MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. — To the uninitiated, driving along 11th Street through the downtown of this northern Indiana community can be an unnerving experience.
While most motorists are accustomed to sharing the road with bicycles, few have ever had the odd experience of sharing the street with a train. In only a smattering of American towns do the train tracks run right down the main drag. In even fewer do suitcase-toting folks board a passenger train as automobile drivers wait patiently alongside.
Yet in Michigan City, the strange sight of trains stopping for traffic signals beside motorists is an everyday occurrence as the rail cars of the historic
Along the 90-mile route, sightseeing and recreational opportunities are plentiful, particularly in and near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Getting there by train provides an alternative to driving, especially when that involves the headache of trying to flee the city on a summer Friday.
For Chicagoans, "it's like getting to a different world," noted Ken Kosky, promotions director for Indiana Dunes Tourism. "They enjoy the 15 miles of spacious, uncrowded beaches, the towering sand dunes, the miles of unique hiking trails."
Hiking, or biking, is part of the equation when taking the train, because the Beverly Shores and Dune Park stations are one and two miles, respectively, from the sand.
Quiet Beverly Shores is a good hopping-off point. The pink-stucco depot, with its giant red-neon sign, features a museum and art gallery (219-874-8000) open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from April through November.
Bicycles can be rented just across the tracks at the Campstop General Store (219-878-1382, shoregeneralstore.webs.com). They're $5 an hour, $30 a day, or $100 for an entire week. As the name implies, the store is where folks staying at the adjacent Dunewood Campground (219-395-1882, nps.gov/indu/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm) stop to stock up on supplies.
From there, it's just a short ride up a road to the nearest beach. Be sure to hang a left onto Lake Front Drive for an unexpected sight: a cluster of five dwellings known as the Century of Progress homes (nps.gov/indu/historyculture/centuryofprogress.htm).
"They were originally constructed for the 1933
The houses, all on private property, are open to the public just once a year, but it's worth a walk or pedal past their very differing exteriors. They include the none-too-small Cypress Log Cabin and the House of Tomorrow, which, even in 2012, remains fantastically futuristic.
After building up an appetite, a couple of very different dining options await in Beverly Shores. The Rolling Stonebaker (219-246-0068, rollingstonebaker.com) serves up tasty pizzas from a former firetruck that parks near the depot. For less traditional fare, try the popular Bartlett's Gourmet Grill (219-879-3081, eatatbartletts.com), where the eclectic menu includes everything from venison chili ($6.50) to Australian lamb shank ($20.50).
Farther east, less than half a mile from the railroad's 11th Street Station in Michigan City, a decidedly different style of home awaits exploration year-round.
The Barker Mansion (631 Washington St., 219-873-1520, emichigancity.com/cityhall/departments/barkermansion) is the sprawling former home of John Barker, who, coincidentally, made his fortune building boxcars for railroads. In its heyday in the late 1800s, Barker's Michigan City factory was rolling out 15,000 freight cars a year. Guided tours are offered daily.
Lunch or dinner can be enjoyed just a short stroll from the 11th Street Station at Maxine's (521 Franklin St., 219-872-4500, maxines521.com). The expansive menu includes mouthwatering entrees such as New England oyster stew ($9.95) and lobster thermidor ($29.95).
A ride in one of the South Shore Line's stainless steel passenger cars provides its own lesson in history.
Founded in 1908, the railroad was the brainchild of industrialist Samuel Insull, who made his money selling electricity.
"When the South Shore Line was built, Gary was just being formed. There was virtually nothing but sand between East Chicago and Michigan City," observed Norm Carlson, president of the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society.
The route between Chicago and South Bend is the only still-operating, electrified railroad, known as an "interurban," in the country. When Insull created it, his ulterior motive, according to Carlson, was to provide power not for trains but for people living and working near the tracks.
"The lasting legacy of them, as I see it, is rural electrification," Carlson said. "Once they built the electrical distribution system to feed the railroad, they then started selling power to farms and villages along the way."
In the early years, long before suburban sprawl, commuters weren't the people who used the South Shore.
"It was to provide local transportation, because the steam railroads were not providing much transportation to the smallest villages and hamlets along the way," explained Carlson, a Lake Forest resident.
By the late 1920s, city dwellers were using the line to enjoy the dunes. Period posters depict smiling ladies in modest swimsuits and bathing caps strolling and sunning on the beaches.
Tourism by rail reached its peak during
"They (the railroad) had so much traffic they would borrow Illinois Central commuter cars and haul people to the dunes in those commuter cars," Carlson pointed out.
These days, despite sky-high gas prices, efforts to lure people out of their own vehicles and onto public transportation can prove difficult but not impossible. Railroad and northern Indiana tourism officials are collaborating on a campaign, complete with contemporary poster art, that will encourage people to leave their cars behind when they visit Dunes Country.