American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936

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Ecology and the American Environment

In Reading the Landscape of America (1975), May Theilgaard Watts looked back fondly on the ecological field trips she and other students had taken to the Indiana Dunes:

"I recalled the times our ecology class from the University of Chicago, led by Dr. Henry Cowles, had alighted [at the railroad platform], each of us with a green metal vasculum (for specimens) hanging from one shoulder, and a knapsack full of lunch and a Gray's Manual hanging from the other. As soon as the train pulled out, the knapsacks would hold the skirts of the women of the class, which were shucked off to reveal riding breeches and high shoes, and were put on again before we got on the train at the end of the day."

However exciting the field trips, by the time these students tramped across the Indiana Dunes just after World War I, the great ecological phenomenon that had drawn Henry Cowles and other botanists for scientific study was already greatly imperiled. The growth of Chicago and the expansion of individual leisure time, combined with the extension of railroad lines and paved roads across northern Indiana, had brought increasing thousands of people into the Dunes as vacationers and residents. What had once been seen as a pristine natural environment was now threatened with transformation into an urban playground.

Equally disturbing were pressures for industrial and commercial exploitation of the Dunes. The founding of the new city of Gary, Indiana, and the construction of the massive U.S. Steel plant in 1905 had destroyed a large portion of the dune complex in Lake County, Indiana. Ecologists and conservationists studied the dunes stretching in an unbroken formation along the lakeshore twenty-five miles east to Michigan City and worried that all this land, still in private hands, would soon be lost to the same industrial forces.

On October 30, 1916, a special hearing was called in Chicago to consider a proposal for a Sand Dunes National Park. Stephen Mather, a Chicagoan recently appointed as the first head of the National Park Service, hoped to be able to secure federal funding for the park. Henry C. Cowles, whose work had done so much to increase public interest in the Dunes as a natural preserve, strongly endorsed the park idea by emphasizing the unique scientific importance of the area.

"For twenty years," Cowles said, "I have been studying the dunes more than anything else, more than everything else combined." Three years earlier, he had conducted the visiting International Phytogeographic Excursion across the continent, and the touring European scientists insisted that the Lake Michigan dunes were one of the three or four most important American natural sites worth visiting. "Botanically the Indiana dunes are a marvelous cosmopolitan preserve," said Cowles, "a veritable floral melting pot. . . . There are few places on our continent where so many species of plants are found in so small compass as within the area suggested for conservation. . . . No other dunes than ours show such bewildering displays of dune movement and struggle for existence, such labyrinths of motion, form, and life."

Other advocates at the hearing joined in the call for preservation of the Dunes: poet and editor Harriet Monroe, philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, architect Dwight Perkins, sculptor Lorado Taft, social settlement leader Graham Taylor, landscape architect and park planner Jens Jensen, geologist Thomas C. Chamberlin, and medical education authority Abraham Flexner. Appeals were also made by civic organizations, the Chicago Women's Club, the Prairie Club, the Illinois Audubon Society, and the Indiana Conference of Daughters of the American Revolution.

In the aftermath of the Chicago hearing, Stephen Mather convened a national parks conference in early 1917 and later helped organize the National Conference of State Parks, believing that preservation of the natural environment would be more readily secured with the support of state governments. Conservationists, ecologists, and civic leaders turned their energies to lobbying at the state level, and by 1923 they were able to persuade the Indiana legislature to establish Dunes State Park. With a combination of state funds and private donations, 2,000 acres of dunes and surrounding natural areas along the Lake Michigan shore were acquired within the next four years as a mixed nature preserve and recreational facility.

The pressure for incursions into the dunes - factories, sand mining, housing developments - continued in the following decades. By the 1950s, the remaining undeveloped stretches of the dunes in Porter County, Indiana, were under serious threat of commercial exploitation. In May 1958, U.S. Senator Paul Douglas, a former member of the University of Chicago faculty, introduced the first of many bills for the creation of a national monument or national park to save the surviving portions of the dunes.

In April 1962, construction began on a new industrial port facility for the state of Indiana in the heart of the Porter County, Indiana, dunes. Later that same year, Bethlehem Steel announced plans for constructing a massive finishing plant adjacent to the port. A large public utility power plant was also erected on the same site. Between 1962 and 1965, more than two and a half millions of yards of Indiana Dunes sand were excavated and barged away to be used as landfill elsewhere along the lake, leaving nothing behind but a leveled site ready for construction.

With the impending destruction of still further sections of the Dunes at hand, federal action was finally secured. Still facing continuing strong opposition from port and industry advocates, Congress in 1966 authorized the creation of a 6,500-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Expanded substantially in size by subsequent federal legislation, the National Lakeshore has assured the preservation of the last surviving portions of the dunes, wetlands, and woodlands of the southern shore of Lake Michigan -- the unique natural environment that served as the principal inspiration for the ecological studies of Henry C. Cowles and his students and colleagues.

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Detail of a map showing the relationships between vegetation on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan.
enlarge image icon [Detail] Map from The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan

George Damon Fuller [and] Henry Chandler Cowles [of the University of Chicago Department of Botany], William Trelease, [and several unidentified men], Miller, Indiana
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon George Damon Fuller [and] Henry Chandler Cowles [of the University of Chicago Department of Botany], William Trelease, [and several unidentified men], Miller, Indiana