As one of the largest lakes in the world, Lake Michigan attracts many visitors from bordering states and around the world based solely on its own merit. Add to that breathtaking natural beauty and the plethora of fun rides at Washington Park and it becomes one of the most exciting destinations in the Midwest.
The 140-acre Washington Park property was purchased for $1.25 per acre in 1830 by Isaac C. Elston, the first postmaster appointed by President Andrew Jackson. Because of Michigan City’s location on Trail Creek, which is a creek that empties into a Lake Michigan harbor, the city had a great opportunity to build on lakefront property.
One of the first elements built in Washington Park was the lighthouse. The original lighthouse was built in 1837 before the government decided to standardize lighthouses, which led to the construction of a new lighthouse in 1858.
Lighthouse Museum Office Manager and Special Projects Manager Greg Coulter shared that it was shortly after the reconstruction that one of the most famous lighthouse keepers, Harriet Colfax, began her career alongside her lifelong partner, Ann Hartwell.
“It’s right at the beginning of the Civil War, and Harriet Colfax is applying for this government position and she needed to know how to scale it in her voice, and she said they wanted more men to go to the front lines of the Civil War. . She was here until she was 80 years old and retired in 1904,” Coulter said.
The Lighthouse Museum was active until 1940, and then the building sat empty for two decades before the federal government decided to turn it into an educational space. The Lighthouse Museum opened its doors in 1973.
“We get a lot of tourists from the lighthouses. They go all the way around the lake and 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 get 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 down Trail Creek where kids can learn the history of the lighthouse, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the museum.
Trail Creek, along with the Washington Park watershed, is controlled by the marina, according to Tim Frame, harbor master for the Michigan City Port Authority.
The marina officially opens to boaters on April 1 and closes on October 31, with Memorial Day drawing the biggest 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 allowing boaters to seasonally charter 25-60ft boats, which are kept in operation by the marina.
“In a way, it’s like a floating camp,” Frame said.
This floating camp has a front row seat to all the activities that occur 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 competitions and has previously been home to attractions such as an amusement park and bandstand in the early 20th century and is currently home to attractions such as the Sunset Grille.
Whether watching boat races at noon or watching fireworks at night, Sunset Grille offers beachgoers pristine views along with fantastic food.
Although Sunset Grille is owned by the Michigan City Parks Department, Patrick’s Grille has been contracted to manage food and beverage services at the Sunset Grille location as of 2018. Patrick’s Grille General Manager Julie Krause , said that when the restaurant was given the opportunity to run the Sunset Grille, he jumped at the chance because he wanted to be a part of the growth on the boardwalk.
“When we started with them, it was basically a rooftop viewing platform with a portable bar, and they had tables and chairs,” Krause said. “Working with them over the years, we’ve added a full-service bar and kitchen with grills so we can cook up there. We also added the umbrellas and made it more of a tourist spot than it was originally.”
Over the years of working with the city, Sunset Grille has participated 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 establish both Sunset Grille and Washington Park as premier destinations in Northwest Indiana.
“We’re just trying to bring light back to the lake,” Krause said.
Bringing light to the lake benefits not only people but also animals through the Washington Park Zoo. The zoo was established in 1925 by a retired animal trainer who started the zoo with his Brown Bear pet, Jake, and has accepted many rescues and former exotic pets to give them a better life.
Washington Park Zoo Director Jamie Huss is a second-generation zookeeper after growing up around the zoo and volunteering since he was eight years old. During his long history with the zoo, he has witnessed firsthand how the zoo has taken in misplaced and special needs animals and served as both a haven for the animals and a fun and educational experience for visitors.
“Every animal in the zoo, from the snakes to the birds, receives some kind of mental stimulation of their choosing. It can be a smell, it can be a toy, it can be company. All that is available to give them options, to give them more natural foods, to give them more space and to improve their lives in every way that we can,” Huss said.
Whether you learn about Harriet Colfax at the lighthouse museum, dock a boat at the marina, grab drinks at Sunset Grille, build sandcastles along the beach, or explore the rescued animal enclosures at Washington Park Zoo, Washington Park has the perfect attraction for you.
According to Michigan City Parks and Recreation Department Superintendent Ed Shinn, Washington Park will continue to grow and move into an even brighter future thanks to a brilliant executive board currently working on designing an all-inclusive park.
“It’s a place where everyone wants to go,” Shinn said. “I call it the center of the universe because it is in the center of the largest country in the world, and it is the base of the freshest water in the world.”
For more information on the rich variety of attractions at Washington Park, click here.