The Most Famous Indiana Landmark You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of
Writer / Jeff Kenney
It’s summertime in the lakes area, and that might mean you’re going to pull on your long, black, Victorian-era swimsuit and head to the Hoosier Slide for a combination of beach time and some safe-but-thrilling sliding down the state’s most popular tourist attraction. That is, if the year were, say, 1895.
The Hoosier Slide was located near the edge of Michigan City, Indiana, and it represented, at the time, the largest dune among the many along the shore connecting to today’s Indiana Dunes National Park. At around 200 feet tall, it dominated the landscape, eclipsing the size of the more recent but similar destination, the 126-foot tall Mount Baldy, not far down the shore from the site of the “Slide” (Mount Baldy’s closure to the public, with which many readers may already be familiar, will be addressed later in this article).
In the 1880s, clearing small trees from the hill that would become the Slide made it clear that the structure was actually a dune, comprised of beautiful white sand and attractive not only for its stunning view of nearby Michigan City and Lake Michigan itself, but also for sliding down it, which gave rise to its name. By the 1890s it became a regional and national destination, with an estimated 180,000 visitors each year, many from the Chicago area.
Pleasure seekers by the score arrived by train and boat, and took advantage of the site for picnics, social events, weddings and just plain recreation.
In her 1980 history of Michigan City, Gladys Bull Nicewarner wrote that, on just one day in 1914, six steamboats brought some 10,000 people to the area, primarily to visit the Hoosier Slide. Al Hunter of weeklyview.net refers to author Ray Boomhower’s research that the Slide was home to “hill-climbing contests, fireworks shows, and wrestling and boxing matches. Daredevil youngsters used wooden toboggans and hand-fashioned metal sheets to slide down the hill during winter and summer.”
Boomhower adds that local business owners offered prizes for races up the dune. President McKinley’s 1899 visit to the Hoosier Slide represented just one of many excursions there by famous people and celebrities of the day.
The sheer volume of sand on the dune was such that, on especially windy days, nearby buildings and docks would be covered with fine powder from its slopes. As the sand thus made its way into the hands of local residents, some who melted it into glass realized not only its high quality for such an enterprise, but also that the glass it produced had a distinctive blue hue. In short order, local sales of wheelbarrows-full were at 20 cents a ton. Area glass factories were booming, with over 13 million tons of the sand shipped regionally over the course of around 15 years.
According to Hunter, Hoosier Slide sand was used as fill at golf courses, railroad easements and Chicago’s Jackson Park, among other sites. All of this caught the attention of industrious glassmakers the Ball Brothers, of Muncie, Indiana (also famous, of course, for Ball State University in the same region). Alongside other large-scale glassmakers like the Hemingray Glass Company of Cincinnati (who used the sand for glass insulators) and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company of Kokomo (who manufactured mirrors from it), the Ball Brothers made a blue-tinted line (the color becoming known as “Ball Blue”) of their famous canning jars, a staple in the homes of countless American housewives of the day. The coloration of the jars was not only pleasing to the eye, but also alleged to aid in the shelf life of food preserved within them. The volume of sand mined by the Ball company kept their blue jar line in production into the mid-1930s, long after the Hoosier Slide was no more.
The wheelbarrows departing the Hoosier Slide gave way to train cars removing hundreds of tons of its sand daily and, perhaps astonishingly to Hoosiers of today, by 1920 the entire dune was completely eradicated, leaving only a flat, decimated plain.
The land was soon purchased by the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) and another highly visible Michigan City landmark occupied the landscape, visible for miles around – the coal-powered Michigan City Generating Station, sometimes (understandably) mistaken for a nuclear power plant. In more recent years, NIPSCO has pledged to phase out coal-powered electrical generation in favor of more renewable resources, with plans announced to close the plant by 2028.
Readers may well be asking how such a dramatic and dreadful fate could befall one of the most popular and one of the most visible tourist attractions in Indiana. In fact, the story of the Hoosier Slide may give some insight into why endeavors like the national parks movement and national conservation efforts on the whole began to emerge after the turn of the 20th century.
The Slide’s destruction was certainly one factor in a fast-growing effort to preserve Indiana’s Lake Michigan dunes. As early as 1899, University of Chicago Botany Professor Henry Chandler Cowles, who had published nationally on the rich biodiversity of the dunes, along with the regional Prairie Club, began advocating for the dunes area to become a site of national-level preservation. Early voices for preservation included the likes of Chicago artist Frank Dudley, for whom the dunes served as a sort of muse. Dudley and others recognized the encroachment of sizable industry in the region, such as the steel plants of nearby Gary, Indiana, as a real and present threat to the health, if not the very existence, of the dunes, and campaigns were undertaken to raise awareness and produce tangible actions to save them.
Indiana Dunes State Park, which opened in 1916, was one result of these efforts, though even as early as 1916, the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, suggested the dunes be designated a national park, a result long in coming to fruition.
The state park is included within the 15,000 acres and 15 miles of white sand beaches that, in 2019, finally became Indiana Dunes National Park, one of only 61 sites in the country to have received that designation.
With its remarkable biodiversity, among other attributes, the dunes area is considered one of the finest in the Midwest for bird watching, and is home to more than 1,000 species of plants, some seen in the Hoosier State outside the dunes.
Indiana Dunes State Park also encompasses three dunes that perhaps hearken back to the stature of the Hoosier Slide. The park’s “Three Dune Challenge” entices hikers to 192-foot Mount Tom, 184-foot Mount Holden, and Mount Jackson, at 176 feet. None of these, of course, have quite attained the status the Hoosier Slide once boasted, and none are as conducive to sliding down.
Instead, the closest thing to a younger sibling of the Hoosier Slide was arguably the aforementioned Mount Baldy, near the western border of Michigan City. For years it entertained countless visitors who climbed its 126 feet and, in many cases, ran, jumped or slid down its soft slopes.
In 2013 a 6-year-old boy disappeared at Mount Baldy into what was later discovered to be a decomposition chimney, a dangerous air cavity formed under the sand, invisible from above, when a long-dead tree gradually decomposes, leaving a narrow space in its wake. The danger, as evidenced from the plight of the boy in question, lies in the tendency of sand to fill in air pockets quickly, which also made digging in the boy’s rescue efforts painstakingly difficult.
Miraculously, the boy, buried 12 feet beneath the dune’s surface, survived his three-hour-plus ordeal, but the dune portion of Mount Baldy was subsequently closed to the public amidst fears that other such cavities might exist beneath the benign appearance of the sand’s surface.
Thus, the Hoosier Slide today retains a unique place in Indiana history. If there’s one silver lining to its tragic tale, it is evidenced in the stewardship of the vast expanse of natural beauty at Indiana Dunes National Park, preserved and pristine for generations to come.