Introducing the Gilded Age

Anthony “TJ” Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

Below is an early draft of the first two pages of the introduction to my book on Gilded Age Michigan City:

On clear days in the dunes, I always look for the Chicago skyline on the horizon of Lake Michigan. The urban jungle is a seemingly permanent fixture on the dunescape and an unavoidable sight. At least it has appeared so in my lifetime. It is not clear when the first Hoosier was able to look out and see the Midwest Metropolis’ outline. Some say that the John Hancock was the first building seen across the Lake, others have told me that they saw it earlier. A few Hoosiers saw it during the 1872 Great Chicago Fire.

The Home Insurance Building on the corner of Adams and LaSalle was the first skyscraper in Chicago and the world. It was built in 1885, making it the first step toward today’s skyline. Other skyscrapers rose, made from new steel beam skeletons. In coming years, electric lights made the city glow like the 1872 fire every night.

Even when the skyline was not there, Chicago was still a presence across the Lake. In Michigan City, the last Indiana city before the Michigan border, the Second City’s presence was felt since it became the Second City (its nickname when Chicago became second in population to New York since the 1890 census). The city only reached that status through an era of record growth and rapid sometimes violent, changes. In this period industry redefined the cityscape and immigrants transformed the city and nation’s culture. In those turbulent years, Michigan City’s residents became aware of Chicago, to different degrees.

In the days before Chicago’s prominent role in the Midwest, its presence would not have been felt as much in Michigan City. Whole lives could have been lived without visiting or conceiving of Chicago. Michigan City would have been a few generations’ entire world, but the possibility of such a small perspective changed. Early America was defined by the local, but in the period after the Civil War, American life quickly drifted away from that definition. New industry would attract immigrants and entrepreneurs alike. Interurban rail lines and excursion ships began to make travel between the two cities more of a formality, as opposed to the exodus down muddy roads that marked the previous century. Transportation was only one means of connection though, soon the forces of the era sewed the two cities together.

When the stockyards and factories, skyscrapers and slums, Prairie Avenue mansions and balloon houses grew to dominate the dialogue of the era, Michigan City became connected indelibly with Chicago. Boats took city residents across the Lake to visit the White City during the 1893 World’s fair and a few years later thousands of Chicagoans would be visiting Michigan City’s waterfront, midway, dunes, and touring the prison every Saturday. Telegraphs lines and the beginning of the associated press meant that both cities received the same news at the same pace. Knowledge, community, and culture merged across the lake.

Immigrant workers flowed to Michigan City, escaping the dirt, death, and tragedy in the Second City’s factories and slums. Workers left Pullman Town’s eternal rents to find homes in Michigan City. Immigrant neighborhood rose up to mimic those in Chicago which had mimicked those in the homeland. The Poles, Germans, Syrians, and Irish began their own churches, which grounded their identity in this community.

In turn, Michigan City’s upper class flowed back toward Chicago, vainly searching for culture and society. Bits of that culture returned to Michigan City, reflected in the City’s architecture, society events, clubs, and public buildings. Chicago’s culture stood as a standard for them from which to mold their world within this small duneland city, a standard that sparked growth, reform, vanity, and fear.

Some Michigan City folk married into the prominent families of Chicago and vice versa. The upper class looked nervously at the labor struggles and urban disorder in Chicago, fearing its import into their duneland metropolis. Nervousness was mirrored by optimism when some wealthy recognized that Michigan City was an alternative to the labor troubles in Chicago. However, when strikes materialized in Michigan City, both sides of the mirror shattered.

Michigan City in this era was as dynamic as the sands that sifted around it. In this time the city grew from a few thousand German immigrants and Northeastern merchants into a multi-ethnic industrial jungle. When Chicago’s skyscrapers rose higher than her church steeples, Michigan City’s smokestacks rose higher than her dunes. The city’s awareness of Chicago planted the skyline on the horizon long before it rose to visibility across the lake. The Gilded Age in Michigan City is the story of those generations in Michigan City who anticipated the skyline: the generations who could climb Indiana’s tallest sand dune and see the new electric lights in the city, the generations who worked seventy hour weeks at Haskell-Barker, the generations who built St. Stanislaus Church and others, the generations who walked amid the White City, the generations who rode on the South Shoreline for the first time, these are the generations who lived through Michigan City’s Gilded Age.

 

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