As one of the largest lakes in the world, Lake Michigan appeals to many visitors from its bordering states and all over the globe based solely on its own merit. Add to that natural, breathtaking beauty, and the host of fun attractions at Washington Park and it becomes one of the most exciting destinations in the Midwest.
All 140 acres of the Washington Park property were purchased for $1.25 per acre in 1830 by Isaac C. Elston, the first postmaster appointed by President Andrew Jackson. Due to Michigan City’s position by Trail Creek, which is a stream that opens into a Lake Michigan harbor, the city had a great opportunity to build upon the lakefront property.
One of the first items built in Washington Park was the lighthouse. The original lighthouse was built in 1837 before the government decided to standardize lighthouses, leading to the building of a new lighthouse in 1858.
Lighthouse Museum Office Manager and Special Project Manager Greg Coulter shared that it was shortly after the rebuild that one of the most famous lighthouse keepers, Harriet Colfax, began her career alongside her lifelong companion, Ann Hartwell.
“It's right at the start of the Civil War, and Harriet Colfax is asking for this government position and needed to know how to scale it in her voice, and she said that they wanted more men to go be on the frontlines of the Civil War. She was here until she turned 80 years old, and she retired in 1904,” Coulter said.
The Lighthouse Museum was active until 1940, and then the building sat vacant for two decades before the federal government decided to convert it into an educational space. The Lighthouse Museum then opened in 1973.
“We get a lot of lighthouse tourists. They go around the entire lake and go in and out of these different lighthouses, treating it like the national park system,” Coulter said. “One of the things that they always enjoy about our lighthouse is that they are able to touch and play with one of the lighthouse lenses, which is a really cool moment. Not every place has a lantern room.”
With a lantern room serving as the pinnacle of the museum, a partnership with Trail Creek Watershed, and canoe trips up and down Trail Creek where children can learn the history of the lighthouse, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the museum.
Trail Creek along with the Washington Park basin is controlled by the marina according to Tim Frame, harbormaster for the Michigan City Port Authority.
The marina officially opens to boaters on April 1 and shuts down on October 31, with Memorial Day bringing in the largest crowd of the season. Frame shared that about 25% of boaters have a Michigan City address, 25% have a Chicagoland address, and 50% have addresses elsewhere. There are 525 boat slips that allow boaters to seasonally rent out 25-60 feet, which the marina keeps up and running.
“In a way, it’s like a floating campground,” Frame said.
This floating campground has a front-row seat to all the activities happening along the two miles of beach between it and the lighthouse. The beach has played host to a variety of community events ranging from concerts to sandcastle contests and has previously housed attractions such as an amusement park and a bandstand in the early 1900s and currently houses attractions such as Sunset Grille.
Whether watching boat races at noon or watching fireworks at night, Sunset Grille offers beach-goers pristine views along with fantastic food.
While the Michigan City Parks Department owns Sunset Grille, Patrick’s Grille was contracted to run food and beverage services at the Sunset Grille location starting in 2018. Patrick’s Grille General Manager Julie Krause said that when the restaurant had the opportunity to run Sunset Grille, it jumped at the chance because it wanted to be part of the growth on the waterfront.
“When we first started with them, it was basically a rooftop observation deck with a portable bar on it, and they had tables and chairs,” Krause said. “Working with them through the years, we've added a full-service bar, and a kitchen with grills so we can cook onsite up there. We've also added the sunshades and made it more of a tourist spot than what it was originally.”
Over the years through working with the city, Sunset Grille has been involved in events like the Great Lakes Grand Prix boat races and the Singing Sands Festival with Oktoberfest on the horizon. Events like these have helped cement both Sunset Grille and Washington Park as top-tier Northwest Indiana destinations.
“We’re just trying to bring the light back down to the lake,” Krause said.
Bringing light to the lake benefits not only people but also animals through Washington Park Zoo. The zoo was established in 1925 by a retired animal trainer who started the zoo with his pet Brown Bear, Jake, and has taken in many rescues and former exotic pets to give them a better life.
Washington Park Zoo Director Jamie Huss is a second-generation caretaker of the zoo after growing up around the zoo and volunteering since the age of eight. During her extensive history at the zoo, she has witnessed first-hand how the zoo has taken in misplaced and special needs animals and served as a haven for the animals and an educational, fun experience for the visitors.
“Every animal in the zoo from the snakes to the birds gets some kind of mental stimulation of choice. It can be a scent, it can be a toy, it can be companionship. All that is available to give them choices, give them more natural foods, give them more space, and enhance their lives in every way we can,” Huss said.
Whether learning about Harriet Colfax at the lighthouse museum, docking a boat at the marina, sipping drinks at Sunset Grille, making sandcastles along the beach, or exploring the enclosures of rescue animals at Washington Park Zoo, Washington Park has just the attraction for you.
According to Superintendent of the Michigan City Parks and Recreation Department Ed Shinn, Washington Park will continue to grow and move toward an even brighter future thanks to a brilliant executive board that is currently working on the design of an all-inclusive park.
“It’s a place where everybody wants to go,” Shinn said. “I call it the center of the universe because it's in the center of the greatest country in the world, and it's the base of the freshest water in the world.”
To learn more about the rich variety of attractions at Washington Park, click here.