indiana dunes, portage

A Sandy Happy Ending: Steel Industrial Site Redeveloped for Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore


The National Park Service probably calls to mind dramatic (and distant) spots – the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or the Everglades – but did you know they have an outpost less than an hour from Chicago?  The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore presents a picturesque alternative to the concrete coastline we have here in the city.  What’s more, the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk (one small part) is a inspirational example of what can happen to an unloved and un-clean industrial brownfield site, when it is conscientiously re-developed.  

sandy edge

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

We’ve talked before about the power of dune ecology and the amazing resource that is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  A quick drive (or even quicker train trip) away from the Chicago, the park has 15 miles of shoreline (dunes), 45 miles of hiking trails through the 15,000 acres of adjacent wetlands, prairie, and forests.  From the National Park Service website:

“The biological diversity within the national lakeshore is amongst the highest per unit area of all our national parks. Over 1,100 flowering plant species and ferns make their homes here. From predacious bog plants to native prairie grasses and from towering white pines to rare algal species, the plant diversity is rich.”

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is the NPS’ smallest National Lakeshore or Seashore, established by Act of Congress in 1966 but advocates had been promoting it (and trying to get it some serious protection) since 1899.  The Prairie Club of Chicago and University of Chicago botanist Henry Cowles recognized the extraordinary ecological value of the dunes and proposed them as a national park in 1916 when the National Park Service was created.  Protecting the dunes, however, was in conflict with another use for the (very small strip of) Indiana Lakeshore – steel manufacturing and shipping.  The Port of Indiana was established in 1965 (one year before the park).

These two uses – parkland with public access and industrial steel manufacturing – have had an uneasy relationship through the last fifty years but there are some happy outcomes.  One of those is the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk (featured in all this post’s photos).

Redeveloping a Brownfield: Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

This particular piece of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore puzzle has been owned by the Park Service since 1976 but only recently opened to the public as a park.  Its previous incarnation was a water treatment facility that processed toxic waste for the steel industry.  When the associated plants shut down it seemed that the spot might remain a blighted discard of American industry – a sad fate.  Instead it was recovered from a brownfield manufacturing site to the beautiful park it is today through the partnership of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, the City of Portage and the former site owner National Steel Corporation.

Today the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is a popular park, continuously occupied throughout a sunny Saturday.

This hollow was an acid pond – a toxic waste dumping ground that was part of the steel mill’s water treatment facility.  When they turned the land over to the park service, National Steel cleaned up the pond, removed toxic soil and relocated their water treatment to a newer facility.

former acid pond

The oaks over the hilltop (above) signify an older more established dune ecosystem adjacent to the steel site. The walking path (below) toward the pavilion runs past a restored intradunal wetland with cotton wood and jack pine trees.


The park also has a LEED certified pavilion for events.  All the walking trails are accessible, as is the break water that shelters the river mouth – it also makes an ideal fishing spot.  It is a beautiful feature of the greater Chicago area … and it will be a day trip from moss again soon!

dune shore and breakwater