My line of work has familiarized me with the small communities of the Midwest, and my hobby of choice has acquainted me with the natural places where its birds can be found. Recently I have become aware of some intersections between the natural world and the developed world which I think are interesting and warrant some exploration here. Most of the time you would rightly think of this manifesting as forests and natural areas being overtaken as people move in and build. However, I want to highlight the exact opposite. I have found numerous instances of cities, towns, and centers of development being taken over by and returning to nature, and in many cases becoming the birding hotspots that are famous in the birding world today.
The first of these I would like to write about regards the Indiana Dunes State Park (eBird hotspot information here). This is the foremost birding site in the entire state of Indiana, and for good reason.
The park will hopefully soon be up for consideration as the newest National Park, which would be a huge boon for tourism and conservation. Its variety of habitats span several thousand acres and include the namesake Dunes which in some cases are hundreds of feet tall, Lake Michigan shoreline, forests, swamps, and prairie. There have been over 300 species of bird recorded here, including the current invasion of Red Crossbills and some mind-bending Midwest rarities like Black-legged Kittiwake.
Although it is today a shining example of a natural place in the state, the Dunes’ history could have been much different.
In the 1830s Indiana was a newly-established state that was still mostly frontier. The Lake Michigan shoreline was relatively undeveloped, with cities like Chicago having only a few hundred residents. Settlers for the most part found success in farming, but a few entrepreneurial individuals had bigger ideas. In 1836, some business partners established a city on the shore of Lake Michigan and platted it as City West. Their vision was to build a thriving port city (with help from political favor) that would become the leading shipping center on the western Great Lakes.
Although the area was never developed like the map above, within a couple of years City West boasted a few hundred residents, mostly young, single men who wanted to be a part of the riches that were envisioned for the city. The port, shipping canals, and lighthouse never came to be, but City West did have numerous hotels, mills, stores, and taverns (but notably no schools or churches). For a moment, its investors’ dreams of elevating the city’s prominence above that of Chicago were realistic.
It is difficult to imagine how different Indiana’s sliver of Lake Michigan would look with a metropolis on it instead of a state park. But it is possible to plot the city’s location by using the prominent bend in Dunes Creek that empties into the lake near the main entrance to the park. It is shown on the original plat, and the same meander still exists today even though the mouth of the creek has changed position over 181 years.
But just as soon as the city came to be, the Panic of 1837 ended things just as quickly. As banks failed, land was foreclosed, property was seized, and City West pretty much ended when speculators could not pay back their debts. By 1839, the city was effectively abandoned. In the 1850s, the remaining deteriorating wooden buildings were engulfed in a fire that was started either by lightning, locomotive cinders, or a passing vagrant’s untended campfire. What was left of the city was lost the conflagration much like Chicago would see soon after in its own great fire, but unlike Chicago, City West was not rebuilt. Some residents remained in the area up until the beginning of the 20th Century in a community southeast of the original known as New City West, but it never grew large or had delusions of grandeur like its predecessor.
Over the course of the next century, people would come to appreciate the Dunes more and more as an ideal natural spot to relax and enjoy the outdoors, which is where the story picked up again in the early 1900s. Key local residents began to organize around the idea of saving the preserving the Dunes from future development, and in 1926 the Indiana Dunes State Park became a reality. By then, New City West had become known as ‘Tremont’ in reference to the ‘three mountains’ — the Dunes’ three largest dunes of Mount Tom, Mount Holden, and Mount Green — and was known as a resort community.
Tremont succeeded as a modest, small vacation town for a number of decades.
The town remained mostly a collection of homes until the 1960s, which saw the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Tremont was surrounded and cut off from expanding any further as the U.S. government began buying up tracts of land in the vicinity.
As homes were bought and demolished to restore the area to its primordial state, Tremont slowly ceased to exist. A few gravel roads and isolated cabins exist as physical remnants of the town, but the only real evidence of the towns once here are a namesake road and a few picnic shelters at the Indiana Dunes, one each for Tremont and City West.
One interesting thing to note is that as parcels were acquired to enlarge the National Lakeshore area, they were not replatted, and the original property lines and vacated roads are still visible as phantoms recorded with the Porter County Assessor and Surveyor.
Today, likely the only people to regularly use these roads and live on these properties are birds and other flora and fauna of the Dunes. With everything said about the Dunes as an Indiana birding destination, I was a little bit surprised that I had never heard anything about the past lives of the area. I am sure the locals are well familiar, but I think this story of manmade places slowly receding back into the woods is a fascinating bit of history.
There are a lot more stories like these among Indiana’s birding destinations. I am kind of excited to share some more of them.