The lake is the focal point of the community and is a rare natural feature in this part of the country. The lake was formed by glaciers that otherwise left most of Northwest Indiana flat and dry. For the Native Americans and the pioneer settlers who first came upon Cedar Lake, it must have been a surprising sight. Cedar Lake is one of the largest inland natural lakes in Indiana, with approximately 787 acres of surface area. The large marsh south of the lake was undoubtedly part of the lake at one time, before the south shore area was drained. The Cedar Lake Marsh is one of the largest contiguous wetlands in the State of Indiana.
By the 1870’s the pioneers had platted small settlements around the lake, such as West Point, Fairport and Armour Town. The first school in Lake County, the Ball School, was built in 1838 (today’s Jane Ball School carries on this tradition). By 1870, a post office was established as the Cedar Lake Post Office, providing the official name to the area.
The Monon Railroad arrived to the lake’s western shore in 1882. The 2.5 mile section of the railroad that passed by the lake was considered the most scenic section of the entire railroad. With the railroad came new residents, as well as entrepreneurs who recognized the value of the lake as a tourist destination.
Cedar Lake became a mecca for Chicagoans and others seeking a lakeside retreat. From the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s, Cedar Lake had over 50 hotels, several steamboat tour lines and numerous lakeside cottages. While nearby Crown Point’s courthouse was a popular place for weddings, Cedar Lake became the location of choice for honeymoons. The railroad brought people from Chicago as well as from points south to enjoy the lake and the many entertainments in the area. Names such as Chicago retailer and philanthropist John G. Shedd, the Armour brothers (of meat packing fame) and famous foot doctor William Scholl are among those who contributed to the history of Cedar Lake during this era. Several ballrooms and pavilions dotted the lakefront, such as the Midway Gardens and the Lassen Pavilion, bringing in nationally-known bands to entertain area residents and visitors.
Today’s Lake of the Red Cedars Museum was originally the Lassen Hotel and is the only surviving structure from Cedar Lake’s resort era. Part of the building was actually built on the west side of the lake to house workers engaged in ice cutting for the Armour Meat Packing Company. This building was slid across the frozen lake during the winter of 1919 and added to the Lassen. Before refrigeration, ice cutting was an important industry in the area, providing ice to the growing industries of the Chicago and Northwest Indiana metropolis. The Lake of the Red Cedars Museum preserves many photos and artifacts of Cedar Lake’s resort and ice cutting heritage.
A Time of Change
Local citizens tried in 1914, 1933 and 1950 to incorporate the Town. After much vehement opposition, court hassles and expense, Cedar Lake was finally incorporated in 1970.
Although the resort days brought prosperity and growth, particularly with cottage subdivisions, by the 1940’s greater mobility afforded tourists access to further destinations. As a result, Cedar Lake’s popularity as a resort area began to decline. The hotels closed and were demolished, one by one. Although the Midway Gardens Ballroom survived into the 1980’s, by 1990 the lakefront no longer hosted a variety of lodging, dining and entertainment. Cottages that were built as seasonal dwellings were converted to year-round dwellings, and the lakefront was lined mostly with homes of various sizes and a few marina businesses. Only a few businesses remain that draw people to the lakefront, such as the Dairy Queen and the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center.
With the shift in emphasis, Cedar Lake’s economy now relied upon yearround residents who found jobs in Chicago or Northern Lake County. Since attracting visitors lost its importance, upkeep of many small homes declined. Town revenues also declined, and budgets could not keep up with street maintenance and other needs. By the end of the 20th Century, the town had declined and evidence of its former glory was difficult to find. The general image of the town, to residents and outsiders, was of a community in decline.
However, through the 1990’s the economy in the south Chicago suburbs and parts of Lake County continued to prosper. Towns such as Schererville and Merrillville began to grow, with many new homes, businesses and a large regional mall. People from Chicago and points beyond began to discover Northwest Indiana, with its cheaper land prices and easy connections to Chicago. Development began to extend ever further south, fueling the growth of small towns like St. John. With inexpensive land and very highly regarded school districts, it was inevitable that this wave of activity would eventually reach Cedar Lake.
New subdivisions began to spring up in outlying areas, and in the mid ‘90s the Havenwood and Robin’s Nest developments began a wave of quality single family subdivisions within the Town boundaries. Cedar Lake suddenly became a “hot” market, and new subdivisions were approved faster than they could be built. Additional land was annexed to the Town to accommodate sewer extensions and new developments. As of the writing of the 2007 Comprehensive Plan, there were nearly 2,800 dwelling units under construction, approved and awaiting construction, or in the planning approval phases.
In addition, two other major changes may be just over the horizon that could significantly affect the Town’s future. The State of Indiana has begun preliminary corridor studies for a new expressway that would connect Interstate 57, just over the state line in Illinois, to Interstate 65 in Indiana. This “Illiana Expressway” corridor is planned just south of the Town, with preliminary plans showing an interchange at US 41 and at Morse Street. This expressway has the potential to have a major impact on land use and development in the town. The Town may also benefit from an extension of the South Shore Transit rail line that connects South Bend and Northwest Indiana to Chicago. This extension, which is in the planning stages and has strong support from the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and the area municipalities, would follow the existing CSX Rail line south from Hammond and go through Cedar Lake before terminating in Lowell. A station would be provided in Cedar Lake, and at least two locations are being considered. Providing easier transit access to Chicago would also likely fuel residential and commercial growth in the region.
In 2006 the Town Council recognized the need to plan for the future of the Town. It was hoped that growth would help fuel redevelopment of the existing portions of Cedar Lake, but not at any price. Town leaders realized that quality development needed to be guided by Town policies that set a higher standard. A new Comprehensive Plan was born from the desire of Cedar Lake to take control of land development for a better future.