Travis Dewitz | Midwest Editorial & Commercial Photographer » Photography Projects, Works of Art, and Environmental Portraits

East Chicago, Indiana



As I travel about the cobblestone streets of horse drawn carriages I am captivated by this great story of America; a portrait of a profoundly moving industrial town.   Iconic history is being created in this roiling sea of humanity; with the perpetual comings and goings of all walks of life.  The bustle of buying, selling, banking, dealing, stealing, eating, laughing, praying, all caught up in the business of living.  By the gas lit lanterns of Main Street, the sky explodes from the blazing glare of furnaces in a fiery red glow off the magnificent shore of Lake Michigan.  Hard work is ground in with the unrelenting grind of the steel mill. The flames diligently rise and fall as the ovens erupt with ashes that blacken the grimed faces of the men in deep dark smoke. The strength of these ponderous behemoths is the mighty symbol of industrial power through great sweeps of the 20th century. Welcome to East Chicago in the late 1800’s.

If the barriers that held together the old steel towns could tell stories; there would be tales of sin striped streets with a reputation of freewheeling boomtowns in vibrant vice districts of prostitution and underground grids serving bootleg liquor.  A male enclave with all the gentlemen’s requirements and desire’s catered for within just a few minutes’ walk in one direction or another. Incorporated as a railroad and steel town, East Chicago was one of the Northwest Indiana’s Region’s first industrial cities, which was created to meet the needs of its workers.  Despite its name, East Chicago is not a part of Chicago; it’s not even in Illinois, it is actually in Indiana. A port city on Lake Michigan, East Chicago is the site of blast furnaces, rolling mills, and oil refineries. The construction of the Indiana Harbor ship Canal, as well as the steel mills; attracted dozens of industries in the early 20th century. – continued below

This town was founded heavily on manufacturing and heritage.  It was once referred to as the “Twin Cities” because a shipping canal divided the city into two independent sections- Indiana Harbor and East Chicago. Locals spoke of the “Twin City” to describe spatial, residential, and class divisions at the heart of the town’s identity.After 1901 two events transformed the city’s fortunes.  A rivalry developed between Indiana Harbor, the “East Side”, home of most working class families and Inland Steel- heralding the dawn of this town as an industrial center, and East Chicago’s “West Side,” the residential expansion of the native-born business community. Second, in 1903 the East Chicago Company (ECC) took direct control of residential and municipal planning.

Marktown was founded by Clayton Mark as a planned worker community in East Chicago; he was best known as a pioneer maker of steel in the United States. It was a neighborhood created to provide a complete community for workers at The Mark Manufacturing Company.  Mark hired architect Howard Van Doren Shaw to inspire a design unlike any other in which the streets served as walkways and the cars are parked on the sidewalks, as noted in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  Ninety percent of the original design was never built as the construction was terminated due to the aftereffects of WWI and Mark Manufacturing Company was sold.  As Marktown stands today it is one of the few remaining planned communities where all of the original homes still linger.

The industries in East Chicago expanded to the borders of Marktown, surrounding the historic residential island with one of the densest industrial complexes in the world. Marktown is regarded as an important cultural resource of architectural and historical significance. In the words of the Marktown Revitalization Plan commissioned by the city of East Chicago in 2008, “Marktown is significant as it is a major work by a significant American architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw, for its association with the driving economic force of industry that served as an identity of the region, and is representative of the planned industrial community movement of the late 19th and early 20th century”.

To many, Americans steel-mill towns were drab, gritty, suffocating in smoke, and inhabited by “foreigners.”  Manufacturing steel in many towns was a great drama of wealth and poverty, of soaring skyscrapers and determined mill towns, of the clash between the imperatives of profit and human dignity of industry’s hard driving practices. In East Chicago enormous freighters, thousands of railcars, and massive pipelines eventually supplied coal, iron ore, limestone, oil, and other materials from around the nation for processing. Steel mills, petroleum, oil refineries, construction, manufacturing, and chemical factories operated at Indiana Harbor and along its inner canal system. Steel mill jobs we sought after because they paid comparatively well, even though the days were long and the work was grueling.

These towns also presented the great drama of immigration, as American society was transformed by successive waves of newcomers from around the world. Everywhere you would meet workers of different nationalities and cultures. Many foreign-born workers were attracted to the city during its industrial expansion, drawn by the multitude of low-skilled industrial jobs and the opportunity to build a better life.  At one time, East Chicago was the home of over seventy different nationalities complete with their own ethnic based neighborhoods. Heritage and tradition remain a focal point of the city today. This diversity resulted in a marvelous collection of ethnic churches, many exhibiting a Byzantine influence in their design. East Chicago is the home of several important historic religious and commercial structures, including the St. Nicholas Romanian Catholic Church (1913), one of the city’s oldest religious structures.  By World War II, 59 congregations reflecting the ethnic and cultural diversity of the population worshiped in East Chicago.

Many immigrants responded to the pervasive economic insecurities and invasive campaigns against drinking, gambling, and “disorderly” parades by intensifying their ethnic ties. Churches, lodges, mutual-aid societies, schools, athletic halls, and ethnic businesses created enclaves where immigrants were among kinsfolks.  In 1930, federal investigators indicted East Chicago mayor Raleigh Hale and police Chief James W. Regan for conspiring to violate Prohibition forcing both men to resign.  So the once sin striped streets found other places to reside; yet East Chicago was still faced with economic difficulties as secondary production lines were eliminated and more crime moved in.

State Road 912, better known as Cline Avenue, has a forbidding history of death and destruction.  It was originally built as a bridge to connect the steel mills in East Chicago Indiana with the Indiana Toll Road.  This freeways moves through heavy industry and soars over the Indiana Harbor Canal. April 15th, 1982 was a fateful day in the delicate work of construction and human life.  Two sections of an unfinished bridge crashed 50 feet to the banks of an industrial canal while they were pouring concrete near the Indian Harbor and Ship Canal killing twelve highway workers and eighteen more were injured. As a result of this catastrophe the designated route is now called Highway Construction Workers Memorial Highway. In 2009, the discovery of the weakened corrosion at the elevated portion of the road was too dangerous for it to remain open so it was closed to traffic. Since this time, the highway has been abandoned in this particular section, and sat dormant as traffic has been rerouted to surrounding streets.  The final outcome still lies ahead, but traffic has immensely dissipated to a meagre 30,000 cars.

Few, if any, remnants of the early years exist except in the deep archives and record books of East Chicago; these items are but shadows of the greatness of what this city once was.  Much of the historic past been preserved in the bricks and mortar of buildings that date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Through economic revitalization, infrastructure improvements, art initiatives, partnering businesses, East Chicago has developed a new era of opportunity with a strong focus on homeownership. Today this city is creating opportunities to rise from the ashes. East Chicago is vital to Northwest Indiana because of its access to Lake Michigan and its close proximity to downtown Chicago. The City of East Chicago has many new initiatives that complement its strengths. With a combination of new economic and social initiatives, a great energy radiates from the city that is rich in culture and tradition.  Freewheeling boomtowns and vibrant vice district are best left to the storytellers that dare to relive those lost moments of a city that gave so much to a culture.  The Main Street of East Chicago will always be the iconic inspiration where you can smell, taste, and feel the steel in the air that is carried on the winds of yesterday. – written by Erika Johnson