By Mary Giorgio
In the 1830s, communities bordering Lake Michigan were locked in a fierce competition to become the transportation hub of the Midwest. Chicago was barely more than a speck on the map, and communities in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan all sought to derail its efforts to become the Midwest’s most important port city. Thus, City West was born.
In Porter County, Indiana, the founders of City West put everything on the line to come out on top, and its story is one of great hope and dashed dreams, reminiscent of the experience of many Indiana communities that were founded by land speculators in the 1830s.
No one is exactly sure when people began settling City West, or when they began calling their community by that name. Correspondence between the heirs of an early settler to the area, Joseph Bailly, and town founders suggests the name may have been in use prior to the recorded 1837 city plat.
City West was the first officially platted and recorded town in Porter County. Located near the mouth of Fort Creek on the shore of Lake Michigan, it sat about 10 miles west of present-day Michigan City. Jacob Bigelow, one of the town’s founders, was also the president of the Michigan City & Kankakee Railroad Company. He had big plans to transform Fort Creek into a canal, and he tirelessly lobbied Congress for an appropriation to build a harbor.
They planned to build a canal once the harbor had been constructed, then use it to transport goods inland from Lake Michigan all the way to the Kankakee River. Their optimism is evident in the name chosen for the town. “City West’ implies a grandeur in size and status that belied the community’s reality.
For a short time, City West survives if not exactly thrived. Anticipating a federal appropriation for a harbor, enterprising businessmen invested in the potential port city. A sawmill was constructed sometime between 1836 and 1837. A store and warehouse were built. Three hotels were erected, the largest and most impressive being the Exchange House, a 22-room hotel operated by Bigelow.
By the spring of 1837, a number of large houses were constructed in the town and 20 families settled within its boundaries. Many of those families were only temporary residents, using the town as a stopping point on their journey further inland. By 1838, less than a dozen families resided in the town.
Still, the town’s founders and remaining residents were optimistic about their future. They expected appropriations to be made quickly, and in 1838, a post office opened, and officials made plans to open a school.
Town founders, like many other speculators, were confident their location would be chosen for the construction of a harbor. They had secured early support in Congress. Their optimism was bolstered by a visit from the famed statesman, Daniel Webster, on July 4, 1837. Webster gave an impassioned speech referencing City West as the next great shipping city in the Midwest.
Sadly, those appropriations for City West never came. A few months after Webster’s visit, however, Michigan City received $30,000 from Congress to construct a harbor. The state of Indiana provided them an additional $3,000 to build a lighthouse nearby: City West’s neighbor had secured the coveted harbor and promising future.
It was not immediately apparent to the residents of City West Michigan City’s fortunes likely spelled doom for their own plans. The Financial Crisis of 1837, however, had all but dried up private funds for such projects. Federal funding was the only source of left to pursue.
In 1838, Congress again considered a proposal to fund a harbor for City West. Lawmakers ordered a survey of City West from the Topographical Bureau, although many were skeptical of the need for another harbor so close to Michigan City. The survey proved to be a nail in the coffin for the project, however, when it was determined the natural landscape of the site was unsuitable for construction of a harbor. Although funding requests were renewed between 1839 and 1844, no real hope remained that Congress would actually fund the project.
It’s unclear exactly when the last residents abandoned the town, but by 1840, City West was a virtual ghost town. In the early 1850s, the Exchange House hotel was moved from City West to present-day Chesterton. The hotel was placed on skids, then dragged by oxen across the snow-covered ground to its new home. There, the Exchange House (renamed the Central House Hotel) remained until it was destroyed by fire in 1908.
In 1854, the remaining abandoned homes and buildings in City West caught fire and burned to the ground. Today, nothing remains of the early settlement. In fact, most of the early lakeshore communities founded on the speculative excitement of the 1830s did not survive, Michigan City being the one exception. Having secured funding for a lighthouse and harbor, the city eventually grew in population and wealth as a main port of entry for goods arriving in northern Indiana. The city of Chicago, however, was the true winner in the speculative competition of the 1830s. Congress focused its largest infrastructure spending there, ensuring the Windy City would soon become the most significant metropolis in the Midwest.
Land speculation was (and is) always a gamble, raising and ruining the fortunes of many. Had City West become an important shipping hub for the Midwest, its founders would have profited considerably. Instead, the community was abandoned and eventually consumed by fire, leaving virtually no trace behind. Today, the land that once comprised City West is part of the Indiana Dunes State Park.
Want to Know More?
This article could not have been published without the help of Steven Shook’s comprehensive blog Porter County’s Past: An Amateur Historian’s Perspective. If you want to know more about the lakeshore’s tumultuous past, look no further.
Reading history INSIDE history is both informative and enlightening, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in this History of Porter County from 1878, which includes extensive information on City West.