Indiana Dunes

At 45 miles Indiana’s shoreline is the skimpiest of any state along Lake Michigan, and by the early 20th century industry was threatening to take over the entire stretch. The state’s sand dunes managed to avoid being flattened by steel mills only after Stephen Mather, director of the newly formed National Park Service, launched a conservation crusade. Indiana Dunes State Park was created in 1923; the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore took four more decades.

At 15,000 acres, it’s not particularly large by national-park standards. But the park’s size is not why people come–the draw is the size of the dunes. Says Lewis Tomasino, who worked 44 years at the steel mills in Gary before he became a park volunteer last year, “We have had people from Japan and Lithuania in here. From all over the world, they all say these are the best sand dunes you will see anywhere.”

The DUNEWOOD CAMPGROUND (219-926-7561, ext. 225) at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is accessible by car or by the South Shore rail line, which stops in Beverly Shores, a short walk away. Campsites are $10 per night. A couple miles north, the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center has oodles of brochures on flora, fauna, and hiking trails, plus a ten-minute movie orientation.

Camping is also available at the indiana dunes state park (219-926-1952; $12-$15 per night; reservations required) and at the MICHIGAN CITY CAMPGROUND (1601 N. Highway 421, 800-813-2267; $16-$22.50 per night). The latter, while close to the dunes, is also close to towns like Michiana and New Buffalo and the seedy motels that pepper Route 12 through Michigan’s Harbor Country.

The OLD LIGHTHOUSE MUSEUM (Heisman Harbor Road, Michigan City, 219-872-6133; open 1 to 4 PM, closed Mondays) carries the legacy of Harriet Colfax, whose petite frame made her “peculiarly unfitted for the position of lightkeeper” according to one author, but whose cousin Schuyler Colfax was vice president to Ulysses S. Grant and able to pull some strings. She held the post for 43 years. Now run by the Michigan City Historical Society, the eight-room museum displays navigational instruments and boasts many pirated artifacts, which were regularly removed from wrecks until a spate of laws attempting to quash such practices were passed in the 1980s.

Thousands of wrecks remain beneath the surface of Lake Michigan. And while exploring them requires scuba certification, this can be earned in as little as two weekends. GOOSE’S SCUBA SHACK (3435 Ridge Rd., Lansing, Illinois, 708-474-7380) offers a full range of scuba courses and specialty instruction including wreck diving. The slogan “Divers do it deeper” didn’t originate at Goose’s, but it’s been a top-selling bumper sticker there since Doug Gossage opened up his shop on the Illinois-Indiana border 20 years ago. Gossage, who’s racked up more than 3,000 dives (and just may be a distant relative of Goose Gossage), also arranges reasonably priced charters out of Burnham Harbor (standard fare for two sites is $65; scuba equipment is not included).

The David Dows, one popular destination, lies in 40 feet of water six miles off the Indiana shore. The cargo boat, whose frostbitten crew survived its stormy sinking on Thanksgiving Day 1889, was at one time the largest five-masted schooner in the world. More difficult to find are remnants of the Hippocampus. In 1868, an hour out of Saint Joseph, Michigan, seventeen crew, nine passengers, and a cargo of peaches were lost when the ship sank in less than three minutes. The Horace A. Tuttle was carrying 77,000 bushels of corn when it ran aground off Michigan City in October 1898. The steamer was smashed into wood planks in a matter of days; rotting kernels washed up on the beach for seven years.

Indiana visitors can also explore wrecks in less menacing waters. At FRANCE PARK (Rural Route #6, Logansport, 219-753-2928) a 36-foot school bus and an old pickup truck have settled at the bottom of the spring-fed, 26-feet-deep quarry. (Several paddlefish–one six feet long and described as “a beloved monster”–and an assortment of adopted Missouri catfish also call France Park home.) Linda and Tom Stough, owners of The Diving Den (2229 E. 000NS, west of Logansport, 765-452-1034), run the quarry, whose clear and relatively temperate water makes it ideal for divers just learning to go under.

The Stoughs themselves secure and sink the wreckage–mainly castoffs from friends. “The bus we pushed in, just pushed it over a small cliff,” Linda explains, but seasonal considerations forced a different tack with the truck: “We had to tow it to the middle of the ice, cut a circle around, and let it drop down.” A small motorboat is the next item up for underwater display. Says Linda, “If we didn’t have anything in there, it would be very mundane.”

–Sarah Downey

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Heather McAdams.