Shaped by the ebb and flow of ancient glaciers, the land at the southern end of Lake Michigan was seen by some as a source of natural abundance, by others as a challenging place to eke out a living, and by still others as an empty expanse to fill with industry. For thousands of years, Native Americans lived in, drew sustenance from, and traveled through the Calumet region. Euro-Americans utilized the region’s natural resources in many of the same ways, but steadily intensified their use of the land, introducing farming where they could, and eventually light and heavy industry.
Explore how natural opportunities have shaped–and continue to shape–the region:
By the early 1980s, many industries closed their doors permanently, or greatly reduced their number of workers due to automation and overseas competition. Despite such extreme changes to the employment landscape, residents of the region continue to create new ways to make a living and maintain quality-of-life, often building on their heritage for the future of the region.
Steel Yard, home of the Rail Cats, seen from the Metro Center (NITCD) in Gary, Indiana.
Sports-oriented entertainment and craft breweries are examples of newer industries that build on regional heritage. Casinos cater to local and tourist markets.
Left: An artist’s rendering of the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Indiana.
Below: Three Floyds Beer is brewed in Hammond, Indiana.
Believed to be the collection of a mid-century Hammond school teacher, these dolls showcase the efforts to educate school children of the growing differences in cultural dress and appearance.
The Calumet Gun Club was founded by Chicago recreational hunters in 1885 and was one of several hunting and fishing clubs in the region at the time. Located just east of the present day US Steel Gary Works harbor, the club’s buildings were still standing when the United States Steel Corporation bought the site in 1905. The club’s facilities included a club house, fifteen cottages, a piano, bowling alleys, and their own railroad station. Some of the engineers involved in the construction of the Gary Works steel mills enjoyed the benefits of the cottages until housing was built for them in the brand new town of Gary.
Calumet Gun Club 1900 Photographer Unknown Calumet Regional Archives
Summer vacationers slid down the water slide on this sled at Coffin’s Shady Beach Resort in the 1950s.
Water Sled 1950s Cedar Lake Historical Association
In this photo, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) enjoys a round of golf at Gary’s North Gleason Park. One of Louis’s motives for golfing in Gary was to draw attention to, and protest, the disparity between the nine-hole North Gleason course and the whites-only, 18-hole South Gleason course.
Joe Louis golfing with the Par-Makers 1948 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
Broadly speaking, Gary was much like the rest of the country on civil rights progress after World War II. African Americans and progressive allies made new pushes for equality with only limited success until larger change came in the 1960’s. Garites made efforts both locally and nationally, and some national figures came to Gary offering support for local efforts.
Members of this wedding party were also part of Gary’s NAACP, which welcomed Jewish residents along with African Americans. The bride and groom’s siblings (far left) rode through the segregated South with 1960s Civil Rights Movement Freedom Riders.
Davidson and Biblo Wedding C. 1965 Cassandra Cannon
White and African American youth shared the floor at a Frank Sinatra concert at the Gary Civic Auditorium in November 1945. Sinatra came to Gary to help dampen white objections to desegregation efforts at Froebel High. While initially unmoved, white students’ opposition to desegregation cooled in subsequent years. The Gary School Board, in response to the Froebel students’ complaints of being singled out for desegregation, ordered all schools to accept neighbor children, independent of race. De facto segregation nonetheless continued because the majority of Gary neighborhoods were segregated.
Froebel School students at Sinatra concert 1945 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
George Kimbley, Bill Young, John Howard, Curtis Strong and Jonathan Comer worked in the mills of NW Indiana, and fought to achieve more racially equitable representation in union leadership, provide equal access to facilities in the mills, and ensure equality in workplace promotions. Like Caldwell before them, they were leaders across labor and wider civil rights issue, working through organizations that include the NAACP and the A, Philip Randolph Institute.
Legends 2005: Black Freedom Fighters 2005 The South Shore Legends project in partnership with the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority
Where to live, what school to go to, who to marry? The objects and stories displayed here show how residents answered these kinds of questions, sometimes pushing boundaries and sometimes not, as they made the most of the opportunities available to them.
The need to house huge numbers of new industrial workers quickly posed a significant challenge to Northwest Indiana. Cities throughout the Calumet region took different approaches to city planning and housing development, resulting in a variety of architectural styles seen in few other areas.
The Gary Land Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, built quality housing for managers and skilled workers adjacent to the downtown business district. The land to the south of the Wabash railroad tracks was left to other developers and home builders with few restrictions, creating substandard housing for unskilled African Americans and recent European immigrants.
Gary Land Company, First Subdivision Map C. 1907 Gary Public Library
Clayton Mark, founder of Mark Manufacturing in what is now East Chicago, hired architect Howard Van Doren Shaw to design an entire community for his workers, modeled on an English country village. Responding to turn-of-the-century surveys that showed poor housing was to blame for poor worker retention, Mark built to satisfy worker preferences, such as the ability to cook indoors, ventilation for each room, and separate bedrooms for parents.
Chicago Architectural Photographing Company 1920 Marktown Preservation Society
One of the most popular musical groups in American history, the Jackson 5 began their journey in Gary, Indiana. Their success starting in the early 1970s helped buoy the city’s brand, even as it was experiencing an economic downturn.
Jackson 5 Promotional Photo 1971 Gary Public Library
Known as the “Marriage Mill”, from 1915 to 1940, couples flocked to Crown Point, to be married without conforming to marriage norms in their religious or ethnic communities, and with no waiting period between obtaining a marriage license and the ceremony. Justices of the peace married an estimated 175,000 couples during the height of the Marriage Mill’s popularity.
Lake County Marriage Record Book 1924 Crown Point Public Library
For Gary’s first 50 years, Midtown was the center of commercial activity for the African American community, located across the understood social divide from similar shopping districts to the north. In part, Midtown was culturally distinct because of the musical entertainment it could attract, at times drawing people of all social backgrounds to enjoy stellar performances.
Broadway at 15th Avenue 1933 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
Doo-wop and R&B group, the Spaniels, got their start at Gary’s Roosevelt High School in the early 1950s, as the Hudsonaires. Their biggest hit, Good NIght Sweetheart, Good NIght, rose to #5 on the Billboard R&B chart. The group recorded with VJ Records in Gary, and have been described as pioneers who later R&B performers imitated or learned from.
Spaniels Publicity Photo 1950s Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
William Wirt, Superintendent of the Gary Community School Corporation from 1907-1938, was one of the most influential educators of the early 20th Century in America. He popularized the “Work-Study-Play” system for urban schools that aimed to develop all aspects of the child.
William Wirt 1911 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
Despite discriminatory segregation policies, Theodore Roosevelt High School in Gary, had a primarily African American faculty and staff, and became one of the best-known, all-black schools in America during the 1930s-1950s. Its creation was a reaction to the Emerson School Strike of 1927, in which white students protested sharing a building with African American students. It produced a number of well-known athletes, actors, and others who contributed significantly to society.
As industry grew, so did the cultural diversity and the breadth of opportunity outside of the workplace. Even as population numbers exploded, people often stayed within the boundaries of neighborhood, race and ethnicity, or religion. Still, urban life afforded new options in education, community, and achievement. People took advantage of these new possibilities and at times pushed through social barriers to achieve their ambitions.
In the photo above, Children at Gary’s Bailey Branch Library pose with signs that state their country of origin. The International Institute, housed in the same building, helped immigrants adjust to life in the U.S.
Ethnic Children at Bailey Branch Library 1922 Gary Public Library
Explore how people from diverse backgrounds have come together to make this region home.
Processing natural resources is often inherently dirty, as the smoke in this 1950s U.S. Steel Gary Works photo illustrates. Mills are much cleaner today, but the processes still release lead, other heavy metals, and particulates that can cause health issues.
Aerial View of Gary Works 1950 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
The Risks and Repercussions of Industrialization
Working and living in an industrial region can be dirty, dangerous, and demanding. Risk has not historically been fairly distributed either in the workplace or in the communities of the region. And the impacts of some dangers cannot be avoided.
Historically, non-white workers were given the dangerous, dirty, less prestigious, and lower paying jobs. The tin rollers this worker is operating appear to have no guards to prevent injury.
Views at Tin Mill, American Sheet and Tin Plate Co. 1921 U.S. Steel Gary Works Photography Collection, Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
Industrial workers in Northwest Indiana have a long history of activism. They participated in the major national steel strikes of the last century, displaying a significant degree of cross-racial unity in their labor actions. At the same time, African American workers fought for racial equity in both the workplace and the labor movement.
Ownership finally broke the 1919 nationwide strike, but it set the conditions leading to the eight hour work day.
African American steelworkers Louis B. Caldwell, and C.D. Elston shuttled between African American and Euro-American strikers reassuring each group that the other was still on board. They kept the strike effort together. While little is known about Elston, Caldwell notably learned about racial inequality and injustice by working as a Pullman Porter, became a lawyer, labor activist,and a founding member of Gary’s NAACP chapter.
Steel Strike, strikers march on 5th Avenue. 1919 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
President Eisenhower ended the 1959 steel strike four months after this strike vote. It was, at the time, the longest strike in steel’s history. Workers managed to maintain the workplace safety rules they fought for, and gain a raise, but manufacturers also became more open to foreign steel.
Strike vote, July 1959 The Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
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A Region Abuzz Near the end of the 19th century, the Calumet region was abuzz with…
At any one time, over 20 languages could be heard in the steel mills throughout the Calumet region. Because steelworkers often knew little or no English, employment manuals were written in a number of different languages.
Employment Manuals, Carnegie Illinois Steel Works (now United States Steel) 1910s-1920s Gary Public Library
Workers from inside and outside the US were drawn to new employment opportunities provided by the Calumet region’s growing industries. In search of a better life for themselves and their families, these new residents valued the steady income and recognition that were often not available to them in their places of origin. As the needs of industry and the nation grew, so did opportunities for women and minority groups.
Individual employment records like these show the cultural diversity of the workforce. Companies routinely recorded workers’ country of origin and language spoken. The record displayed here is from Hammond Technical-Vocational High School, where adults could take classes to fill gaps in their training and fulfill needed roles in the war effort, such as drafting and machining.
Adult Vocational Training Record, Hammond Technical-Vocational School 1940s Hammond Public LIbrary, Suzanne G. Long Local History Room
World War Two opened new opportunities for women in industry. While the end of the war saw these opportunities fade, women maintained a presence in the mills which started to grow again starting in the 1970s.
This 1943 Life Magazine cover is one of the iconic images that came to shape public understanding of the importance of women’s contributions to the war effort by taking on essential manufacturing work.
Life Magazine 1943 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
Women steel workers welded their names on this steel plate while working at Inland Steel, now ArcelorMittal, during WWII.
Historical Steel Plate John Weinstein, 2019
African Americans and Latinos had jobs in the mills from their opening, albeit often in more dangerous, dirty, or otherwise less-desirable tasks. The positions they could hold grew during war time, and ultimately, through the 1960s and 70s, unions and employers got on board with equal access to positions and promotions regardless of race.
An African American woman working levels at U.S. Steel Gary 1943 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest.
Mexican workers standing on a rail engine that they operate. Many Mexican residents came into the region initially as railroad workers, and many of them continued in railroad jobs within the region.
1920s-30s Amanda Aguilera
Working in local industry, particularly steel, is a source of pride and social status. Workers take pride in putting up with heat, some danger, and converting raw ore into the skyline of Chicago. Pride, status, and the long tenure of the mills in the region help promote employment longevity within the industry across generational lines, and with individual workers choosing to stay with one employer.
25 Year Club mementos given by the steel company recognize employee dedication. Membership in the 25 Year Club is an accomplishment celebrated by industry peers as a milestone in one’s career and an opportunity to share the honor with similarly long-serving coworkers at the annual 25 Year Club picnic.
25 Year Club Awards 1951-1969 Northwest Indiana Steel Heritage Project
G.H. Hammond, inventor of the refrigerated rail car, was the owner of the first packing house in Hammond. Ice, cut at Wolf Lake and Cedar Lakes, kept cars cold enough to safely carry meat to East and West Coast consumers.
The G. H. Hammond Co., Car 01225 Contemporary replica Hammond Public Library, Suzanne G. Long Local History Room
Near the end of the 19th century, the Calumet region was abuzz with large-scale innovative, industrial processing and production. George Hammond’s refrigerated rail cars were running meat to the east coast, an emerging network of ports and canals welcomed large boats and barges carrying iron ore and other raw materials, and petroleum products were starting to be refined on the Lakefront at Whiting.
A tangle of rail lines quickly grew to cover the region, offering the shortest route from New England to the Midwest.
Major Calumet rail lines in 1910 2003 Kenneth J. Schoon, Calumet Beginnings
Mountainous Western Pennsylvania is known for making steel, but the Calumet region stayed competitive due to a natural advantage: the water. Ore boats carried huge loads of iron ore from up north at the Minnesota Iron Range to the steel mill docks at the south end of Lake Michigan.
Ore boats were such impressive technology that they were the subject of industrial heritage postcards for the region. The S.S. Wilfred Sykes was the fastest and largest boat in the Inland fleet when launched in 1949, carrying 20,000 tons of ore at 16 mph.
Ore Boat Postcards Second half of the twentieth century (Sykes) Lee A. Tregurtha, c. 2010 Northwest Indiana Steel Heritage Project
This chief engineer’s hat was worn by Alexander Donald, chief on the L.E. Block from 1946-1960. Chief engineer was a position of nearly equal authority to captain.
Chief Engineer’s Hat Mid-twentieth century Northwest Indiana Steel Heritage Project
Iron ore, limestone, and coke are the initial ingredients for making liquid iron (“hot metal” or “pig iron” to steel workers), which can be further refined to make various types of steel. This sample box displays 12 different alloys (ingredients) added to steel to produce different physical qualities to suit the final use.
This scale replica of the iconic Picasso sculpture which stands in downtown Chicago was made by American Bridge, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel in Gary. Constructed of a type of steel made to rust on the surface but no deeper, painting and coating are unnecessary. This souvenir model was available to the public at the same time that the actual sculpture was installed in Chicago.
This is an example of specialization in the range of steel products, many made here in the Calumet region.
Picasso Sculpture Souvenir Model 1967 Gary Public Library
By the 1880s, the swampy Calumet region looked to industrialists like the last “undeveloped” space around the southern Great Lakes. It provided land for their vastly expanded operations in close proximity to water, Chicago’s labor supply, and a dense rail network. Guided by this new view and seizing this opportunity, the Calumet region became “the nation’s premier industrial zone” by 1920–a distinction it held through the 1960s.
These new, colossal industries produced vast amounts of iron, steel, and petroleum products. Smaller factories made a diverse array of products, including agricultural implements, car parts, musical instruments, and other consumer goods to sell to the growing Chicago and Midwestern markets.
Pictured above: Construction of an Open hearth building at Indiana Harbor Works.
Hedelius 1937 Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest
Explore the opportunities created by industry, and its limitations.
A Region Abuzz Near the end of the 19th century, the Calumet region was abuzz with…
Continuing the tradition of valuing nature within a region of industry, the abandoned Erie-Lackawanna railroad has been repurposed into a walking trail that extends throughout the county along the rail line.
Current South Entrance of the Trail, Crown Point 2019 Jeanene Letcher
As industry spread across the region, more and more of the people drawn by the prospects of work and urban opportunity also came to value the local landscape and natural habitats. For the last century, Northwest Indiana residents have advocated for preservation of nature, documented the local landscape, and ensured public access to the benefits of the outdoors.
A. F. Knotts, a resident of Gary, former Mayor of Hammond, and the brother of Thomas Knotts, Gary’s first mayor, was very much in support of a National Park for the Indiana Dunes, long before the modern environmental movement started. Knotts was President of the National Dune Park Association, beginning as early as 1917, and he began corresponding with movers and shakers/decision makers as early as 1916 regarding the preservation of the dunes. In the letter displayed, Chicago businessman T.H. Tuthill advocates with Knotts for a member of Indiana’s Senate delegation to lead the national advocacy for creation of the national park. America’s entry into World War I halted the Dunes national park movement of the time, although the relatively small Indiana Dunes State Park was created in 1925.
Tuthill to Knotts Letter 1917 Gary Public Library
Gary mayor Richard Hatcher speaks at a protest opposing the construction of a nuclear power station east of Gary on the Shores of Lake Michigan. Elected Gary’s mayor in 1967, he was one of the two first African American mayors of a major American city. While a national figure on civil rights and urban issues, he tended to the myriad issues facing Gary for 20 years before losing the democratic primary in 1987.
Richard Hatcher at Beachfront Protest of NIPSCO Plant Photographer Unknown c. 1971 Calumet Regional Archives