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Salvation Of Dunes Depends On Action To Prevent More Havoc
BY JOHN O. BOWERS,
Gary Attorney.
Four or five years ago occasional articles began to appear in local and Chicago newspapers relative to the preservation of some part of the dune region as a public park, but little general interest in the project was manifested until May or June of last year, at which time the alarming statement was made in said newspapers that a certain enterprising contractor was about to remove Mount Tom (the king of the dunes) to Chicago for filling purposes along the lake front at that place.

Immediately the lovers of the dunes were striken with consternation, and alarm became contagious. The report proved to be false, but it operated to call attention to the possible destruction of the dunes, and to bring about concerted action for their preservation.

Resolution Adopted.

On July 16 a provisional organization was formed, and the co-operation of the friends of the dunes for the establishment of a great public park was thereupon begun. Later a meeting was held in Chicago under the auspices of the secretary of the interior through Assistant Secretary Hon. Stephen T. Mather, pursuant to a resolution introduced in the United States senate by Senator Taggart, for a discussion upon the project. Recently a report from the office of the Secretary of the Interior favoring such park was submitted.

Now, although the dunes may be destroyed or removed in time (a long time) by steam shovels and transporation facilities, a more immediate damage is threatened in the form of fires. It is not the dunes as piles of sand that appeals to the masses, the student or the lovers of nature, but the dunes and the intervening glens and swamps all clad in their own distinctive garb of green that arouses the interest of the visitor, and consequently it is the imminent destruction of the verdure-clad dunes that calls for their salvation.

Fires in Dunes County.

It may not be generally known that fires break out in the dune country each year, usually each spring and fall. The writer has visited the dune country several times each year for the past nine or ten years, and he does not recall a single year in this period in which there were no fires there. These fires usually occur when the ground is covered with dry leaves among the underbrush, and in many instances large areas are burned over before the fire is quenched. Sometimes the fires continue until subdued by a rainfall.

In other instances, when local buildings are threatened, the residents of the locality turn out as a voluntary fire brigade, not with pails, but with spades and shovels, and check and thwart the threatened destruction of the buildings located on the edge of or near the dunes. The writer on at least one occasion joined one of these local fire companies in its efforts to divert the flames from the nearby settlement. Most of the men and some of the women of the neighborhood joined in the fight against the fire, and it was not until late at night that the danger was deemed sufficiently averted to justify the retirement of the fire company.

On another occasion, in the spring of 1911, a farmer started a fire south of the South Shore railroad, just east of Dune Park Station, most likely for the purpose of burning old marsh grass or an old fence row, but the wind being strong the fire soon got beyond his control, and by means of sparks spread to the marsh north of these tracks and thence into a nearby pine swamp overgrown also with dense underbrush; the flames waded through the swamp, leaping almost as high as the treetops, heating the air many rods away, with the result that of the numerous white pines theretofore apparently vigorous, but one or two survived the deadening effect of the withering heat.

But unsatiated with the havoc already wrought, the flames threw brands across the Lake Shore railroad tracks into the edge of the dunes, and soon the fire spread to the hills, and invaded the swamps, and it became necessary for the local section men on the railroad to leave their work and co-operate with the local property owners to save the dwellings situated near the fire; and more effectually to stop the progress of the flames and avert the threatened destruction of still other buildings and fences, a farmer took his team and plow and plowed a furrow across the sand hills for a distance of about a mile.

In most instances the fires spread over so much space that it is practically impossible for men to stop them completely. At times they reach large swamps or sloughs, covered with dry grasses, and the country all around is lighted up for a great distance. Only last fall a destructive fire broke out north and east of Baileytown. One of the local residents told the writer that he was able to sit on his porch at night and read a newspaper by the light of the fire a half mile or more away. The foregoing are merely examples of occurrences which are common at certain times of the year. Even the celebrated tamarack bog was invaded by fire last autumn, but farmers at work in a meadow near the bog, fearing damage to the hay, checked the fire.

Origin of Fires.

These fires originate in various ways. In some instances, it is said, hunters, particularly in autumn, set fire to the dry grass in the sloughs to drive out rabbits and other game. Whether this be true or not, I do not know, but, if so, such incendiary practice merits prompt punishment, as the fire, when once started will spread to underbrush among the dunes and thus destroy many trees, vines and bushes, including numerous huckleberry bushes that otherwise would supply great quantities of the finest berries. In other instances doubtless hunters and campers are careless in the use of fire. Perhaps a lighted cigar thrown carelessly aside may result in a very destructive fire.

Fires, as above stated, generally break out in the fall or the spring, owing to the fact that at these seasons great quantities of leaves are on the ground. When these are dry they and the dry brush lying on the ground are tinder for the flames. The trunks and the roots of the trees are burned, and in almost all instances some parts of the trunks are injured, and thereupon decay sets in. If the fire is severe the trees are killed outright, even over considerable areas.

Although the timber, generally speaking, has no great commercial value, excepting the few remaining white pine trees, yet with fires occurring once or twice annually over many portions of the dunes, it will readily be observed that the beauty of the region will thereby be greatly damaged. When the timber has geen destroyed, the sand is more readily moved by the winds. Many places may now be seen on which most of the timber is partly decayed by reason of forest fires; also many fine huckleberry marshes have been greatly injured within recent years. These will ultimately grow up again, but the dead wood remains as fuel for new fires.

If these fires continue year after year, in increasing ratio, as the number of hunters and visitors increase their blighting effect will be quiet manifest; for a single fire may in a day destroy the timber growth of a century.


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Steam Shovel's Inroads.
A comparison of the destructive effect of the steam shovel with the deadly effect of fire may be noted at Dune Park Station. For the past 30 or 40 years the shovel has been at work there. Great dunes have been loaded upon cars (often 200 car loads of sand daily) and hauled away--much of it to Chicago for track elevation. The Lake Shore railroad track at this point formerly ran many rods farther south of its present location around the base of large dunes. The dunes have been removed and a gap has been cut through the hills northward to the lake. And yet the ordinary observer in riding along the railway scarcely suspects that he beholds the results of the activities of the steam shovel for more than a quarter of a century. Old settlers relate that when the Lake Shore railroad ran south of the dunes along the edge of the marsh an engine at one time ran off the siding upon the marsh, and almost immediately disappeared from sight beneath the surface, carrying one or two of the crew with it. It still lies buried in the quicksands. No one knows how deeply.

But if a fire should break out in the choicest section of the dunes when the leaves are dry and plentiful and the winds are high, the destruction by the steam shovel would seem slow in comparison with the ravages of the fire.

It follows that some campetent agency should control the timber-covered dunes against forest fires; for here should be playground for the millions.

Playgrounds of Millions.

I speak of a playground for the millions not as a figure of speech, not as hyperbole, but deliverately as a statement of fact, for I have a vision. It is not of a city seated upon seven hills, but of crescent contiguous municipalities built upon the corners of four great states, reaching from Milwaukee to Benton Harbor--a real crescent city, with a splendid natural park on the southeasterly shore of Lake Michigan. If this vision seems to the reader to be too contracted to have emenated from the mind of a self-respecting prophet, I will enlarge the vision to suit his fancy. He can have it from Green Bay around to the with the Great Lakes as a common lagoon.

If to some skeptic this vision seems too vaporous, let him re-read the satiric speech of Proctor Knott on "The Zenith City by the Unsalted Sea," spoken in derision of the aspirations of the village of Duluth, and in opposition to an appropriation sought for a harbor at that point by a statesman with a forward look, who saw the site of the greatest port on the Great Lakes. He will then be reminded that what was intended as irony should have been uttered as prophecy, and he will be led to consider that what now is, is the growth of a single lifetime, but what is to come will be the growth of many generations.

Now is the time to set aside the recreational grounds for the future urban industrial millions (ten, twenty or a hundred) yet to be--to be around these shores--millions otherwise to be barred from contact with the primitive, the natural, and deprived of the diversion needed by them, but easily obtainable and accessible in this proposed playground of dunes and dells, of beach and bath, of shade and shore. Where a single youngster may view the falls of Yosemite or Yellowstone, a thousand may climb the back of old Mount Tom, as he sits bathing his feet in the waters of this inland sea.

Battleground of the Elements.

Here is a veritable battleground of the elements--a seat of war waged between the forces of vegetation and the battalions of wind. Sometimes wind conquered; sometimes vegetation defied her ruthless enemy and held her fortifications in triumph. Here are dunes populated and held for centuries by vegeta on against the ever assaulting aggressor. Yonder, victorious wind entombed and smothered the giant trees of the dunes with the shifting sands of the shore; and later, as if exulting in his former devastation, he laid bare the skeletons of his victims as mute monuments of his deadly havoc.

And the war is not yet over. No protocol nor treaty has been signed. Wind is still making new dunes but of old ones. Here and there vegetation is still overpowered, and the old succession of victory and defeat goes on forever.

This is an altruistic movement. Merely mercenary motives should not prevail against the common rights of mankind--the rights of those not yet here, to be protected and preserved by those who are. In order that the tired toilers of noisy shops and stuffy offices may, for all time to come, have an accessible retreat--their share of the great unpreempted out-of-doors; that the disinherited children of the tenements, whose only race course will be dirty alleys, and whose only playground will be the sidewalk, may have a part of their rightful heritage preserved--may have a chance to climb a hill or walk a shady path, or gather wild berries where they grow, see the wild flowers where they bloom and the native birds and animals in their haunts; that the naturalist may have a field for his observation; that the poet, the painter and the sculptor may have access to the means of inspiration that all the coming lovers of nature within this populous center to be shall have a common ground for recreation, health and healthful pleasures, let the slogan be SAVE THE DUNES, AND SAVE THEM NOW!
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The efforts of John Bowers and others to preserve the Indiana Dunes  three quarters of a century ago are greatly appreciated.  Nevertheless I must interject here that I disagree with his opinion of dunes fires, an opinion which is unfortunately still widely-held.

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Posted 29th June, 1999; last updated 10th July, 2001.
 

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