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When the United States Steel Corp. went looking for a vast expanse to hold its new manufacturing complex, a "wasteland" of sand dunes and marshes at Lake Michigan's southern tip seemed the best location. Situated between the iron ore beds of the northern Great Lakes and the southern Indiana coal fields, the area had only one drawback: It was too desolate for anyone to live there. U.S. Steel changed all that, and in doing so took the most dramatic step of any manufacturer in turning the southwestern shore of the lake into one of the greatest concentrations of industry in the world.
In April 1906, U.S. Steel attorney A.F. Knotts and his brother Thomas turned the first shovel of sand--there was little dirt then--and on July 17, the City of Gary was incorporated. Thomas Knotts was the first mayor; A.F., also a civil engineer who helped lead the project, was called founder. But it was board chairman Elbert Gary who gave his name to the town, which was quickly nicknamed " Steel City." The company had planned everything, from the lakefront harbor to the plat for a government center to a street grid south of the new steel mill. "Sloughs were filled," the Tribune reported later, "towering 60-foot sand dunes leveled, two miles of the Grand Calumet river bed was shifted. Millions of dollars worth of black loam was imported from Illinois to cover the sands of ages.""Boomtown" is not an explosive enough term to describe Gary during its early years. By the end of 1906, 10,000 people resided in the nation's first "instant city." The following February, steel flowed as liquid fire from the new blast furnaces. In the dense industrial region that developed from Lake Calumet in Chicago through northwestern Indiana, Gary Works soon held pride of place. Even in the mid-1990s, it was the largest steel mill in the U.S.
Gary had big plans for a northern Indiana metropolis of 200,000 citizens, but its population peaked at about 178,000 in 1960 before falling to 116,000 in 1990. In a city where half the jobs were blue collar and where two-thirds of those were in the steel industry, layoffs and plant closings in the 1970s and 1980s were a severe blow. But to the end it will remain as it was born, the Steel City.