From my desk and uneasy chair – History of Portage Township as compiled by Carl Hamstrom
Porter County Museum·Friday, June 29, 2018
The local history of what is now Portage Township starts in the spring of 1834, when Jacob Wolfe located his claim, and built his first cabin, on the north edge of Twenty Mile Prairie. He was followed by Mr. Barruch Dorr, who also built his home close by. This is now the location from which Mr. Richard Wells, our present State Superintendent of Public Instruction, left, when he attained that office, and moved to Indianapolis. In this home, the wedding of the first white girl in Portage-ship was solemnized.
The township at this home was placed in Ross Township, which included all of Lake County, and the west six tiers of sections in Porter County. The first local government was established in the same year, 1834, when, what is now our township, was under control of La Porte County.
In March of 1836, Porter County was created, and in April of the same year, the commissioners divided it into 12 townships, Portage, being one of them. It was located in the northwestern part of the county, being a perfect rectangle, and contained thirty-six square miles. It was bounded on the north by Waverly, now Westchester, on the east by Liberty, on the south by Union, and on the west by Lake County. It boasted no beach until 1847, when the west four tiers of sections were taken from Westchester and give to it. The only other change was the loss of section five to Westchester.
Portage derived its name from the former home of some of the early settlers, Portage County, Ohio.
The present area is a little over thirty-six square miles, and is naturally divided into five parts. It is most fortunate in having the lake region on the north, which contains many scenic spots for residence, and is most valuable for industry, as evidenced by the steel companies, the port, and the atomic generating station. The Calumet lowland has furnished fertile areas for farming. The hills in the former Crisman area have long supplied sand for use in the steel industry, and the territory near the Mc Cool area also contained a fine grained clay also used extensively by the steel markers. A great part of the township, including the central and southern part, lies on the edge of the Twenty Mile Prairie, and furnishes some of the finest farmland in Porter County.
Early commercial enterprises have included the making of cheese on the prairie section, the making of brick at Garden City on the southwest corner, the sand-lime brick factory at the northwest corner, and an old time blacksmith shop in section 11. We have also boasted, for many years, a feed elevator and gristmill in the Mc Cool area, a small manufacturing concern, which produced a special grade of oils and lubrication compounds in the Crisman area, and a machine shop and plastic factory in the northern section. In later years, many of the wage earners of the region had found work in the steel mills of Gary, and thus our township rapidly grew in, by overflow from Lake County. The railroads also furnished employment for several men.
At different times, there have been four post offices located in Portage; Fillmore, Crisman, Dune Park, and Mc Cool, the later being the last to be closed when the new town of Portage was formed. Many patrons were served by routes out of Chesterton, Valparaiso, Hobart, and Gary.
The main channel, the entire east arm, and about three miles of the west arm of Burns Ditch, is located in Portage Township. This has added greatly to our present history.
When Ogden Dunes was established in 1925, it was the first incorporated town of the township. Before this, it was a region of sand hills, where legend has it, Jesse James, the outlaw of ill fame, used to hide his stolen horses, way back in the blowouts of the dunes. Here too, lived Diana of the Dunes, a cultured lady who came from Chicago, to live the life of a hermit. Now, many beautiful residences, owned by successful businessmen who commute daily to Gary and Chicago, are located in this portion of the township.
The first schoolhouse in the township was built in 1840, on section 20, which was in the Robbins settlement, about 1 1/2 miles southeast of the little village of Mc Cool. In the minutes of an early school board meeting, it is written that the meeting had to be adjourned because a storm came up and the horses became unruly, sending the school board members hurriedly on their way toward home. Soon after the first school was built, a second was located in the southwest part of the township. Portage Township is distinctive since it has always had nine months of school, while the other townships only had eight. The early teachers not only taught the Three R’s , they were also the Janitors. They would find a boarding place near by, maybe for their horse too, but many trudged their way to school on foot, as did the pupils. Later horse drawn busses were added, the first route in Portage being north to the “Sand Knobs”, now known as Ogden Dunes, and the area just south of Road 12. Portage Township kept their one-room schools longer than some of the others, but in 1896, the first high school was established, at first extending only through the ninth grade. A rented room was used the first year. Later a four-room building was erected in Crisman. In 1918 it became a certified high school with full four-year standard course, including two foreign languages, domestic science, and a business course with typing, stenography, and commercial law. In 1922 the high school was changed from a certified to a commissioned school with an expiring commission. In 1926 the citizens began to feel the need of athletic facilities for the students and accordingly, a frame building, 52’ x 80’, was constructed. Soon the school in the Garyton vicinity was enlarged. Portage was truly growing and was first admitted into the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in the school year of 1938-39, the first township school in Porter County to meet these qualifications. One of the early faithful teachers was derived through him. This was the nucleus of the present Portage Township School Corporation, now boasting a count of 7092 pupils.
Their Maker was well revered by the early settlers of Portage Township, which was evidenced by the various churches, which were founded. For many years the Mc Cool Methodists and the Lutherans met in the same church building, this is to show the harmony that prevailed among the early settlers. Later, when there was a need, the Methodist Church building served as a gathering place for many civic meetings, as well as an auditorium. Here the graduations of many of the early students were held. This Church’s history dates back to 1835-36 when a Methodist class was established in Mc Cool Grove, through the efforts of a Circuit Rider. The first Chapel was built probably in 1855 at a coast of $800.00. A Catholic order was introduced in 1928, when the Franciscan Fathers came and established their first home here in what was the early Wolfe estate. Here they carried on their first ministry until a few years later, when they moved east, down the road, and formed the “Seven Dollars Shrine”, now known as “Our Lady of Sorrows”, which was established in October of 1967. The first worthy leaders, the servants of God, spoke very little English, but they were determined and accomplished their objective, and through their prayerful efforts, another creed was brought to Portage.
During the depression years, Portage Township too, shared, with many, the problems which faced everyone. Direct poor relief then, as is now, was handled through the township trustee. About 95 families were cared for in this manner during the peak of lean years.
In 1955, a new era of transportation was introduced to our midst, the Indiana East West Toll Road. It was built nearly through the center of our township. We met this with mixed emotions.
For several years Portage Township had no organized fire department. There was a particular signal on the old party line telephone, six rings on everyone’s receiver, and neighbors would rush to help those in distress. Later there was an agreement, and Gary gave its service upon call. In 1954, a volunteer fire department was formed and served very efficiently until the present regular fire department was formed.
In 1959, a new town in Portage Township was incorporated, namely Portage. Its governing body was under a town board. A Metropolitan police department was created with Vernon Reibly, the first chief.
On January 1, 1968, with a population estimated to be nearly 20,000, Portage became a 4thclass city. In an earlier election, capable Arthur H. Olson, was chosen to be the first mayor. The fledgling city also chose seven men to serve as city council.
Much has been changed in our township since the Pioneers first met up with the Indians, both friendly and unfriendly, the many hardships they fought and the many obstacles they had to hurdle. The howl of the wolf was replaced by the shrill steam whistle of the electric train followed by the horn of the present diesel locomotives. Change must belong to man, instead of time as we had thought.
Carl Hamstrom (1900-1976), a descendant of Porter County pioneers, compiled this history of Portage Township in February 1968. Carl was a retired farmer, maintenance foreman for the Portage Township Highway Garage, eight-year Portage Township Trustee, and twelve-year Porter County Councilman at-large. Norm Hamstrom, Carl’s son, shared this history with the PoCo Muse a little more than fifty years after his father wrote it.