Join in the 10th annual paddle through La Porte’s Chain of Lakes Sept. 21 (but first, here’s some fascinating history)

By Robert J. Boklund, Vice President, La Porte County Conservation Trust

La Porte is the City of Lakes. This city has been associated with its surface waters since its very beginning. 19th century historian Jasper Packard noted that these lakes were the very reason why the county seat was located here in the first place. And back most of a century before that, in the Illinois Country period, the French habitants of this region had called them La Petite Lacs — “the little lakes” (in comparison to Lake Michigan). Native Americans, particularly the Potawatomi, had a special reverence for lakes. And La Porte’s lakes have special qualities. 

They are located near the southern limit for sizable glacial lakes in the country. Most Hoosier “lakes” occurring much south of here are in fact dammed-up rivers and creeks. I remember well the “lakes” of the Hoosier Hill Country where I used to reside. A beautiful part of the state but … instead of the sky-blue water of our lakes, their “lakes” had water tinted green from a quadrillion Euglena. And what appeared from a distance to be a sandy beach would often turn out to be hard shale rock when you reached it.

All of La Porte surface waters, both disjunct and interconnected, are important and precious resources. But to have a chain of glacial lakes actually integrated into the fabric of a city is rare indeed south of Sweden, Canada or at least Minnesota. Yet, here in La Porte, we have just that. 

Boating on La Porte’s chain of lakes is an ancient tradition. It likely began in historic times when the Potawatomi or the Miami first plied their canoes or dugouts across these waters. They were probably looking for game or other sustainables. Since the establishment of the town here in 1832, boats of all kinds have long traversed these local waters — rowboats, speedboats, johnboats, rafts, iceboats, pontoon boats, sailboats, catamarans, excursion boats, and more. 

Robert Boklund

I can recall in the 1970s when a transplanted Louisiana Cajun took his pirogue over the waters of Lily Lake every day when that lake was sufficiently ice-free. He collected snapping turtles from his traps for turtle soup. Countless boating fishermen have cast lines on these lakes for bluegill, red-ear, bass, perch, bullhead, catfish, walleye, pike and other fish species. In 1956, the National Ski Meet was even held here at Stone Lake, before such events were inextricably dependent upon television and other mass media. 

But without a doubt, the most notable of all boat travel that ever took place here occurred from the 1870s until the early 1890s. This was the heyday of the steamboat on La Porte lakes! From Lily Lake in the south to North Pine Lake in the north, these excursion boats plied their course, delighting their passengers along that long watery route. Clear and Lower lakes were then also part of our chain of lakes. The steamboats brought statewide fame to La Porte back then. One summer, newspaper editors held a convention here. Having been treated to a nighttime cruise, they declared La Porte to be “…the prettiest little city in Indiana.” 

But chronically low water levels ended the steamboats by the 1890s. This lengthy period of low water levels occurring in the early 20th century precipitated a multitude of “ills” that would befall this lake system. Not the least of these was a kind of public amnesia about the lakes’ former areal extent. Too frequently, this amnesia resulted in our lakes being permanently fragmented by causeways, atop which streets, railroads and other thoroughfares were built. Often, the resulting smaller disjunct lake fragments were subsequently filled. By the time water levels rose again, the surface area of the lake system had been significantly diminished, creating floodwater situations.

Despite this, a considerable extent of the interconnectedness of these local lakes has remained through the 20th century down to the present. But the public consciousness of that extensive interconnectedness never returned to what it was in the heyday of the steamboats. Pine and Stone, and to a lesser extent, Clear, retained their fame as recreational lakes. Not so the smaller quiet-water lakes, like Lily, Hennessey and Lower. Aside from the activities of local fishermen, these once-essential parts of the steamboat itinerary have been forgotten, largely ignored, and too often abused. 

Back in the 1970s, my brother and I pondered the recreational potential of the interconnected water of this chain of lakes. We decided to test it out by traveling by johnboat from Central Avenue to Johnson Road. In only two places did we have to portage. One was at Hawthorne Street (where the subsurface culvert pipe linking the two parts of Lily Lake is less than two feet in diameter). Ironically, during the lake flooding in the 1990s, we were able to boat over the top of that inundated street. The other place was at the Weller Avenue bridge (really a giant culvert). Incredibly, in the 1950s, when water levels were much lower, fishermen would sometimes be able to traverse under that “bridge.” They would lie down in their boats and “hand walk” their vessels until they came out the other side. Certainly, no place for claustrophobics! But by the time we took our trip, that passage had been completely blocked by water and muck.

Our trip via johnboat took about 2 hours. The characteristics of these interconnected lakes changed successively like a kaleidoscope as we traveled this route. Lily and Hennessey were quiet, with abundant wildness. Stone had choppy, open, deep water with the beautiful, heavily wooded shores of Soldiers Memorial Park. And from the instant we left the Stone Lake Channel, huge Pine Lake was abuzz with activity. So much so that our little johnboat had to practically hug the shore in order to avoid getting swamped by speedboats and skiers. But we plodded forward, rowing past Pine’s beaches, shoreline neighborhoods, commercial developments and parks. 

A very small, slightly submerged island then still remained in North Pine Lake just off the Holmes Island peninsula. It had been created from the dirt of a temporary road linking Holmes Island with Pine Lake Road during the lakes’ dry-up in the 1960s. As water levels began to rise, the road was bulldozed into a pile. Eventually, as they rose further, that little island resulted. In later years, it must have posed a caution for water skiers and speedboaters. But for us then, upon reaching it, this “snag” provided us with mild amusement. We took turns standing upon it, while the other took pictures. 

From there, we rowed to the tree-lined slopes below Johnson Road. Having completed then this curious trip, we headed back over to where Kiwannis-Teledyne Park is today and landed the vessel. 

It had proved to be a most interesting, intriguing trip. But what stuck most in our minds was that we very well may have been the first people in the 20th century to take this particular boat route. Even though it had been a routine course for steamboats in the 19th century. But why? Why hadn’t someone else during those 80-plus years recognized and utilized the recreational value of all this interconnected water, which had been so well known and so frequently used, in the Gilded Age? 

Now, a small johnboat is a far cry from the luxury of an excursion boat, even one from the 19th century. Yet, just traveling that route gave us some feel for why those 19th-century editors raved about it, and the City of La Porte, back then.

Join the 10th annual paddle 

Now upcoming on Sept. 21, 2019, the La Porte County Conservation Trust, the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association and the La Porte City Park & Recreation Department will co-host the 10th annual event to celebrate La Porte’s remarkable chain of lakes. At 9 a.m., come and join other participants to begin the event by meeting at the Beach House in Soldiers Memorial Park on Stone Lake. Boats and life vests will be provided for those without their own. But prior notification will be necessary, in order to know how many extra boats and life vests will be needed. Participants will be responsible for their own drinking water, sunscreen and bug spray. They are advised to wear old tennis shoes, rather than sandals or flip-flops. The actual launch of boats is estimated to occur at 10 a.m. 

The water-trekking event will begin with an orientation session featuring safety and historical information. Two different routes are to be followed on the paddling boat excursion. One route will travel northward into Pine Lake. The other will follow a southward trek through Hennessey Lake, down the Lily Lake Channel, to the Weller Avenue bridge, beyond which lies Lily Lake. Intrepid participants are encouraged to trek Lily Lake itself, on their own time, starting at the Hawthorne Street launch area and paddling up to the south side of the Weller Avenue bridge, and then back. This will give them a perspective on how much more the blueway here could be expanded, if this bridge were once again passable to boat traffic. At 4 p.m., around the time of the trek’s end, a potluck dinner will be held at Cummings Lodge.

For further information and to make a reservation to participate in the trek, please call Stan Shepard of NWIPA at (219) 921-3050. Or email Stan at stylianos,shepard@gmail.com.

2 Responses to “Join in the 10th annual paddle through La Porte’s Chain of Lakes Sept. 21 (but first, here’s some fascinating history)”

  1. Walter Brath

    Sep 17. 2019

    What a informative and historical piece of our great lakes in LaPorte. Thank you Robert for the great story of our past.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Lynn Lisarelli

    Sep 17. 2019

    Fascinating local history! Thank you very much for a most interesting read.

    Reply to this comment

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