Although our town is relatively young, Burns Harbor celebrates the heritage and history of those who helped make it the vibrant community it is today.
- The Early Years
- The Middle Years
- Protest & Change
- Building Bethlehem Steel
- A Brand New Town
- A Growing Community
Settlement and Immigration Prior to 1900
Settlers moved into the area that would become Burns Harbor after the federal government began selling land in 1833 and following the 1838 forced removal of the Native Americans from Indiana.
In the 1850s, Swedish and German immigrants moved into the area from Chicago to work in the local lumber industry and stayed to farm and create the Baillytown community. The Michigan Central Railroad and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad laid track through historic Burns Harbor in 1852, providing transportation from the East Coast and to Chicago.
By the mid-1870s most of the land in historic Burns Harbor had been settled, cleared and put under cultivation.
After 1870, immigrants from Germany and other countries moved to the area to farm and to work in the nearby Porter brickyards.
In 1866 two one-room schools were built in what would become Burns Harbor. Salt Creek School was located at the corner of what is now I-94 and S.R. 149.
The Baillytown School was located 1/4 mile northeast of the intersection of U.S. 12 and the current S.R. 149.
The influx of Swedish immigrants to the area resulted in the development of Baillytown. This community extended for several miles along the Chicago-Detroit Road, now U.S. 12, roughly from Waverly Road on the east to a point near the current Port of Indiana in Portage, and as far south as Old Porter Road. This included land that is now part of the Town of Porter.
People who lived in what would become Burns Harbor generally considered themselves residents of Baillytown before 1900.
In 1822 fur trader Joseph Bailly and his family became the first permanent settlers in the area. Initially trading with Native Americans, Bailly later built a tavern on what would become Nels Olson's farm in historic Burns Harbor.
In 1833 Bailly platted a town he called the Town of Bailly in the southeast corner of Section 28 of historic Burns Harbor. Bailly died in 1835 and the dream of a town died with him.
Historic Burns Harbor Key
- Haglund Log House
- Baillytown School
- Salt Creek School
- Town of Bailly
- Lake Shore & Michigan Railroad
- Michigan Central Railroad
- Indian Boundary Line
- Samuel Samuelson Farm
The following are some of the families that settled in historic Burns Harbor before 1900: Blank, Boo, Brickner, Charlson, Chellberg, Dalgren, Haglund, Lawson, Mautits, Paschen, Peterson, Samuelson, Swanson, Schultz and Wennerstrom.
Haglund Log Home - In 1870 Nils Haglund bought 42 acres in what is now Burns Harbor and built a log cabin for his family.
Pictured above are Niles and his wife Anna standing with her brother Andrew Carlson on the right. Nils and Anna's son Anton (Tony) is standing in the front of the wagon that holds some of his cousins.
The log cabin still exists as part of a log home on Meadowbrook Road.
John & Christina Brickner Family - The Brickners were German immigrants who settled in what would become Burns Harbor in 1875. They celebrated their 1923 Golden Wedding Anniversary, as seen in the photo below.
Hickory Grove Dairy Farm - Otto and Ida Peterson operated their farm from the 1880s into the early 1900s. Extensively expanded and remodeled, the house still stands at 1136 S.R. 149, surrounded by the original shagbark hickory trees for which the farm was named.
Boo Farm - In 1883 William Boo bought land from John and Christina Brickner at the east end of what is now Boo Road. Praxair now sits on what was part of Boo Farm.
Rose Hill Farm - In 1906, Niles built a house on the Haglund property, which was known thereafter as Rose Hill Farm.
The house was remodeled in the mid-20th century by Anne and Virgil Hokanson and still stands at 1252 Westport Road.
Continue by clicking on "The Middle Years" tab above...
1900 to 1965
After the turn of the century, the population in what would become Burns Harbor grew gradually. While the area was largely a rural farming community, residents also found employment at the nearby steel mills and the brick and china factories.
In the early part of the 20th century, the Knickerbocker Ice Company harvested ice from Mud Lake on land the company owned in the dunes. Sand-mining firms operated north of the South Shore Railroad tracks, providing employment for some local residents.
By 1920 a number of vacation cottages were built in the area by summer residents. The opening of the Dunes Highway (U.S. 12) in 1923 and U.S. 20 in 1932 spurred both residential and commercial development.
After World War II, residential lots were developed in a random manner along all the roads of the area that would become Burns Harbor. Three mobile home parks were built, as well.
The Great South Shore Railroad Train Wreck - June 19, 1909
On June 19, 1909, only one year after the South Shore Railroad opened the Shadyside, Meadowbrook and Baillytown flag stops in historic Burns Harbor, the Shadyside neighborhood was the site of the worst train wreck in the history of the South Shore. Twelve people were killed, and 52 injured.
Gary School Farm
From 1911 to c. 1917 the Gary Public School System, under the leadership of William A. Wirt, operated the Gary School Farm on the current site of the Burns Harbor Town Complex. The 160-acre agricultural training school consisted of an orchard and dairy farm operated under the supervision of Purdue University.
Alone in the Dunes - George Blagg & Diana of the Dunes
Despite its close-knit community, historic Burns Harbor was also the chosen home of two people who sought solitude in the dunes.
George Blagg, "the old man of the sand hills," was a Civil War veteran who lived a solitary life in the dunes for 30 years in a shack near the site of the current Bailly Generating Station until his death in 1914.
The construction of U.S. 12 (the Dunes Highway) in 1923 and the opening of the Indiana Dunes State Park in 1925 brought thousands of tourists through historic Burns Harbor. Restaurants, tourist cabins and service stations sprouted up along the highway as community residents took advantage of the opportunity the highway provided to create businesses to serve travelers.
Tourism businesses increased once again in 1932, after U.S. 20 opened to traffic. While it initially relieved congestion on U.S. 12, it eventually became even more dangerous, because the span through historic Burns Harbor had no traffic lights or posted speed limits.
The 1940 plat map of historic Burns Harbor (please see below) shows some of these businesses.
Porter County Plat Book, 1940 - Historic Burns Harbor
- Boo Family Farm
- Conrad Carlson Dairy Farm
- Nick Sovich - Conoco Service Station
- Emil Johnson - Dunes Midway Garage
- Dunes Nursery
- Adair Foundation
- Virgil Hokanson Family Residence
- Emil Johnson Residence
- Oscar & Irene Nelson Residence
- Anna Poparad Residence & Farm
- Tony Sherri - Goat Farm
- John Stefanko - Family Farm
- Sonny's Oak Shades (Restaurant & Cabins)
- Verplank Garage
- The Peterson Farm
- Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad
- Dunes Highway - U.S. 12
- Dunes Relief Highway - U.S. 20
- Farmers State Bank
- Westport Community Club
- Meadowbrook Girl Scout Camp
Camp Meadowbrook Girl Scout Camp - 1946 to 1963
In 1946 the Gary Girl Scout Council bought 49 acres south of U.S. 12 and north of the Little Calumet River in what is now Burns Harbor for the development of a camp. The camp name was taken from the name of the nearby South Shore railroad stop.
In 1963 the camp property was sold to Bethlehem Steel and the Girl Scout Council moved the camp to rural Valparaiso. Meadowbrook Road is a last reminder of the South Shore stop and the camp.
In March 1949, 14 local women formed a home economics club. Because the group included members from Westchester and Portage Townships, the names were combined and the club was called the Westport Homemakers.
During the 1950s, the members conceived the idea of establishing a community club and building a clubhouse. Members held numerous fundraisers, finally raising enough to buy land for a new clubhouse, which was built in 1954 on old S.R. 149, now Westport Road.
Westport Community Club
The Westport Community Club, incorporated in 1954, brought people together, helped to create a bond between area residents and became a center for community activity.
The club provided a place for community groups to meet and sponsored a teen club, a 4-H club and scouting groups. Annual town smorgasbords were held as well as Easter, Halloween and Christmas parties for the children of the Westport community. Members were also eligible for discounted rentals of the clubhouse.
After just a few years, the residents of historic Burns Harbor informally adopted the name Westport for their community.
A Note on Names - Meadowbrook, Shadyside, Westport
Three neighborhood names came into use in the 20th century area that would become Burns Harbor. Meadowbrook and Shadyside took their names from nearby flag-stop stations on the South Shore Railroad. Westport, which eventually became the general name for the area, came into use after the creation of the Westport Community Club.
Shadyside is a neighborhood in the northwestern corner of Burns Harbor, south of U.S. 12. It is comprised of private homes and the Shadyside Mobile Home Court and developed after the opening of the Dunes Highway (U.S. 12). It took its name from the nearby South Shore station.
Continue by clicking on the "Protest & Change" tab above...
NIPSCO Generating Plant
In 1929 the Northern Indiana Public Service Company bought 300 acres on the shore of Lake Michigan just east of what is now Burns Harbor.
On the site, some 30 years later, NIPSCO built two coal-fired generating stations and a 345,000 kilowatt substation to provide power for the Midwest and Burns Harbor steel mills.
Bethlehem Steel Land Purchase, 1956
In 1956 Bethlehem Steel Corporation, through a subsidiary (Lake Shore Development Corporation), began purchasing land in what had come to be known as Westport.
In 1958 Bethlehem Steel Corporation revealed that it had been buying land in the area, although it did not make a formal commitment to build a steel plant until 1962, when it announced its intention to build a finishing mill in the area.
Preservationists Oppose Construction
Bethlehem Steel bought a total of about 4,000 acres. The Central Dunes, considered to be the finest dunes in the area, were included. Preservationists decried the plan to destroy these unique natural formations to allow construction of the steel mill in Burns Harbor and the Port of Indiana in Portage.
Although Westport residents supported the new mill, some area dunes residents, such as the artist John Hawkinson, and Virginia and Knute Reuterskiold, objected to the construction and to selling their land to Bethlehem Steel.
Preservationists joined together to form the Save the Dunes Council and launched a fierce legislative battle to save the Central Dunes. The group's efforts delayed construction of the Burns Harbor steel mill and the Port of Indiana, but ultimately failed to preserve the Central Dunes. All the private property owners eventually sold to Bethlehem.
John Hawkinson - Artist and Dunes Activist
Author, illustrator and naturalist John Hawkinson was the last dunes land owner to sell property to Bethlehem Steel.
Against great hardship, long after other landowners had succumbed to pressure from the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Hawkinson stood firm in his refusal to sell his two-acre weekend retreat, although it was totally surrounded by the new steel plant. He finally had to sell when access to his property was cut off and his well went dry.
In the end, a political compromise was devised that allowed Bethlehem Steel to have industrial use of the dunes. It also authorized public funds for the construction of the Port of Indiana, located in Portage Township, and created the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
The establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore by Congress in 1966 insured that thousands of acres of the remaining Indiana Dunes would be preserved and protected.
Howlin' Hill and the Port of Indiana
David Tutweiller's evocative painting of Howlin' Hill (pictured above) was inspired by a January 1961 photo taken by Herb Read. A rare turret dune, Howlin' Hill stood 150 feet above Lake Michigan and its base was the size of 68 football fields.
Continue by clicking on the "Building Bethlehem Steel" tab above...
Construction Begins, 1962
Bethlehem Steel began building the new steel plant in 1962 with the construction of the 160-inch plate mill, which opened two years later.
The formal groundbreaking for the new Burns Harbor International Harbor finally took place in 1966 after a 20-year effort to create a state-owned port. Located in Portage Township, just west of the Burns Harbor steel mill, the port cleared the way for Bethlehem Steel to receive the raw materials it needed for the steelmaking process.
Blast Furnace Starts Up, 1969
Late in 1969, the plant's first huge blast furnace started up. A second giant blast furnace was fired up in early 1972, giving Bethlehem a total iron-making capacity of approximately 10,000 tons a day.
A New Name: Burns Harbor
Burns Harbor is named for Randall Burns, one of the leaders of the 1926 construction of what is known as Burns Ditch, a channel that connects the Little Calumet River to Lake Michigan, just west of Burns Harbor in Portage Township. Because he was the first person to sign the petition to build it, Burns' name was given to the ditch.
A Brand New Town: 1966 to 1967
By 1966, after rejecting the idea of annexation to either Portage or Porter, most residents of Westport favored incorporation as a new town.
With the promise of legal and financial assistance from Bethlehem Steel Corporation, an incorporation committee of local residents was formed in August 1966. An election was held that year to name the town, as the name Westport was already in use in Indiana. Burns Harbor was selected and a petition for incorporation was filed with the Porter County Commissioners in November.
Incorporation was slowed by a protest from residents of the Crocker neighborhood, located within the southwest corner of the proposed town limits, and by a surprise annexation attempt by Portage.
On Sept. 9, 1967, the Porter County Commissioners passed an ordinance establishing the Town of Burns Harbor. The first census showed the population to be 1,263 residents.
Following incorporation, the first Town Board was elected in October and set to work establishing a budget and setting up the town government.
The First Town Board
The first town election was held on Oct. 7, 1967. The following individuals were elected to the first Town Council:
- Frank Brock
- Joseph Gilbreath
- James Donella
- Emil Poparad
- Virgil Hokanson
- Betty Boo, Clerk-Treasurer
In 1968 Bethlehem Steel offered to donate and remodel a house and an outbuilding on the former Earl Ferguson farm on Boo Road. The house was to be used for town offices and the outbuilding for a town hall. The Town Council accepted the offer and began to meet in the remodeled outbuilding in 1969.
The original boundaries of Burns Harbor were the South Shore Railroad on the north, Babcock Road on the east, the Liberty Township line on the south and the Portage Township line on the west. Previously annexed by Portage, both the Zehner property (located on the west side of North Salt Creek Road and South Salt Creek Road), and the Lightfoot property (located on the south of Old Porter road and South Salt Creek Road) were excluded. The area of the new town was about four square miles.
In 1968 the town annexed a 337-acre, half-mile strip of land extending the west border of the town north to Lake Michigan. The rest of the northern portion of the town, comprising the steel mill but excluding the NIPSCO generating plant, was annexed in 1998, enlarging the Town of Burns Harbor to 6.9 square miles.
Continue by clicking on the "A Growing Community" tab above...
Bailly Nuclear Plant, 1967 to 1981
In 1967 NIPSCO announced plans to build a nuclear generating plant west of its existing coal plant on the shore of Lake Michigan. The project was estimated to cost $107,238,375.
In 1972 Concerned Citizens Against the Bailly Nuclear Site was formed. In 1975 the Save the Dunes Council and the Joint Intervenors joined the Concerned Citizens to protest NIPSCO's proposed nuclear plant.
In April 1975 the Atomic Energy Commission reported that the proposed nuclear plant would violate federal guidelines. Finally, in 1981 NIPSCO announced it had cancelled construction of the Bailly Nuclear Plant.
Surprisingly, in the years following incorporation, Burns Harbor's population fell steadily from 1,330 in 1967 to 788 in 1990. The loss of population had several causes.
In addition to the deaths of many older residents, construction of the four-lane S.R. 149 (late 1960s) and I-94 (1969) displaced many residents, who then moved out of town after they lost their homes.
Traditional travel patterns through the town were disrupted because of the new roads. The lack of municipal water and sewer systems discouraged the construction of new housing.
Lakeland Park, 1970
In December 1970 the town bought 27 acres of Haglund Road to use as a town park. The site included a 10-acre borrow pit (later named Harbor Lake) left from the construction of I-94.
The Burns Harbor Park Department, created in 1984, operates Shadyside Park, Bolinger Park and Lakeland Park.
Through the years, development of Lakeland Park has included a beach at Harbor Lake, an arts and crafts building, several picnic shelters, a baseball field, a walking trail and gazebo.
Burns Harbor Lions Club
The Burns Harbor Lions Club has been active in the community since its establishment in 1974. Members have contributed to the welfare of the area residents through a wide variety of community-service projects.
- Air Products Inc.
- Aluminum Welding & Machine Works
- Anderson Co.
- Phil Bender Super 100
- Bob's Masonry, Inc.
- Burns Harbor Plaza
- Cope's Texaco Service
- Dunes Midway Garage
- Bob Genda Chevrolet
- Northern Indiana Bank and Trust Co.
- Town Engineer, Chester L. Stemp & Associates
- Tollefson's Super Shell Service
- Ziebart Auto and Truck Rustproofing
- Town Hall (future)
- Town Hall (present)
- Westport Community Club
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 1978
In 1978 the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore bought land adjoining the Little Calumet River through the Town of Burns Harbor.
The purchase provided preservation of the area as well as improved public access to fishing, and connected the east and west unites of the national park.
In 1969 Bethlehem Steel located a modular building as a town hall meeting room off North Boo Road, leasing it to Burns Harbor for $1 a year. Offices of the Clerk-Treasurer and Town Marshal were located in the nearby former Ferguson home on land also owned by Bethlehem. In 1981 Burns Harbor built the current town hall complex, combing government offices and meeting space.
Betty Boo served as the Burns Harbor Clerk-Treasurer from the town's incorporation in 1967 until December 31, 1987.
NIPSCO Cleans Up, 1990
In 1990 NIPSCO became the first coal-fired utility in the Midwest and the first utility in the nation to meet the new federal sulfur dioxide clean air standards set to go into effect in 1995.
Annexation of the Bethlehem Steel Property, 1998
In 1998, after numerous court cases, Burns Harbor was finally allowed to annex the remaining unincorporated portion of the Burns Harbor plant, an area of about 1,000 acres.
By annexing the property, Burns Harbor gained additional tax revenue and borrowing power that enabled the town to purchase the Bethlehem sewage treatment plant in 2001. Thereafter, the sewage treatment plant would be shared by the town and the mill.
Burns Harbor Historians, Bill and Fran Meyer
In 2000 lifelong Burns Harbor residents Bill and Fran Meyer began a project to collect and research the history of Burns Harbor.
Working together, they wrote a series of historical essays that covered a variety of topics. They were assisted by Elizabeth Fitch, Bill's sister, who served as editor for their work.
After Fran's death in November 2005, Bill continued to research and write essays on the history of Burns Harbor assisted by his son Bob Meyer and Eva Hopkins, researched at the Westchester Township History Museum.
This collection of the history of Burns Harbor is based on the research compiled by the Meyer family and by Eva Hopkins.
On Oct. 15, 2001, Bethlehem Steel Co. filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The filing relieved the company from its current financial obligations, including the property taxes it would have paid to the Town of Burns Harbor.
The resulting loss of 85% of its taxes brought drastic cuts in personnel and the town struggled to maintain municipal services as residents were faced with a tax rate that rose by 466%.
Local businesses helped out by contributing necessary goods and services. By the mid-2000s, Burns Harbor began to recover, rehiring laid off workers and updating equipment with grant money.
New Life for the Burns Harbor Steel Mill - 2003 to 2006
In April 2003 the Burns Harbor Steel Mill was bought by the International Steel Group (ISG) for $1.5 billion dollars.
To help relieve the town's financial problems, ISG agreed to pay $900,000 in lieu of taxes for the years 2003 to 2006.
The steel mill changed hands again in 2005 when ISG was bought by Mittal Steel. In April 2006 Mittal merged with Arcelor Steel to become ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel producer.
Infrastructure and Other Improvements to Burns Harbor
- 1969 - NIPSCO installed gas lines
- 1972 - Phone numbers in town became 787 exchanges
- 1974 - Volunteer fire department formed
- 1989 - Town received cable TV service
- 1994 - Municipal water lines installed
- 2001 - Burns Harbor bought Bethlehem Steel's sewage treatment plant and installed sewers
Following the installation of municipal water lines and sewers, developers began to take an interest in building new subdivisions in Burns Harbor.
Although the small Indian Springs and Stanley Subdivision developments had been build in the 1950s, the first modern subdivision did not become a reality until developer T. Cliff Fleming's The Village in Burns Harbor was approved in 2003.
Located on 60 acres on the north side of U.S. 20, midway between S.R. 149 and Salt Creek Road, the development is designed to provide modern homes with a vintage look, in a setting that provides quiet streets and neighborhood parks.
Burns Harbor now has four additional subdivisions, which are in various stages of construction: Harbor Trails, Parkwood Estates, Trail Creek and Corlin's Landing.
A Plan for the Future, 2008
In 2008 in response to the town's new construction, population growth, increased traffic and demand for public services, the Burns Harbor Town Council undertook an updating of the town's Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance.
In 2009 the Town Council initiated a planning process for the development of a recognizable downtown and an enhanced U.S. 20 corridor.
Business is Booming, 2011
Its proximity to the ArcelorMittal steel mill and to I-94 makes Burns Harbor an ideal location for businesses serving long-distance truckers as well as area residents.
A truck stop, a fireworks store, car dealers, gas stations and other businesses line U.S. 20 while industrial operations such as Praxair and Aluminum Welding & Machine Works are located elsewhere in town.