The Darker Side of the Indiana Dunes

White Sands, Dark History

With the ribbon to the Indiana Dunes freshly-cut and the nation’s newest National Park open for business, this hidden Hoosier treasure seems to be making headlines left and right. New campsites, new technologies, new organization, and the same pristine lakeshore.

Let’s be honest: there’s more to learn about the Indiana Dunes National Park than its variety of flora and fauna, remarkable as those might be. The world doesn’t need yet another low-angle photo of dune grass, pale sand, and a churning Lake Michigan. Instead of snapping pictures of the Dunes today, how about unearthing this tour of our famed lakeshore’s darker side?

After all, there’s nothing wrong with being both famous and a little infamous.

Lincoln’s Corpse and the Dunes


No person, and certainly no president, has ever suffered as much after death as Abraham Lincoln. Since his assassination in 1865, his coffin has been moved 17 times, and opened five times to confirm his identity, with the final ID made in 1901. But why put the nation’s most respected president through such indignity?

Primarily because two unscrupulous men, in a burst of morbid inspiration, decided to steal Lincoln’s entombed body in Springfield and ransom it. Until receiving the ransom, they’d bury Lincoln’s body among the miles of sand dunes in northern Indiana.

As darkly-inspired as that might have been, neither man boasted intelligence to match. In a drunken stupor, the plan leaked, the kidnapping was foiled just as they were hauling his coffin from the tomb. Even with the robbers jailed, Lincoln’s caretakers always worried his body would be removed again.

The Dunes’ Bird Tragedy of 1960

Every year, millions of migratory birds pass over Lake Michigan and the Dunes, especially in the warmer spring weather, but such an exhaustive journey can go horribly wrong.

One April night in 1960, flocks of juncos, sparrows, robins, thrushes and dozens of other species were passing over the southern end of Lake Michigan when a vicious spring storm suddenly erupted.

With no shelter for miles, the birds flew and fight as long as they could, but eventually the wind and rain exhausted their worn bodies. They fell by the thousands into Lake Michigan and washed ashore at the Dunes. Birders working for the Indiana Audubon Society arrived at the nightmarish scene and saw thousands of tattered, water-logged bodies littering the sands for a distance of 35 miles.

In the end there were too many birds to count with certainty, so they estimated the numbers. With 25% of the affected area searched, the birders tallied 3,636 birds from 56 species, including several owls and bats—bringing the toll to about 15,000. A teary-eyed and shaken Dunes fisherman who had worked the Dunes waters for almost sixty years approached the team and insisted it was the worst thing he had ever seen in his life.

Mount Baldy Swallows a Boy Alive

Mount Baldy, the Indiana Dunes most famous landmark, stands 126 feet above Lake Michigan, and visitors once freely bounded up and down its fine sand at all hours of the day.

Until it swallowed a boy alive in 2013.

Park officials once believed it impossible for sinkholes to appear in sand dunes, until a 12-inch hole opened up and a six-year-old boy slid disappeared into the sand. Rescuers began digging by hand and with shovels, but eventually an excavator came to the rescue. By the time the boy was found about three hours after falling in, he had no pulse and was cold as ice. Luckily, EMTs restart his heart and he emerged from the ordeal none the worse.

Sinkholes, officials discovered, are rare in sand dunes, but they can occur. Typically, a large tree will be buried under the tons of windblown sand, but the tree decays, leaving a large void behind, which creates a sinkhole.

Tours of Mount Baldy continue, but only with the careful supervision of park staff, and exploring the dune alone is absolutely forbidden.

Three Women Vanish

In the summer of 1966, beachgoers crowded onto the Dunes to enjoy the cool waters of Lake Michigan, so it hardly surprised anyone when three young women, two aged 19 and the other 21, piled into a small motorboat and headed out to cruise around the lake.

They were never seen or heard from again.

Armies of scuba divers combed the lake above and below and volunteers searched the coast line from end-to-end, but none discovered even the slightest trace of the young women. The case has baffled investigators, who wondered why three women would head out for an excursion and leave all their possessions, including purses, behind.

The Stolen Hoosier Slide 

Once upon a time, a 200-foot sand dune named the Hoosier Slide towered over Michigan City. Easily the most famous landmark in Indiana at the time, the Slide became a popular tourist spot for families and weddings, and its image adorned postcards and souvenir trinkets.

After a wind storm scattered some of its sand over Michigan City, enterprising individuals gathered the stray sand up and melted it down to make glass, which had a unique blue tint perfect for canning jars. The Ball family, one of Indiana’s most famous family companies, heard about this and opened up shop at the Hoosier Slide. Over decades, workers removed sand, first with wheelbarrows and then with steam shovels. By the 1920s, not even a bump of the Slide remained, only thousands of antique blue glass jars.

The Life and Death of Diana of the Dunes

The story of Alice Gray, commonly known as Diana of the Dunes, started out as the stuff of poetry. Born to an upper-middle class family in Chicago, Diana proved to be an intelligent and resourceful young women, traits not necessarily admired in the Windy City at the time. She attended college and then graduate school; despite her extraordinary potential, she could only find dull, low-paying work.

At the age of thirty-four, single and unmarried and profoundly dissatisfied with city life, Alice Gray took a handful of possessions and moved into a tiny cabin at the Indiana Dunes to live the rustic life.

She traveled to Chicago frequently to visit museums and attend lectures, but always returned to the Dunes at night. Soon, area reporters caught wind of her story and she became a local celebrity, nicknamed “Diana of the Dunes“, although they treated her choice as more an aberration than an ideal.

She soon met another Dunes regular, a shady drifter named Paul Wilson and the two began living together in the cabin, constructing and selling handmade furniture. But Wilson’s violent temper and criminal leanings spoiled Alice Gray’s peaceful life.

When a beaten and burned body turned up at the Dunes, police pursued Wilson as their chief suspect. Alice herself started sporting frequent bruises, although she never publicly blamed Wilson.

Hounded by press and police, the two left the Dunes and hoped to enjoy the tranquil life in another location. It didn’t happen. Alice died in 1925, only in her mid-40s. The official cause of death was uremic poisoning (kidney disease), but doctors ascribed the cause of the disease to her battered and bruised insides, which had been subject to years of abuse under Wilson’s fists.

Today, ghost hunters claim to spot her walking the shores of the Dunes, often nude, since reporters in her day claimed she enjoyed skinny dipping in the lake.