Prehistoric studies indicate that the swamps and sand dunes of the Calumet region presented hostile conditions which discouraged any permanent settlers. Migrant tribes of Miami, Ottawa, Wea, and Potawatomi hunted, fished, trapped, and sometimes farmed the area. Even these indigenous people didn't build permanent villages until the 1600's. (There were perhaps 50 Potawatomi villages left in northwest Indiana by the early 1800s, most of whom were moved to reservations by the 1850s.) Father Jacques Marquette, great French explorer of the Mississippi River Valley, led a group of fur traders and missionaries through the area using the Calumet River. The story goes that Marquette camped near the mouth of the Grand Calumet, the present site of Gary's Marquette Park. Joseph Bailly, in 1822, was the first European to settle in these Indiana Dunes, which would later become southeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana.
Still, there were not many settlers until the 1900s, although post-Civil War homesteaders flocked to the more fertile farmlands in the southern part of the state. However, as the country's industrial economy grew, land once deemed inhospitable for farming was eyed for factory use. In the late 1880s large amounts of sand were removed from the dunes and shipped to Chicago for building and industrial uses. Swamps, woodlands, and dunes were leveled in order to support enormous factory structures. Gary finally became Gary when, in 1906, work was begun on a site envisioned by its namesake, Elbert H. Gary. Gary had been a judge from 1882 to 1890 and became chairman of U.S. Steel. Realizing that economic growth was moving to the Midwest, he chose the spot for its proximity to Chicago, Great Lakes shipping, and railroad access to bring in ore from Minnesota and coal from the south and east. The enormity of this undertaking necessitated U.S. Steel's forming of two new companies, the Gary Land Company to build housing, and the Indiana Steel Company to construct the plant, which would contain 12 blast furnaces and 47 steel furnaces. In addition, the harbor had to be excavated to accommodate the largest steam ships of the day, and an enormous breakwater and lighthouse were built as well. Three and a half years later a mill opened. Immigrants attracted by thousands of new jobs poured in, both from eastern and southern Europe and from other parts of the United States, filling Gary with more than 16,000 inhabitants for its official designation as a city in 1909.
In one of the few historical footnotes about Gary that isn't directly involved with steel, Octave Chanute first took flight in a glider in 1896, off the windswept dunes that in a decade would become Gary. It was the world's first sustained flight in a heavier than air structure. The Wright brothers later credited Chanute's design with helping them build their first plane.
In the next 10 years Gary more than tripled its population, with more than 55,000 residents by 1920. The city became a great ethnic melting pot as jobs in the mills continued to attract immigrants from various foreign countries, especially from eastern Europe. Prior to World War I, organized labor failed to gain a foothold among the area's steel workers. Although Judge Gary held the same anti-labor sentiments as his contemporary and rival, Andrew Carnegie, he was somewhat less heavy handed in his approach, seeking to avoid strikes through employee relations programs and an emphasis on job safety. U.S. Steel actually pioneered job safety programs and originated the phrase "Safety First." The corporation adopted a sort of old fashioned, paternalistic relationship with its laborers similar to that of coal or textile mill "company towns." Social events and much of life outside the workplace revolved around the company, while on the downside this meant blacklists kept track of any employee with the wrong political affiliations.
The post WWI period was one of growth for Gary, which had almost instantly become the largest city in the Calumet region. Construction included many apartment buildings and houses, three 10-story buildings, the Hotel Gary, The Gary State Bank, the imposing Knights of Columbus hall, and the massive City Methodist Church. Public structures included Gary City Hall, the courthouse, a 10 acre esplanade (Gateway Park), as well as Marquette Park and Gleason Park. Gary became known as "Magic City" and "City of the Century" because of its rapid growth. Although large numbers of African Americans were drawn to the city in search of unskilled labor jobs, a quota system kept their work force at no more than 15 percent. Most of the region had segregated public facilities, and housing was racially segregated as well. African Americans were relegated to live in "the Patch", the most undesirable housing in the city. Later, Mexican workers, who ironically were brought in as strike breakers, were also forced to reside in the Patch.
Gary was the center of pivotal early twentieth century development in public education when William A. Wirth established a work/study/play school, popularly known as the "platoon school." It was designed to attract underprivileged children, many of whom were from non-English speaking immigrant families. The curriculum focused on preparing them to function in American society. By 1913 the school had enrolled 4,000 children.
Until only very recently, the history of Gary remained intertwined with the fortune or folly of the steel industry. The Great Depression of the 1930s had a devastating effect on Gary's economy, with U.S. Steel dropping from 100 percent capacity in 1929 to 15 percent in 1932. The depression also brought unionization of Gary's industries, with U. S. Steel recognizing the Steelworkers Organizing Committee as the bargaining agent for its workers in 1937. Between 1935 and 1939 the steel worker's wages rose nationally 27 percent, benefitting Gary's workers as well.
During World War II, steel production soared and the tide of prosperity continued for the next two decades. U.S. Steel production peaked in 1953 at more than 35 million tons. The Steelworkers Union held a series of long strikes in 1946 and 1952. These strikes were mostly nonviolent conflicts over wages and benefits rather than the bloody struggles over union recognition that happened elsewhere, but a 116-day long strike in 1959 had the world-changing effect of shutting down 90 percent of production of not only U.S. Steel, but also its competitors. This opened the door to competition from foreign steel, which had had negligible effect before. The long decline of American steel thus began.
Manufacturing in general declined in the region and in the whole country. Between 1979 and 1986 northwest Indiana's loss in manufacturing totaled 42.5 percent, largely in the areas of oil and steel. The world market changed again and the American steel industry rebounded a bit from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. The steel industry is still important to the local economy in Gary, although it is not the world leader it once was.
Beginning in the 1960s, Gary's population decreased through "white flight" to the suburbs. By 1990 the population was made up of 80 percent African Americans. Voters elected Gary's first African American mayor, Richard G. Hatcher, in 1967 and for four subsequent terms. Hatcher's administration improved housing conditions in the city and helped obtain federal job training programs. In 1982 the Genesis Convention Center was built in the heart of Gary's downtown to help in the revitalization of the business district.
Gary made great progress during the 1960s and 1970s in reducing its air pollution caused by smoke from factories and steel mills. The amount of impurities in the air dropped nearly 60 percent from 1966 to 1976. The city issued nearly $180 million in revenue bonds to help U.S. Steel reduce its pollution at local facilities.
The loss of population in Gary during the 1980s, almost 25 percent, was larger than that of any other U.S. city. By 1995, the city's population was 85 percent African American. That year, Scott L. King, who is white, confounded observers when he won an upset victory in the mayoral election. Apparently King's energy and vision for Gary has transcended racial bounds, as he is still at its helm as the city reaches its Centennial.
Still battling poverty, unemployment, a shrinking population, and a less-than-stellar reputation, in the dawn of the twenty-first century the focus of community leaders and businesses in Gary has been to revitalize Gary's downtown and make the city attractive to visitors.
Historical Information: Indiana University Northwest Library, Calumet Regional Archives, 3400 Broadway, Gary, IN 46408; telephone (219)980-6628