But few of the citizens of Indiana know that within the bounds of their state is a typical desert region--a region where grass grows not at all or but sparingly--where for miles on miles stretch unfenced plains, vales and hills covered with a loose gray sand. Within this area there is little sustenance for plant or animal, no water to quench one's thirst. Rugged and rough desolate and forbidding to one who is accustomed to the green fields and running brooks of central Indiana, there it lies, a desert waste, gray, loose wandering. Over its surface the wind is master. The breeze beckons and it obeys. 'Tis here today, there tomorrow and gone the day after. The lake has vomited forth these sands and, at times, when the breeze blows from the right quarter, back they go into the maw that gave them birth.
Interesting Dunes Near Miller.
The northwestern limit or boundary line of the state comprises 43 linear miles of the southern beach line of Lake Michigan, one of the grandest bodies of fresh water on the globe. Along this beach was for years the only public road in the region, all overland communication between Fort Dearborn, now Chicago and Detroit, in the early part of the last century, having been along its sands. The limits of this beach line are ever changing. Water and wind are every second tearing from it in one place and adding to it in another. From Michigan City, southwest for six miles the removal is probably greater than the accumulation, but along the remainder of the Indiana shore the beach line is being widened. In the latter portion a person walking along the margin of the water can see that each wave throws up a minute ridge of sand, so minute, in fact, that it is scarcely visible. Perhaps the next succeeding wave carries it away. But if it be thrown high enough to remain unmolested until it has time to dry, its particles are caught up by the wind and carried farther inward. In most cases they are piled up for a time along the floor of a ridge or dune, which is found from 50 to 100 yards from the water. If a stiff breeze be blowing, the traveler over the beach is bombarded by the fine, sharp edged particles of sand, many of which strike his face and produce a stinging sensation. These grains are composed of small, angular pieces of quartz and have a light brownish tint.
Near the shore the bottom of Lake Michigan is uniformly covered with sand. At the shore line this sand is about 10 feet deep, and it extends out to where the water reaches a depth of 35 feet. Beyond this depth of water the lake bottom is composed of a stiff, tenacious blue clay, which is said to contain partings or pockets of sand, from whence, in part, comes the supply which is constantly being carried shoreward by the waves. Much of the sand is doubtless blown from the dunes by south winds back over the lake and, falling on its surface, is again brought to land. Moreover, by storms and by ice jams in the spring, all projecting points along the lake are slowly worn down and the material composing them is carried out to be again returned and built up in a new place. Thus much of the sand is in constant circulation, and the necessary new supply is not so great as it appears to be.
Miles of Sand Ridges.
Among the more interesting and common forms of plant life which occur in the dune region, either along the immediate beach of Lake Michigan, in the marshes between the dunes, or on the slopes of the dunes themselves, is a thick leaved species of the prickly cactus, the only Indiana example of that prominent group so characteristic of the desert plains of the distant west. Here is also found the gold-thread, the pitcher plant or side-saddle flower, the American sea-rocket, the woolly Hudson's or poverty grass, several species of pinweed and the sand or sugar grape, the last named occurring nowhere else in the state except on the tops and slopes of the highest sand ridges. The stag-horn and fragrant sumachs, the marsh milkwort, the wild lupine, goats' rue and the beach pea also abound. The dwarf or sand cherry grows abundantly in clumps from two to six feet in height on the slopes of the dunes and produces a palatable fruit. On the same slopes is often found the silky aster and the double bristled aster, both with very large and showy blossoms, the last named noted for the shortness of its stems and rigid linear leaves.
The roots of the vegetation mentioned form a network about the sand grains and prevent the leveling of the dunes by the wind. In time, however, a tree is uprooted or a forest fire burns off the vegetation. The protecting network of rootlets is destroyed. A bare spot results, over which the winds freely play. a great storm from the north or northwest scoops out a small bowl-shaped cavity and, carrying the sand either south or southeastward, drops it over the hillside. The cavity is cut deeper and wider by succeeding storms and a great "blow-out" in time results. Where a few years ago stood a high hill or unbroken ridge, now exists a valley, or cavity in the hillside, acres, perhaps, in extent, and reaching nearly to the level of the lake. The sands where were once there now constitute new hills or ridges, which have traveled, as it were, a greater distance inland. In many places the drifting sands have wholly or partly covered a tall pine or oak tree. Where but partly covered, its dead--though sometimes living--top projects for a few feet above the crest of the hill or ridge. One may rest in its shade and not realize that he is sheltered by the upper limbs of a large tree, whose trunk and main branches lie far beneath him, embedded in the sands.
No Animal Life There.
To the botanist, the nature lover, and to him who seeks solitude, this region has a peculiar charm. Here the hermit has his hut and the solitary fisherman his camp. Back, away from the sound of the breaking waves, a peaceful quiet pervades. There may one sit and literally watch the growing of the hills. There will he come to realize, as never before, how the slow, unceasing action of some of natures' milder forces have modified to so great an extent the surface of the earth. Around him on every side is matter--sand. Coming in from over the lake is the force--wind. Slowly but surely building up about him is the result of the action of force upon matter--hills. Thus have dunes been formed, here or elsewhere, for ten thousand times ten million years.
Places of interest to naturalists, and regions attractive to those who love the great out-of-doors, are rapidly being despoiled, not only in Indiana but everywhere thoughout the nation. In the minds of most men the God of Mammon rules supreme over the God of Nature. Of a thousand men, one looks up into the sky and wonder why it is there--looks out into space and ponders o'er the porch lights of other sun-ruled systems, treads the earth and thinks of her as a moving sphere; the others look upon her streets and pathways--seeking gold. The earth itself they know not and of her varied beauties their senses little knowledge gain. What were the sand dunes and magnificent lake front of the present site of Gary to the steel barons--the moneyed kings of the east? Simply a place where a harbor could be dredged in which iron ore could be unloaded easily--a place within easy reach of the great metropolis of Chicago.
Urges Government Action.
Posted 29th June, 1999; last updated 10th July, 2001.