Miller Station to Miller Beach & Everything In Between
Submitted by: Matthew A. Werner
Feature photo courtesy of Miller Historical Society, Inc.
Before Indiana became a state, the territory on the southern shore of Lake Michigan was inhabited by the Potawatomi. Numerous treaties and the Trail of Death drove most of them out. Some remained on the Lake Michigan shore as land owners, including Be-Si-ah and his wife Ne-paw-wee. In 1837, they sold land to William and George Ewing, and George Walker. The land developers divvied it up and to this day, some Miller property deeds indicate Ewing Sub division in the abstract.
Before there was a Gary, Indiana, there was the town of Miller. Well, Miller Station, really, and it wasn’t so much a town as a train stop. In 1850, Samuel and Susan Miller and their 3 year old son, John, were innkeepers and inhabited the area. Little John died a year later and his headstone is the oldest-known grave in Miller today. The railroad came through in 1852 and the Miller’s inn likely served as a common stop for workers or travelers. Samuel and Susan Miller moved to California in 1855, but when a U.S. Postal Service established an office there in 1865, they named it Miller Station. A town was born.
To Miller Station’s immediate west, U.S. Steel bought up thousands of acres along the Lake Michigan shore. It dug up the sand dunes, diverted marshes and rivers, built massive smoke stacks and steel mills. It also built housing and employed tens of thousands of workers. They named the new city after the corporation’s founding chairman, Elbert Henry Gary. Gary, Indiana, was born in 1906.
The marshy swamps surrounding Miller isolated it from its neighbors and its untouched beaches made it a natural recreation spot. Robert and Drusilla Carr arrived in Miller Station when it was a quiet, remote area with only a handful of residents. In 1896, a long gravel road extended to the Marquette Park Lagoon and a 200 foot wooden bridge constructed over the lagoon. The road and bridge eased travel to and from the Lake Michigan shore. It also allowed Octave Chanute and his team to reach the windswept dunes with all of his equipment where his team flew the manned gliders he had designed and built. An early advocate for airplane development, Chanute published an influential book, “Progress in Flying Machines.” He later met and encouraged Wilbur and Orville Wright.
With the new access and the thousands of nearby steel workers, the beach became a recreation destination. The Carrs laid claim to the beachfront at present-day Lake Street Beach. Bath houses, a miniature railroad, shooting gallery, more than a hundred cottages, a dance hall, and roller rink entertained thousands of workers looking to escape the smokestacks and crowded conditions of the fast-growing city of Gary.
Street cars connected downtown Gary to Lake Street in Miller. In the 1920s, a massive dance hall was built just south of Marquette Lagoon, the Gay Mill Gardens, which drew crowds. The Great Depression forced Gay Mill to close in 1929 and the building burned to the ground the following year.
Gary tried to annex Miller Station, but residents resisted. In defiance, they incorporated the town and in less than 12 months, the town hall (which still stands) was financed, planned, and constructed. In 1919, the Annexation Never Party won control of the Miller Town Board. Once sworn into office, they immediately voted to be annexed by Gary. Such is Indiana politics. Miller lost its independence.
As soon as Gary took over Miller, it aimed to condemn nearly 200 acres of lakefront property. Miller residents protested, but US Steel bought 116 acres and handed it over to the City of Gary and work began on Lakefront Park. The city leveled one large sand dune and removed the Carr family’s dance hall, entertainment venues, and cottages. It constructed the Gary Recreation Bathing Beach Pavilion on the beach, which provided a place to change clothes and rent bathing suits for 50 cents, and the Recreation Pavilion, an elegant structure overlooking the lagoon. The entire area became Marquette Park and it was a major destination for mill workers and Chicagoans looking for a relaxing day in the sun.
The Forties and Fifties boomed in Gary as war production of steel fueled prosperity. A labor shortage brought a large number of black workers from the South who were forced to live in the Midtown neighborhood. It overcrowded and black residents began buying property in other neighborhoods. White residents leery of integration relocated and the more affluent moved to Miller.
Miller had a thriving downtown that included Miller State Bank, Ming Ling Cantonese restaurant, Food Center, Dart Inn tavern, Miller Drugs, Jack Spratt Ice Cream Parlor, Miller Bakery, Bart’s Shoes, a dry cleaner, a music store, and more. The population swelled, but Miller’s dark history surfaced. It was a sundown town. The only black people in Miller were daytime workers and servants. They were not allowed to visit the beach, rent bathing suits, or bath in the Lake Michigan waters. And when the sun went down, they needed to be out of Miller.
The 1960s brought the Civil Rights Act and in 1967, Gary elected the nation’s first black mayor, Richard Hatcher. White flight struck swiftly as entire neighborhoods went up for sale and some white residents just moved out. Miller residents had abandoned its segregated policies and while progressive residents favored integration, others maintained old beliefs. In 1971, residents formed the Miller Citizen’s Corporation to save the neighborhood and make it a unique place to live for everyone.
“Regardless of citizen’s precise racial beliefs, and undoubtedly there was much difference of opinion, Miller stalwarts agreed that the primary task of the new homeowners group was to slow down the process of change,” wrote Andrew Hurley in his book, “Environmental Inequalities.” Whereas other Gary neighborhood groups had failed, Miller succeeded in building an integrated neighborhood.
The 1970s and 80s hit Northwest Indiana hard. Gary lost 1/3 of its residents over 20 years. Lake Street businesses in Miller dried up. The Gary Bath House deteriorated, boarded up, and a “No Trespassing” sign posted on it. The children’s playground became an ugly mess. The era experienced the apex of industrial pollution that tarnished the region. But Miller survived and then thrived.
In 1991, the Chanute Aquatorium Society reopened the bath house, cleaned up graffiti, and put on a new roof. The building became a museum to Octave Chanute and the Tuskegee Airmen. Local citizens replaced the dilapidated playground with a new one kids could play on. The concession stand was rebuilt and reopened. In 2009, the city was awarded a $28 million grant to improve Marquette Park. Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education sits in the middle of Miller in the middle of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that runs right through the center of Miller. 18th Street Brewery moved to Lake Street near Miller Pizza Company, fine dining at the Miller Bakery Cafe, everybody’s favorite gift shops, Lake Street Gallery and Indie-Indie-Bang-Bang, Nelson Algren Museum, and the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts has a rotation of art on display.
The South Shore train conductor announces to passengers that they have reached Miller when they arrive at Lake Street. The Post Office wall still says Miller Station. Some locals call it Miller Beach and argue whether they’re part of Gary, or a separate entity. Call it what you want—it is a unique place that continues to adapt and thrive.
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