Most all of Indiana’s 92 counties are named after a person, Native American peoples or other places. But only one is named quite simply for the largest geographical feature that touches Indiana.
That’s Lake County … the state’s northwestern-most county named for the giant body of water that dimples Indiana’s upper left corner. Lake Michigan’s footprint is little more than a toehold, but that 45 miles of waterfront, which also includes Porter and LaPorte counties, makes Indiana a “Great Lakes State.” That massive waterway connects Indiana to the Atlantic Ocean and the world.
Along with the lake, railroads running to Chicago spurred industrial development along the sandy ridges and swamps of the Lake Michigan beachhead. Inland Steel arrived in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1903. In 1906, U.S. Steel, a corporation cofounded by Judge Elbert H. Gary and banking magnate J. P. Morgan, built what became its Gary works, and Gary soon became America’s largest company town.
Other industries also found the county to be an ideal location. The industrialization brought a diverse mix of workers from Appalachia, Europe and Mexico, and the population growth continued through World War II and into the early 1960s. Then came racial tensions, plant closings, and loss of jobs in the steel industry. Gary’s population went from a high of 178,000 in 1960 to 76,000 today.
While the region works to overcome its urban blight, some of the most pristine natural areas of Indiana are within Gary’s city limits and eastern Lake County as an extension of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Most of the National Park is in neighboring Porter County to the east, but the Paul H. Douglas (Miller Woods) Trail winds through several habitats on the Lake County side. The trail offers wetlands, rare black oak savanna and open dunes.
If you go … Lake County
Named for: Lake Michigan
Population: 484,411 (2018 estimate)
County seat: Crown Point