MICHIGAN CITY HARBOR Michigan City Trail Creek flowing into Lake Michigan
As early as 1828, a group of surveyors determined that the mouth of the creek provided the best location along the Indiana shoreline for the development of a commercial harbor and city.
A signal day for the new town was July 4, 1836, when the first commercial vessel ever entered Trail Creek. The small vessel, called the “Sea Serpent”, was pulled and dragged by a group of enthusiastic citizens across the sand bar that blocked the mouth of the creek. That day also marked the first federal appropriation of $20,000 for the development of the harbor.
Even though the harbor remained unfinished and inaccessible to most vessels for the next 35 years, Michigan City rapidly developed into a leading forwarding port on Lake Michigan, shipping out great quantities of grain and other farm produce which were hauled to the harbor by wagon from as far south as Indianapolis.
Temporarily stored in huge warehouses which lined the harbor, the grain was loaded into lighters, small boats which took the grain to larger ships anchored offshore in the lake.
2000 sailing ships plied the Great Lakes in 1868, many of them stopping at Michigan City with cargoes of lumber, shingles and stone. Twenty years later, at the time of this photo, lumber schooners were already archaic reminders of the past. Steamers carrying both freight and passengers had supplanted the graceful sailing vessels.
Incoming vessels brought quantities of salt, stone, shingles and other commodities. By 1875 the harbor had seen much improvement and large sailing ships were able to enter the mouth of the creek for the first time. But by then the grain and produce business had disappeared because the railroads were shipping these products directly from the hinterlands to city markets. In place of the grain warehouses, huge lumber yards sprawled across the area that is now Washington Park, lining both sides of Trail Creek with lumber piles as high as men could stack them.
The late 1800s was the time of the great timber harvests in northern Michigan and Minnesota. Huge quantities of lumber were shipped south along the Great Lakes to ports such as Michigan City, where the lumber was then shipped by rail south and west or used locally in the county by the many wood-consuming industries such as the planing mills, cooperages, chair factories and car shops. This period marked the peak of lumber shipping to the harbor, when millions of board feet passed through the hands of the dock wallopers, or lumber shovers.
Such steamers as the “Joseph C. Suit” transported millions of board feet of lumber cut from the virgin forests of Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan City, as one of the lake’s busiest ports, shipped much of this rough wood by rail to the expanding western settlements. Other lumber shipments were transformed by local craftsmen into fancy mouldings, doors and furniture.
Coupled with this was the booming excursionist business which brought tens of thousands of visitors to the local waterfront by steam-powered excursion ships. Visitors came to town to tour the State Prison, climb Hoosier Slide and to enjoy the recreational facilities at Washington Park.
Excursion ships gradually faded out during the Depression, while the lumber ships and other commercial vessels had ceased to be important in the 1920’s, ending for all practical purposes almost 100 years of busy commercial activity at the harbor. Today’s emphasis is on summertime recreational boating and fishing.