Michigan City's lakefront has been a destination point for out-of-towners ever since the city was incorporated in 1837. In fact, the reason it was named Michigan City is because the road leading to Lake Michigan from Indianapolis was expected to end here in a major harbor.
Farm products, especially wheat, were shipped out in great quantities during the 19th century, and incoming vessels brought salt, manufactured goods and lumber from Michigan forests. Fishing was another important business.
By 1889, the year that Martin H. Krueger became mayor, the bustling waterfront had deteriorated into a "no-man's land". Railroads had taken over the transporting of most farm products. The huge lumber trade was lost to the larger port in Chicago. The bridge across Trail Creek was gone, and lumberyard debris was used for building squatters' shacks.
In 1893, Krueger envisioned a city park and took the necessary steps to gain political support, legislation and bond issues to fund a new bridge. Each local citizen was invited to bring a tree to plant in the new "Washington Park". The park entrance was dignified when a 60-foot- tall monument was erected, honoring those who served in the Civil War. It was a gift from John H. Winterbotham and cost $15,000 - a huge sum considering the public library was built in 1897 for a total of $30,000.
The next 25 years saw the flourishing of civic pride and recreational opportunities. Excursionists came by the thousands to enjoy the Indiana dunes and the public facilities in Washington Park. A bathhouse was installed, plus a dance hall, skating pavilion, and baseball field. Hoosier Slide, a giant 200-foot-high dune, attracted hikers, picnickers, and even bridal couples. As many as 10,000 steamship passengers would arrive from Chicago each weekend.
During the Roaring Twenties, the Oasis Ballroom brought in big name bands. A large amusement park consisted of a roller coaster, merry-go-round, and other concessions. The Michigan City Zoo was established in 1928.
Smith Brothers Cough Drop Factory, with its famous bearded figureheads, went up just north of Franklin Street Bridge. More parks were built - one in memory of four-time Mayor Krueger.
By the 1930's, much recreational activity had ceased, due to the Great Depression and other circumstances. The excursion boat business had suffered from shipwrecks and the loss of thousands of lives. Sand mining eventually leveled Hoosier Slide. Much of the land was then sold to the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, which operates a coal powered generating plant to the west of Washington Park.
Various governmental agencies took part in establishing public services and beautifying the north end of town. The Works Progress Administration put more than 200 unemployed people to work, building the stone park benches, walkways, animal shelters and other structures in the zoo. In 1939, the U.S. Naval Armory and LaPorte County Courthouses were built, and the U.S. Coast Guard took over the lighthouse service.
The voices of environmentalists began to make an impact on land usage. The Save the Dunes Council was established in 1952, and was instrumental in the formation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (1966). The national park incorporated Mount Baldy and other dune land at the west edge of Michigan City.
The historic downtown area took on a new look with urban renewal projects in the 1960s. Franklin Street, which formerly led directly into Washington Park, was closed at the north end and transformed into a pedestrian mall. Several buildings went up in the newly created space, including city hall and a new public library.
The lakefront continues to be the pride of Michigan City and the center of recreational activities. Washington Park is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are the Old Lighthouse (1858, now a museum), and the East Pierhead, Light Tower and Catwalk (1904).
Tour of Historic Points of Interest - Take a visual tour of some of the historic points in and around Washington Park. Each with its own degree of magnificence, and with a unique story to tell, all contribute to Michigan City's expansive history.
Architectural Tour of the Downtown District - Celebrating 100 years of Architecture in Michigan City's historic Downtown District! With no shortage of historical significance, buildings in and around Michigan City's downtown have all contributed to the City's rich heritage. See the variety of homes, churches, and businesses, and the architectural significance each offers, in this exciting architectural tour.