The Calumet’s Diverse Landscape
The Calumet region's unusual mix of waterways, forests, prairies, and sand dunes served Native American tribes for thousands of years. It was not densely settled by Europeans until the steel industry surged up in the 1870s. Over the next hundred years, steel and other manufacturers made dramatic changes to the natural landscape. In some places, however, dry sands and wetlands proved too challenging to build upon or were left for future development. Through much effort, these lands and waters are being preserved and restored for the benefit of people and as refuge for plants and animals.
One of the Calumet region’s most unique qualities is its high biodiversity, which perseveres despite being one of the most heavily industrialized and populated places on Earth. Calumet is the meeting place of three major North American biomes: Northern needleleaf forests, Western tallgrass prairie, and Eastern broadleaf forests. The sandy soils were left by glacial lakes and wind action over thousands of years. Indiana Dunes National Park, with its forests, bogs, prairies, and marshes, is one of the most species rich in the National Park system. Click on the images in the slideshow to enlarge and view more information.
Cranes and men at Calumet feeder to Drainage Canal at Palos Park. Created October 21, 1914.
While Native Americans transformed the Calumet landscape over thousands of years of habitation and cultivation, remaking the Calumet area for the Industrial Age began with the creation of Calumet Harbor in 1870. The widening and straightening of the Calumet River soon followed to provide waterway access to large, cargo-carrying vessels. Over the next century, harbors were created at East Chicago, Gary, and Portage and roads, railroads, and bridges expanded to accommodate growing industry. The landscape was dramatically transformed. Lands were extended into Lake Michigan; wetlands were drained and filled in; dunes were destroyed; continental drainage divides were moved; rivers were rerouted, straightened, deepened, and/or repurposed; and sewage and pollutants were dumped into waterways.
Amidst these scenes of industrialization, there was a growing sense that something was being lost. In 1916, agitation and advocacy for a Dunes National Park to become part of the new National Park Service reached a fever pitch. Efforts were slowed by World War I, but the Indiana Dunes State Park was established in 1926. Renewed advocacy after World War II led to the creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966, now the Indiana Dunes National Park.
Women have guided many efforts to conserve, protect, and restore the biodiversity, natural beauty, and recreational quality of the region. Bess Sheehan played the leading role in the creation of Indiana Dunes State Park. Lee Botts founded what is now the Alliance for the Great Lakes and spearheaded many local initiatives. Norma Pfeiffer discovered a plant called Thismia americana in the shadow of a metallurgical coking facility in 1912 that is endemic to the region. While not seen since 1916, many have come to the Calumet prairies in search of this rare treasure.
Heritage comes alive in a conservation event to search for the rare plant, Thismia americana.
Posters like this one from the 1920s, were used to advertise the duneland and increase ridership on the South Shore Line.
Cheryl Johnson protesting a proposed coal to gas plant on Chicago's Southeast Side.
With the proximity of residential areas to industrial zones, the Calumet area has become a place of grassroots citizen activism for those concerned with the disproportionate impacts of polluted land, air, and water.
Hazel and Cheryl Johnson of People for Community Recovery became leaders in the national environmental justice movement. Organizing from a base in public housing at Altgeld Gardens, their movement was joined by a young community organizer named Barack Obama.
Marian Byrnes, a retired schoolteacher, led grassroots efforts on the southeast side of Chicago and became a leader in the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Calumet Stewardship Initiative, and Calumet Heritage Partnership. After a long struggle, the Southeast Environmental Task Force succeeded in halting the relocation of a scrapyard to the community in 2022.
Marian Byrnes (center) at Van Vlissingen Prairie, now Marian Byrnes Park.