In 2019, the program director from the South Shore Convention & Visitor’s Authority asked if our little website would be interested in putting together a three-month exhibition at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond. We were delighted at the prospect and amassed a mini-museum of Indiana’s past and present.
We had original Gatorade bottles, souvenirs from West Baden Springs, Pluto water, Indiana fossils, the first coca-designed Coke bottles, Prohibition Era artifacts, Indianapolis Racers sports memorabilia, Cold War relics related to the Nike base in Hobart/Portage (including uranium ore?!), a model Duesenberg, and much more.
As I said, it was a mini-museum.
My favorite historic bits were and are the items related to the Hoosier Slide. Blue-green telegraph pole insulators by the Hemingway Company, Ball Bros. glass canning jars, antique postcards, and several Hoosier Slide souvenirs sold in Michigan City over a century ago. Skilled scrounging had nothing to do with finding these. Time, money, and eBay alerts did most of the work.
I had envisioned colorful infographs, a collection of images and postcards of the Slide, antique souvenirs, a line of antique Ball Bros. blue-green jars filled with sand, and samples of freshly melted glass, made by yours truly using a homemade firebrick kiln. Among all the exhibits planned for our humble exhibition, the Hoosier Slide was my favorite child.
Then COVID hit.
You have COVID stories too. Though far from tragic, this is ours. From March ’20 on, the South Shore CVA cancelled all exhibitions at the Indiana Welcome Center. By the time the it cautiously opened months later, the programming had tightened its belt, trimming staff and expenses to stay afloat. Our exhibition’s head met the chopping block. I couldn’t blame them.
While most of the exhibit items are safely stored away, the Slide items always stay out and on display in my home, scattered across my desk and bookcase. There’s nothing feng shui or decorative about their placement since I routinely pick them up, admire them, and put them down haphazardly. It’s history, hanging out.
None are particularly valuable. These are generic souvenirs, mass produced for hundreds of locations across the country. You can find similar ones for almost any tourist draw in the early 1900s.
The only thing that changed was the label. And sad to say, the Hoosier Slide isn’t a huge draw for souvenir collectors. It was only “a hill of sand, near the entrance of the Michigan City harbor…” that vanished before our grandparents were born.
To conclude this long-winded explanation, here’s some of the exhibit, had COVID not changed everything.
“A hill of sand, near the entrance of the Michigan City harbor that had weathered the storms of centuries, was known as the Hoosier Slide….This hill was originally about 300 feet high.”
~The Indianapolis News. June 14th, 1919
300 feet is a stretch, but it’s hard to picture the scale of the Hoosier Slide today. Learning its size and location and volume is academic. To stand in its shadow and see it swallow the entire horizon or to stand on top and look at miles of flat land and a flatter Lake Michigan is a completely different experience.
When sand mining began it was still pick-and-shovel work mostly by locals. The Slide stood a little over 200-feet tall (by most estimates). Height estimates dating back to the 1600s and 1700s put it between 250 and 300 feet tall. The later is most likely an exaggeration, but it’s possible.
Today, the NIPSCO generating station occupies the Slide’s former home on the lakeshore. If you want to get an idea of scale, the NIPSCO’s creepy-looking hyperboloid cooling tower is about 300 feet tall.
Time and Pressure
The Hoosier Slide—and the entire Indiana Dunes for that matter—wasn’t a miracle of nature or God’s paintbrush on the Chicagoland lakeshore. It resulted from nature’s most destructive forces: erosion and time*.
*To any geologists out there, amateur or otherwise, I am aware I’m painting with broad strokes here.
13,000 years ago, at the tail end of Last Glacial Period, a sheet of ice averaging 150 feet thick and 57 miles wide flattened the topography of Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland. This was near the tail end of the Ice Age, so Lake Chicago formed our sandy shoreline not as it moved south, but as it melted and withdrew to the north.
This glacial lake sheared the craggy topography around Chicago, depositing dirt and debris as it melted. It didn’t didn’t smooth the area like a razor, but like a very slow and very painful friction burn. Millenia passed. Water churned and stirred this debris, crushing and grinding it to a fine, white sand. Much of this sand washed up along the south and southwest shores of Lake Michigan, forming the dune-and-swale landforms unique to this corner of Indiana.
The largest of these landforms became known as the Hoosier Slide.
In the September 24th, 1894 article “A Diminishing Hill” in the South Bend Daily Tribune, an unnamed reporter described a Michigan City grocery store’s rough but effective method of tracking the Slide’s dramatic erosion.
Paraphrased: A notch was carved into front door. This marked the eyeline needed to sight the top of the Hoosier Slide with the top of a 2nd Street telegraph pole. In 1888, the owner carved a mark 40 inches high on the door from the floor. An adult would need to kneel or squat to line up the three points.
The reporter continued. “Three years later, another notch was cut in the door about 40 inches above the first one which indicated the top of the hill at that time.“
In 1891, an adult would need to stand on a box to sight the hill.
Finally, in 1894…”Since this last notch was cut, this sand has been taken away more rapidly than formerly, and now it is necessary to stand on a stepladder and look through the transom window to bring the three points in line.“
For me, the story of the Hoosier Slide is personal. When I see the Slide, I see the Native Americans who rested in its shade, the European explorers who camped at its summit, and the short-sighted but industrious Americans who saw potential in the Slide, first as a draw for tourists, then as sandy bones to pick clean. It’s hard to hold it against them. Conservation just wasn’t considered in the 1890s, although some Hoosiers predicted the Slide’s short life.
I also think about my relatives. One side of my family came to Northwest Indiana in the 1950s, but the other moved here in the 1910s and 20s, just after WWI. They were scattered across Lake County: Hammond, East Chicago, Black Oak, Cedar Lake, and Lowell.
The Slide still existed in the 1910s, however diminished. One of them must have seen it. Although I’ll never set my eyes on it, I like knowing that one of my relatives, over a century ago, saw it. Maybe climbed it. Maybe even sat down and scooted down its sandy slopes.
Well, maybe not the last part.
To end, I’d like to share something I found after a long, long time searching. I knew it must have existed somehow, somewhere, but one early afternoon I stumbled across it on YouTube. A short film starring the Hoosier Slide, taken toward the end of its life, as the sand barons had moved past shovels and wheelbarrows and were using trench diggers and train cars. Enjoy!
Want to Know More?
For history junkies such as us, there are some great resources describing the Slide’s life and death:
I strongly recommend checking out the Friends of the Indiana Dunes, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the past, present, and future of the Indiana Dunes. You can find them on Facebook HERE or at their official website HERE (their Facebook page is regularly updated and has some priceless links).
Amateur historian Alan Coslet unearths a wealth of Porter County history on his Facebook page Porter County Indiana (Memories)/History UNLEASHED. His thoughtful curation ensures historically accurate posts, and he is very careful to filter out any politics or rude behavior.
If you’re looking for the real authority on Dunes history, look no further than IUN’s Professor Kenneth J. Schoon. A native of Northwest Indiana, his 2015 report for the National Park Service “Sand Mining in and around the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore” is, hands down, the most fascinating and comprehensive history of the Slide.
The report is neither for sale nor available online. Although the National Park Service has the report linked on THIS PAGE, the links all return an error. I obtained a pdf copy only by requesting one directly from the parks and then Professor Schoon himself. If and when I receive permission to link to it in this article, I will*. I have also linked to several of his books for sale on Amazon, all of which I read and enjoyed immensely.
*I just realized that makes me sound like an ass: “Here’s the best source on this topic. Too bad I can’t let you see it.” But ass I must be. With apologies.