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A Brief History of Westchester Township
 
 
Prepared by Westchester Public Library
Chesterton, Indiana

(Revised October 2006)

Location: Westchester Township, Porter County, Indiana is located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, about 50 miles southeast of Chicago. It stretches from the famous Indiana Dunes on its northern border, south to the Valparaiso Moraine, a ridge of rolling hills left by the last glacier to pass through the area.

First People: Part of a great continental crossroads, the land of Westchester Township was for thousands of years the home to a succession of early people attracted to the area by the abundance of animal and plant life. The Miami and Potawatomi of the Great Lakes Woodland Culture were the last of the Native American cultures to hunt and farm the township's densely forested land. Contact with the French fur traders known as voyageurs began about 1650. The resulting fur trade was initially beneficial to both cultures, but ultimately disastrous for the Potawatomi who, after selling their land to the U.S. government, were forcibly removed from Indiana in 1838.

Wars and Conquest: Control of the Great Lakes region passed to the British in 1763, with the victory over the French in the French and Indian War, and to the new nation of the United States at the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783. What would later become Westchester Township formed part of the Northwest Territory until the creation of the Indiana Territory in 1800. Following the Federal Government’s purchase of land in northwestern Indiana from the Potawatomi in the treaties of 1826 and 1832, the area was added to the new state of Indiana, which had been created in 1816.

Founding Families: In 1822 Joseph Bailly, a French fur trader, moved with his wife Marie and their family to land that would become part of Westchester Township. He established a trading post on the Little Calumet River, the primary waterway in the township. The Bailly Homestead is now one of two historic homes included within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

In 1833 Jesse and Jane Morgan and their seven children settled in the area southeast of the present town of Chesterton. They established a stage house on the Detroit to Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) stagecoach road, cleared their land and began farming. They were followed in the next year by William and Ann Thomas and their family, founders of Chesterton, and shortly thereafter by an influx of pioneers from the East Coast and southern states.

Founding of Towns: Porter County was organized in 1836, its townships, including Westchester, in the same year. The Towns of Waverly and City West, two of the township’s first three communities, were founded in the mid-1830’s, but failed to thrive and are now just footnotes to history. The community of Coffee Creek fared better. Named after a nearby stream, it was settled in 1834 by the Thomas family who platted it as the town of Calumet in 1852. The coming of the railroads to the area later in the same year brought many changes to the community. The name of the town was changed to Chesterton in 1870.

Railroads, Immigration, and Growth of Industry: The building of the Lakeshore and Michigan Southern and the Michigan Central Railroads through the township in 1852 transformed the dusty little village from a strictly agricultural community to a thriving rail center for far more than just agricultural products. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Sweden and other countries were attracted to the area to help build and maintain the railroads and later to work in the organ, china, and brick factories that were established in the area. In addition to new industries, the steam railroads also spurred the growth of new towns such as Porter Station, Hageman (now Porter), Furnessville, and Baillytown.

Population and Cultural Growth: Between 1850 and 1910 the population of Westchester Township grew from 360 to 2,953 residents. During that time numerous churches were established throughout the township and one-room schoolhouses were replaced by centralized schools in Chesterton and Porter. A great variety of civic and social groups were founded during the same sixty year period and both Chesterton (1869 and 1899) and Porter (1908) were incorporated.

Depression and World Wars: The period from 1910-1945 was one of great hardship but also wonderful new opportunities for area residents. While many local men and some women served in the military during the two world wars, citizens on the local home front contributed in efforts to increase farm production and worked in area factories and steel mills to produce parts for the military.

By the 1920’s, women had gained the right to vote (August 26, 1920), the town of Dune Acres had been incorporated (1923), and township residents were for the first time enjoying such features of modern life as the automobile, electricity, and telephone service. The 1920’s also saw the opening of the Indiana Dunes State Park and the newly constructed Dunes Highway (Rt. 12), the first paved east-west road through Westchester Township. Although the Great Depression of 1929-1934 caused hardship to many residents of the township, vital businesses such as the Chesterton Tribune, the First State Bank of Porter and the Chesterton Bank survived the Depression. New Deal programs such as the WPA and the CCC brought relief to those who were most in need, and the 1932 opening of U.S. Rt. 20 relieved the massive traffic jams and collisions that occurred frequently on Rt. 12.

1945-1999: Following World War II, Westchester Township experienced tremendous population growth as new residents flooded into the area to take advantage of new industrial jobs. Interstate Rt. 94 and the Indiana Toll Road Rt. 80/90 were built across the township tying it closer both to Chicago and to the eastern states. The town of Burns Harbor was incorporated in 1967 after it became the home to the county’s largest employer, Bethlehem Steel.

To meet the needs of the expanded population, new schools and libraries were built, a YMCA founded, new businesses opened and many new housing developments were constructed throughout the township. Citizens debated the Equal Rights Amendment, the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the environmental movement, but generally supported the successful campaign to defeat the construction of the Bailly Nuclear Plant on the shore of Lake Michigan, just west of Dune Acres. The creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966, although criticized by a small minority of local citizens, was applauded by most as a means to safeguard and preserve the unique beauty of the Indiana Dunes.

Beyond 2000: Westchester Township at the beginning of the new century was a study in contrasts. Blessed with a vigorous economy and a diverse and energetic population of just over 17,000, the township is also home to the Indiana Dunes, one of the most beautiful and unusual natural areas in the Midwest. Our ability to maintain and protect this tenuous balance of opposites will be our legacy to the township residents of the new millennium.

PDB
11/09

 

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