the shore/port side going out — perfect. While we waited for everyone to board, I heard a familiar sound approaching. A westbound Amtrak train raced by on the opposite shore of Trail Creek — possibly the Wolverine that leaves Chicago at 1:25 p.m. on its way to Pontiac. It breezed by so fast it was mostly a blur.
Finally 3 p.m. came and we backed out, passing the Nipsco coal-fired generating plant with its cooling tower that dominates Michigan City — I’m told it can be seen from Chicago, although I haven’t yet looked for it. Our host told us the more slender tower marked the location of the Hoosier Slide, once Indiana’s most recognizable landmark. All that’s left of the Hoosier Slide are vintage blue-tinted Ball canning jars.
After leaving the creek for Lake Michigan, we passed Mt. Baldy, a “living” dune that is moving four feet a year, which means at some point it will bury the nearby NPS buildings and parking lot and encroach on U.S. Rte. 12. Mt. Baldy is also famous for mysteriously swallowing a six-year-old boy who was recovered three and a half hours later. The Smithsonian and the Northwest Indiana Times have the story. I tried to climb Mt. Baldy once but had to stop maybe 20 feet short of the crest — stopped by fatigue, steepness, and shifting sands.
Now Mt. Baldy is closed except for ranger-led hikes; the rangers know where the tree holes are. On this day several people were trespassing on the shore side of Baldy. “They’re not supposed to be there,” the boat guide said. I wonder how often that happens. The guide noted that Baldy has an armchair shape vs. a normal sand dune shape due to its ongoing loss of sand. I wonder what its future will be and hope it, unlike the Hoosier Slide, will have one.
After Baldy there’s a series of beaches and dunes, with many visitors as well as boaters just off shore.
I didn’t know what to expect after the dunes, but there was Beverly Shores — and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Homes. The flamingo pink Florida Tropical House is the easiest to see, but you get a glimpse of all of them (the Cypress House is the least visible).
The round trip takes about two hours. On the way back we spotted a boat with a plethora of fishing rods sticking up and men who likely had more beer than fish.
I also took more photos of Indiana’s only lighthouse. The former lighthouse, now the Old Lighthouse Museum, was tended for 43 years by a woman named Harriet Colfax. Having once tried to pick up a bucket of sand representative of a single lighthouse oil bucket, I can tell you toting those buckets up lighthouse stairs even once a day would not have been the job for me. I can just haul myself up, with the help of the railing. Yet lives depended on the lighthouse and its keeper.
After dinner at Leeds Public House we detoured to the shore road, something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Eventually we started to recognize some of the eastern beaches, then the Century of Progress houses, then Kemil Beach. It didn’t take much longer than the usual route, except for getting onto it — the turn was blocked by a big utility vehicle and crew.
And so ended another Indiana Dunes adventure.
July 4, 2019
You could spend the 4th of July eating, drinking, and making merry with fireworks. Or you could take a nearly 40-minute walk on Indiana Dunes National Park West Beach Trail, Loop 2, on loose, sloping sand in 90º plus heat and full sun to look for prickly pear cactus.
I leave it to you to guess which I did.
June 8, 2019
After expensive visits to the Chesterton European Market and Rise’N Roll in Valparaiso with an “Exhausted Parent” cone at Dog Days in between, I had the idea to try to retrace the route the National Park Service “Dune Buggy” takes on its tours of Indiana Dunes National Park (which still has a great ring to it). The area has both a lot of wetlands and a lot of history. From the bus and map, it looked like an interesting place to explore. Off we headed to Michigan City.
Somehow I detoured myself back to Washington Park in Michigan City. When I saw that you can walk out to the lighthouse, that was all she wrote. After determining the concession stand was closed (at 4 p.m.), we, like the dying man, walked toward the light — which wasn’t on in daylight. This pier lighthouse replaced the Old Michigan City LIght and itself was deemed excess in 2007 by the Coast Guard. Michigan City owns it now. From photos, it does look like it’s lit at night.
Along the way we saw several anglers, but most didn’t seem to be having any luck. One told us the fish had been more active around dawn. That must be before the beach crowds show up.
The closer we got to the light, the more the waves washed over the pier. I got a nice light rinse at one point.
The area around the light had been crowded, but when I reached it all but one man had left. He stood against it, arms crossed like a tomb guard. I haven’t figured out if he had an official role or was simply posing. You can’t tell anymore.
From the pier and light you can see steam pouring from the NIPSCO Michigan City Generating Station cooling tower, with dunes to the west — that must be the area I’d wanted to explore. Another time. With the lake, pier light, clouds, and setting sun, it was a gorgeous scented. If only the park people didn’t blast nonstop music.
To top off the day, we went to the Polish Peasant, another restaurant in a house that looks like a house. This one reminded me of Ivy’s Bohemia House in Chesterton, but without the porch. All of it was good, but I loved the baked deviled eggs. Between them and pickled eggs from Rise’N Roll, I need to avoid cholesterol testing for a few years. Or decades.