Indiana at 200 (71): The City that Steel Built

February 22, 2016

by Andrea Neal

In 1904, the directors of the U.S. Steel Corporation made a monumental decision for the future of northwest Indiana. After considering locations in Illinois and Pennsylvania, they voted to build a steel plant on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Easy access to water and rail and proximity to Chicago made it the obvious choice for what was to be the world’s largest steel mill.

Before property owners in the area knew of the plan and could boost asking prices, the company purchased 9,664 acres of mostly swamplands and dunes. Almost overnight, construction workers transformed the landscape. They filled swamps, rerouted a river, dug a harbor, built a plant and plotted a city with 4,000 residential and commercial lots.

Incorporated in 1906, this new city was named Gary — after Elbert H. Gary, U.S. Steel’s chairman of the board.

The company’s vision was to create a model of industrial efficiency, and the city’s founding fathers reveled in the early nicknames conferred upon their creation: Magic City, Industrial Utopia, City of the Century.

And for a while it was.

The lure of good jobs drew immigrants and African-Americans by the thousands, ensuring that Gary would have a diverse population from the outset. By 1920, more than 50 nationalities were represented there.

Gary’s public schools received national recognition for rigor and innovation. Educator William A. Wirt moved to Gary from Bluffton in 1907 to implement on a large-scale his innovative “work-study-play” system with an eight-hour day and enriched course of study that exposed students to laboratory science, orchestra, swimming and vocations.

Parks and other cultural amenities figured prominently in the community’s design. In order to ensure residents access to beaches, the city annexed lakefront to the east and created the 241-acre Marquette Park with views of both water and sand dunes.

Gary’s population peaked in 1960 at 178,000, making it Indiana’s second largest city after Indianapolis. That would soon change as a result of foreign competition, high labor costs and the failure of the steel industry to modernize.

By the time Richard G. Hatcher became mayor in 1968, the decline of industrial cities across the country had begun. The election of Hatcher — one of the nation’s first big-city African-American mayors — was hailed as a historic civil rights achievement, but it did not slow the flight of white residents and businesses to the suburbs.

“The fatal flaw was that it was indeed a one-industry town,” explains Stephen G. McShane, curator of the Calumet Regional Archives and history professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. “When Gary Works and the steel industry did well, so did Gary. When Gary Works and the steel industry suffered, so did Gary.”

The decline of the steel industry did to Gary what the decline of the auto industry did to Marion, Anderson and Kokomo. Employment at Gary Works dropped from 30,000 at its peak to 5,000 today. The tax base fell accordingly.

The 21st Century Gary is known more for high unemployment, high crime and failing schools than for jobs, parks and education. But efforts are underway to diversify its economy and revitalize its civic institutions.

“It’ll never be the same as it was of course,” says McShane, “but there are promising developments.”

Two recent examples underscore his optimism: A $174.1-million runway investment at the Gary airport is expected to draw new cargo traffic that should bring jobs and additional commercial development. A $28.2-million grant from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority paid for a complete restoration of Marquette Park including the1920s bathhouse and entertainment pavilion, making it once again a tourist destination. The project received the Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration from Indiana Landmarks.

The restored Recreation Pavilion in Gary’s Marquette Park is a tourist sight today and symbolic reminder of the steel city’s early 20th-century affluence. Photo by Indiana Landmarks.

The restored Recreation Pavilion in Gary’s Marquette Park is a tourist sight today and symbolic reminder of the steel city’s early 20th-century affluence. Photo by Indiana Landmarks.


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