A True Detour: Miller Beach

By Amanda on June 30, 2011

TOURSDAILY

Chicagoans associate Indiana with Gary, and its steel mills, unemployment, and factory landscape. Few are aware of the nearby community of Miller Beach, surrounded by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. (Little fact: Only four parks have the designation of “National Lakeshore” and all of them are on the Great Lakes.) Carl Sandburg buried his toes in the sand here, saying, “the Indiana Dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California.”

Miller Beach is a perfect excursion from the city. Hop on the South Shore train (stations at Millenium Park, Van Buren, or several southward) and its about an hour ride, $12 round-trip. Once you are there, you’ve got a 20-minute walk to the beach, and unfortunately the South Shore doesn’t allow bikes (contact them to tell them they should!).

We have a grand solution to the transportation conundrum! On Saturday, July 9 and Sunday, July 10 Miller Beach is having a Secret Gardens Walk, and Chicago Detours is offering free tickets ($8 value). Here’s the deal for the weekend of July 9 and 10 (either Saturday or Sunday):

– You take the 8:40am or 10:45am Southshore Electric train to Miller (hour ride)
– A 1948 Ford woodie picks you up at the station for the 5-minute ride to the the Aquatorium building (pictured here)
– Van shuttles will take you around to 5 different gardens
– You can grab a tasty boxed lunch ($10, optional)
– Enjoy the beach and the historic “aquatorium” building!
– Return on the woodie for either the 4:16pm or 6:05pm trains.

Curious about the aforementioned aquatorium? This stone building was opened in 1921 as the Gary Bathing Beach Bathhouse Bash (ok I added the last word – was on a roll with “b” words). The Bathhouse was a place to change your clothes, shower off, and get this – rent a bathing suit. It closed down in 1970. Renovation started in the ’90s with the help of the Chanute Society, and included new plumbing, the addition of electricity, and rebuilding the cast concrete columns. The managers of the project identified the original business that made the columns, and found they were still in business and had record of the Bathhouse. They were able to easily redo the damaged columns as if it were just a year ago instead of almost 100.

The group that helped save the building from demolition made up the word “aquatorium” so that people would see it as a new building. Now it has a courtyard with a garden, and enclosed dining area, and a killer view of the dunes and lake. People book it for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and music performances.

The shoreline here is historically significant for aviation. Here Octave Chanute performed flying tests in 1896. One would think that with a name like that Chanute would have received more recognition than two punks named Wright that he shared his secrets with. Chanute launched his flying machines off the dunes into the safety of Lake Michigan, and perhaps some pieces are left at the bottom. In addition to trying to defy gravity, Chanute was involved with more earthly persuits like designing the Chicago Stockyards and innovating railroad ties. At the Aquatorium, look for the bronze guy with the Colonel Sanders facial hair – that’s the sculpture of Mr. Chanute.

Come on July 9 or 10, and you get to experience a sweet vintage beach ride, the beauty of manicured gardens, and the paradise of the sandy lakeshore for the cost of a round-trip Southshore train ticket ($12). Email [email protected] to reserve. Please tell us how many tickets and which train you will arrive on. Instead of a Chicago architecture tour, you do a Miller Beach garden tour?