Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The struggle to preserve the unique Indiana Dunes landscape, which provides a classic model for ecological studies, spanned decades and presented formidable challenges for environmentalists.

Summary of Event

The Indiana Dunes State Park has long been recognized for its unique landscape and for the five plant communities that inhabit it. The area contains several dune types in various stages of development as well as bogs, marshes, prairies, and forests. Nearly fifteen hundred species of plants populate the dunes. Among major parks in the United States, only the Great Smokies and the Grand Canyon have more native species, and yet the Indiana Dunes park encompasses only fourteen thousand acres, far less than either of the other two. Preservation of the dunelands is critical, not only for the survival of the distinctive plant life but also for the benefit of the many people who wish to study and explore the area. [kw]Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park (May, 1927) [kw]Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park, Indiana (May, 1927) [kw]State Park, Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a (May, 1927) [kw]Park, Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State (May, 1927) Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness Indiana Dunes State Park [g]United States;May, 1927: Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park[06860] [c]Environmental issues;May, 1927: Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park[06860] [c]Government and politics;May, 1927: Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park[06860] [c]Natural resources;May, 1927: Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park[06860] Cowles, Henry C. Mather, Stephen T. Douglas, Paul H. Buell, Dorothy

National Park Service director Stephen T. Mather (front left) and others on a visit to the Indiana Dunes in October, 1916.

(National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

Preservation of the Indiana Dunes has been a struggle since the early part of the twentieth century. The urbanization and growth of industry around the southern shore of Lake Michigan provided a formidable challenge to conservation efforts, but the spirit of local and regional environmentally minded citizens and politicians has prevailed. Little by little, parts of the Indiana Dunes have been acquired for preservation, first as an Indiana state park and much later as an expanded national park. Preservation of the dunes was greatly enhanced by the efforts of Henry C. Cowles, whose studies of dune plant communities made the Indiana Dunes internationally famous.

The dry hills and wet lowlands of the Indiana Dunes were unsuitable for settlement. Native Americans used the area for hunting grounds and for gathering berries and the abundant wild rice that grew in the wetlands. French and British fur traders inhabited the area in the mid- to late 1700’s. A few homesteads were built in the 1800’s, but no successful settlement was established until railroads reached the area in the 1850’s. In the late 1800’s, serious development of the southern Lake Michigan shoreline began. Pine and cedar trees in the dunes area were cut to supply expanding Chicago with lumber and firewood. In 1869, George Hammond built a meatpacking plant on the Grand Calumet River, and by 1887, East Chicago was being promoted as a choice industrial site. Many large dunes were mined away by the trainload to supply sand for fill so that Chicago could expand into Lake Michigan; the dunes also supplied sand for construction projects and glass industries. By 1920, the dunes area contained the world’s largest power plant as well as a steel mill, a chemical plant, a cement plant, and an oil refinery.





At the same time, scientific studies were being conducted by Cowles, a professor at the University of Chicago. Cowles came to Chicago with a fellowship in 1895 to study geology. He visited the dunes for the first time in 1896 and became enthralled with the vegetation distributions there. He began a systematic study of the vegetation and its relationship with the dune environment and promoted the idea of a relationship between vegetation patterns and changing dune environments. Cowles’s work marked the first application of the principles of ecology in the United States. He patterned his work after that of Eugenius Warming, who had conducted studies of dune vegetation in coastal Denmark. Cowles published three classic articles that declared the Indiana Dunes to be the ideal model for the study of changing landforms and the response of vegetation to those changes. He pointed out the importance of climatic influences on the cycles he was observing, and he noted that the area’s vegetation was unique because the region was a meeting point of northern and southern species as well as of eastern forests and western prairies. After he presented his third paper at a conference in Europe, Cowles organized the 1913 International Phytogeography Excursion. International Phytogeography Excursion He polled the European scientists who participated and found that they were most interested in visiting four American natural landmarks: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Indiana Dunes. Cowles and others often used this expression of international interest in the dunes to illustrate the value of the area; Cowles’s work thus formed the cornerstone of the dunes preservation movement.

In the early 1900’s, local conservationists became increasingly alarmed by the encroaching industrial development. In response, the Playground Association of Chicago began a successful program of Saturday afternoon walks in the dunes area to encourage local interest. By 1911, this group had evolved into the famed Prairie Club of Chicago, Prairie Club of Chicago headed by Cowles and industrialist Stephen T. Mather. By 1913, the Prairie Club was fully engaged in major efforts to save the dunes from further development, and the idea of creating a national park evolved. In 1916, Cowles organized the National Dunes Park Association National Dunes Park Association specifically to fight for the establishment of a national park to preserve the dunes.

Trainloads of people attended meetings at the dunes. Supporters coordinated attempts to purchase parcels of the dune land for the purpose of turning the land over to the federal government for a national park; in 1917, the Prairie Club of Chicago staged an elaborate historical pageant to promote the idea. Moreover, Mather, who had become the founder and first director of the National Park Service, tried to convince Congress to set the area aside as a national park. Many local people, however, were more interested in the jobs and the tax revenue that industry would bring to the area than they were in saving the dunes. With the onset of World War I, plans for a national park were suspended. After the war, the booming economy fostered a frenzy of industrial growth. Conservationists realized that the dunes would be consumed by encroaching industry in the years that it would take to form a national park; they thus decided to seek state park status for the dunes, a process that would take less time.

In 1923, U.S. Highway 12, the “Dunes Highway” that ran directly through the area, was completed, threatening further deterioration of the dunes area. Increased pressure was applied to obtain the state park status, and later that year, the Indiana legislature provided for special tax money to be used to purchase three miles of Lake Michigan shoreline for a state park. The tax, along with contributions from Elbert Gary of U.S. Steel and Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company, provided enough funding to purchase the park land in 1927. Preservation of the dunes had finally begun.


The formation of the Indiana Dunes State Park represented a dramatic victory for preservationists in their struggle against industry and development interests in northern Illinois and Indiana. Cowles’s scientific work was one of the keys to this success. The formation of the state park and the scientific studies in the dunes area resulted in a continuing fight for the preservation of even more land and the eventual establishment of a national park in the area. Moreover, the fight over the dunes had implications for the continued development of scientific thought about ecology.

The Great Depression and World War II caused a lull in land acquisition for the dunes, but the booming economy after the war once again created industrial development pressures for the area. Indiana’s economic and political climate was not amenable to land conservation. On the contrary, there was broad support for development, and the main focus was Indiana’s long-held desire for a deep-water port on its small stretch of dune-filled shoreline. In 1952, Dorothy Buell organized the Save the Dunes Council, Save the Dunes Council originally a women’s movement designed to educate the public, organize grassroots support, and coordinate fund-raising efforts to buy up tracts of land for preservation. The council was unable to sway Indiana legislators to its cause, however, so it approached Senator Paul H. Douglas from Illinois, who took the matter to the federal government and proposed the dune area be designated a national monument. He was unsuccessful at the time, but he continued his fight for a national park.

The John F. Kennedy administration remained neutral, supporting both a port and a park. In 1961, the purchase of the Cape Cod National Lakeshore set a precedent for the federal government to purchase natural lands for national parks. Cape Cod was one of Kennedy’s favorite spots, so Douglas drew attention to the similarities between it and the Indiana Dunes in order to secure Kennedy’s favor for the dunes. Kennedy’s death, however, postponed further action on the park issue.

Because the Lyndon B. Johnson administration was enthusiastic about developing urban parks, interest in an Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was revived. Finally, in 1966, authorization for an eight-thousand-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was approved. It became the first urban national park in the country, but it was a park only “on paper,” for lawmakers had not appropriated any funds for additional land acquisition, staffing, or maintenance. The area could still be threatened with development. Senator Douglas’s influence in Congress ended when he lost his bid for reelection, and the Save the Dunes Council assumed a custodial role in park matters. In the late 1960’s there was a feeble attempt to deauthorize the park, and in the early 1970’s Indiana again tried to oppose expansion of the park. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was dedicated in 1972, however, and laws in 1976, 1980, and 1986 provided for additional land purchases. By the 1990’s, the park consisted of nine units and covered approximately fourteen thousand acres. Interest in park expansion would continue with the Save the Dunes Council and the Izaak Walton League acting as vigilant watchdogs of the dunes.

Another effect of early dune preservation lay in the blossoming of the principles of ecology advanced by Henry Cowles. Cowles’s importance to the dunes lies in three contributions: He clearly demonstrated the principles of ecology through his studies of plant succession on the Indiana Dunes and in its associated wetlands; he contributed significantly to the preservation of the dunes; and he influenced the thinking of hundreds of students, scientists, and teachers who continued his work and eventually improved it.

Shortly after Cowles demonstrated his ideas of plant ecology, Victor Shelford and, later, W. Clyde Allee applied Cowles’s principles to animals, developing ideas about animal ecology. In the mid-1940’s, Jerry Olson performed a sophisticated updating of Cowles’s original work that led to similar work in many areas.

Cowles’s work on the dunes helped to lay the groundwork for incorporation of his ideas into evolving thoughts on “ecology,” a term that began to encompass not only a scientific field but also a broad social viewpoint. For example, Allee continued to develop ecological ideas of interdependence to include not only biological systems but also social and religious systems. Cowles’s ideas thus carried on through the decades, reaching fruition in 1969 with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act. Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness Indiana Dunes State Park

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cockrell, Ron. A Signature of Time and Eternity: The Administrative History of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana. Omaha, Nebr.: National Park Service, 1988. An account of the history of the Indiana Dunes from the perspective of the National Park Service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Sarah G. Cowles Bog, Indiana, and Henry Chandler Cowles. Chicago: Great Lakes Heritage, 1980. A well-researched biographical account of Cowles and his work in the Indiana Dunes. Includes a useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engel, J. Ronald. Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1983. Extremely thorough historical account of the Indiana Dunes. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engel, Joan Gibb, ed. The Indiana Dunes Story: How Nature and People Made a Park. 2d rev. ed. Michigan City, Ind.: Shirley Heinze Land Trust, 1997. Collection of ten essays relates the history of the Indiana Dunes preservation movement. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, Kay, and Norma Schaeffer. Duel for the Dunes: Land Use Conflict on the Shores of Lake Michigan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. Detailed history of land use in the Indiana Dunes area and the struggle to preserve the dunes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Critical examination of the history of resource management in the United States by a historian for the National Park Service. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldron, Larry. The Indiana Dunes. New York: Eastern Acorn Press, 1983. Brief overview of the Indiana Dunes discusses Lake Michigan, formation of the dunes, and the area’s vegetation. Provides a good summary of historical land use and ecological studies.

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Categories: History