(By W. S. Blatchley, State Geologist.)
That most noted of American naturalists, Henry D. Thoreau, has said somewhere in the books: "We must love the crust of the earth on which we dwell more than the sweet crusts of any bread or cake, we must be able to extract nutriment out of a sand heap."

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.

In 1897, while making a geological survey of the counties of Lake and Porter, the writer first became acquainted with this sand dune region. The most interesting dunes of Lake county are near Miller and can be eliminated from any discussion, as they have been or soon will be incorporated into a city park by Gary. In Porter and Laporte counties the dunes proper, almost as formed by nature, cover a strip varying in width from half a mile to one and one-half miles and extending along the immediate border of Lake Michigan from the western edge of Porter county to six miles northeast of Michigan City, where they pass into the state of Michigan. Immediately bordering these dunes on the south is one of three well marked and practically unbroken ridges, which extends through Lake and Porter counties and mark the extreme southern limits of the former shore lines of Lake Michigan. In places, as at Highland, Lake county, these ridges are 50 feet or more above the present level of the lake. Against the northern slope of the most northern ridge the existing sand dunes have been piled up by the winds.

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.

The dunes constitute the most striking and characteristic feature of the shore line. They are great sand ridges, sometimes continuous for a mile or more, but more often broken or cut by "blow-outs," into isolated rounded hills which in places reach 190 feet above the level of the lake. In some places the ridges are for long distances wholly destitute of vegetation. Their bared surfaces, 50 to 100 feet in height, with the sand piled just as steeply as it will lie, gleems and glistens in the sunlight, and reflects the summer heat with unwonted force. Other ridges and rounded hills, especially those a mile or more from the lake, are often covered with black oak, northern scrub pine, stunted white pine and many shrubs and herbs peculiar to a soil of sand. These trees and herbs do not cover the ground thickly but are widely scattered, in numerous places many square rods being wholly devoid of vegetation.

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.

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Uncommon Plants in Dunes.
A white-flowered thistle and the red bear berry are two characteristic dune plants found nowhere else in the state. Huckleberries of four kinds whose delicious fruit is very abundant in season, also abound, as does the creeping wintergreen or checkerberry, and that most charming of early spring plants, the trailing arbutus. In many of the marshes between the dunes the American cranberry grows in profusion, and with it the leather-leaf, a characteristic marsh plant which occurs only in the cranberry bogs. Along the borders of these marshes is found another edible fruit, the black chokeberry, and also that most handsome herb of early autumn, the fringed blue gentian. Other characteristic plants of the region, many of which occur nowhere else in the state, are the lanceleafed lousewort; the winged pigweed; several species of bladderwort; the sweet fern; four species of birch, of which the most interesting is the paper or canoe birch; the speckled or hoary alder; the gray or northern scrub pine, in many places 40 to 60 feet in height; a low spreading juniper, occurring only on the slopes of the dunes and forming dense circular masses six to ten feet in diameter with the stems two feet high and recurving or depressed. The yellow fringed and at least 12 other species of terrestrial orchids occur mostly in the borders of the marshes between the dunes, in company with the false asphodel, and many rare and interesting species of reeds, sedges and grasses. Several hundred species of additional plants grow in the area, those mentioned being for the most part only such as were noted in flower or fruit in July and September. A person interested in botany and living in easy reaching distance of this dune region could render a most valuable aid to science by preparing a special paper based on a number of years of observation on the variations, habitat and insect visitors of the different species of plants growing in this primitive sand covered area along the south shore of Lake Michigan. If given over to commercial or manufacturing interests, 90 per cent of these rare and attractive plants will become wholly extinct within the next ten years.

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.

But few forms of animal life dwell among these dunes. Vegetation is not plentiful enough to furnish sustenance. In July and September, when my study of the dunes was made, the twitter and chirp of bird was seldom heard, the birds, except a few residents, being very scarce. A lizard scampering rapidly along, will sometimes be seen, but even they are scarce. In the yielding sands the striped gopher burrows its home with ease, and on their bared surface the spreading viper basks. Insect life is less abundant than in any area of equal size in the state. The tiger beetles and "doodle-bugs" alone are common, since they find there a habitat well suited to their tastes.

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.

If anything is to be done to conserve as it is the sand dune region of Laporte and Porter counties, it must be done soon, else other millionaires will see a site for other factories. From what the writer knows of the powers that rule the state of Indiana, it would be next to impossible, it would be a miracle--to induce the legislature to appropriate money to buy this site for nature lovers, or for the conservation of the wild bird and plant life of the region. The only hope for its saving lies with some philanthropist or with the United States government. Possessing as it does the control of the lake front and the power of condemnation, the government could obtain at a reasonable price the narrow strip comprising the dune region and set it aside as a national park. Under the government control, as under no other, would plant and bird life be conserved, and one of the few remaining tracts of the Indiana of Nature be left as it is. The average human animal of the cities, who delights in pulling every wild flower and shooting at every wild bird, would have a much higher respect for Uncle Sam's laws and rules than he would for those of any city or even those of the state. The citizens of South Bend, of Michigan City, of Gary, of Hammond and of Chicago would then have within easy reaching distance a place where they could bow before the shrine of nature, whereas, in a few years, if things go on as they have been going, they can only see a trace of the true handiwork of the God of Nature by gazing up into the great blue dome at the sun, the moon and the distant stars.
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Posted 29th June, 1999; last updated 10th July, 2001.

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