History of Griffith, Indiana
In its heyday, it saw more than 180 trains pass through its town boundaries. It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most baseball diamonds for its population, and for the most train tracks to intersect at one point. It was nearly called Dwiggin’s Junction but it is known today best as Griffith.
Humble start "The Clod Hoppers"
The year was 1853. The United States Congress and the Indiana State Legislature had just passed the Swamp Reclamation Act under terms from the Northwest Ordinance. The stage was set for the wave of immigrants that would change the face of our country.
Among the first settlers in what would become Griffith were Mathias and Anna Miller. They had left their native Germany for the uncertain future of life in the wilds of new and hostile land. Alone and with only a few goods which could be transported across a journey with horse and carriage, they camped in a clearing on higher ground, an area of the ancient Glenwood and Calumet shorelines, the future town of Griffith. Their first home was a sod roofed dugout. Mathias and his brother would drain, plow, and plant of buckwheat, corn, and potatoes purchased through the swamp act. Anna gave birth to 8 children who would go on to build a town.
Other first settlers to the area were Peter Young, Peter Govert, the Walters family, the Grimmer family, and the Beiriger family. There is currently an elementary school in Griffith named after Peter J. Beiriger.
It was nearly Dwiggins Junction
Soon visionary pioneers and developers came to the area. Two developers in particular, brothers Jay and Elmer Dwiggins, are often referred to as “the town founders.” The Dwigginses were land developers and speculators. They had grand visions for what is today the town of Griffith. In fact, at one point the brothers toyed with the idea of naming the area Dwiggins Junction. Because of the large number of train tracks in the area, their plan was to create a factory town, which attracted companies like "Pleasant Remedies," an ice plant, and "The Pennsylvania Art Glass Company." Their idea was to rival their big neighbor to the north, Chicago. Needless to say, their plan was never fulfilled. The Dwiggins brothers unfortunately did not have the financial backing they needed, because of the Panic of 1893. Due to the Panic of 1893, the area’s visionary brothers left a struggling “soon to be town.” Other town developers include Aaron Hart a pioneer developer through the area who drained marshy land by a ditch called Hart Ditch.
The future for the area seemed quite dim. However, because of its railroads, the area had a chance of survival.
The Town That Came to the Tracks
The area’s excellent rail connections promised much for a new town. The rail connections served as Lake County’s grandest rail road crossing. The junction brought in trains on the Michigan Central, Erie, Grand Trunk, Elgin Joliet & Eastern (EJ&E) and The Chesapeake & Ohio, many going to and from Chicago. Farmers in the area welcomed the train traffic for a way to ship out milk and other agricultural products.
The town’s close association with railroads is even reflected in its name. While controversy surrounds the origin of the name of Griffith for the town, the one generally accepted theory today centers on a railroad surveyor for the Grand Trunk, a Mr. Benjamin Griffith, who set the grade for that railroad. He worked preparing railroad maps, which he signed. It became only natural for railroaders using these maps to refer to this area as “Griffith Section.” Since railroads dominated the town, the name stuck.
Currently only the EJ&E and Canadian National (successor to the Grand Trunk) railroads travel through the town. Griffith railroads on the EJ&E were brought out by CN in 2009. They are now a quiet zone meaning they can no longer use train horns as of July 2011.
New century -- New town
As the country moved into the twentieth century, the tiny community sifted through the rubble of the broken dreams of the Dwiggins brothers. In the wake of the whirlwind, they had battled against a national depression, bank failures, discouragement, and doubt during a painful period of let down. Those who stayed in the area came together in the settlement of unfinished factories, broken dreams, and a town that only lived in aspiration and paper. With the backbone of the area, the railroads, prospering, citizens of the community looked into the future with hope and encouragement. Three years after the turn of the century, in 1904, Griffith was incorporated as a town. Confidence was everywhere throughout America. From the foreign policy of “jingoism” and “gunboat diplomacy” to the technological leaps of the Indiana born Wright Brothers, America was on the move, and the tiny town of Griffith was following in her tracks. Griffith continued to attract farmers, railroad workers, and factory workers to its town.
First steps - A young town
Griffith’s first town board met for the first time on November 19, 1904, in Harkenrider Hall. William Peter Govert was the first trustee elected from the first district of Griffith. Mathias Grimmer was from the second district, and Moses Toohill as the third district representative. Matt Beiriger had been elected to the position of Clerk – Treasurer. These men were given the title “The founding fathers of Griffith” because they established the first local government in Griffith.
As years went by, work was done. The town evolved, grew, and became great. More and more streets were being paved as the town expanded away from “the junction.” Between 1905 and 1910, all able bodied men were required to work two days each month on development of town roads. Those who missed a day had to pay $1.50.
A town hall and police station complex was constructed in 1912 at a cost of $4,853. This complex housed Griffith’s government and the police station. It gave Griffith a tradition of a crime-free community for many years because of men like John Harkenrider, Griffith’s first marshal, Deputy John Taylor, and Dan Walters, town Marshall between 1914 and 1917. Currently, the Griffith Police Department is headed by a chief rather than a marshal.
In the spring 1912, the Griffith Public school system was created when Franklin School was built on Broad Street in downtown Griffith. In downtown Griffith Public transportation was available at this time with Hammond buses. Elementary and high school education was offered at the first school house. Griffith’s population continued to grow through the years. Many places of worship were being constructed in the town, most Christian affiliated.
While Catholics were the largest denomination in town, they were relatively slow to organize their own parish. However, in 1921, the diocese gave permission for the citizens of Griffith to split from St. Michael’s Church in Schererville, and Saint Mary Parish was formed. Now, Griffith Catholics didn’t have to travel all the way to St. Michael’s every Sunday. The new Catholic parish offered a place for public gatherings, religious worship, and an elementary and junior high school education in the town of Griffith.
In August 1920, the Griffith Volunteer Fire Department was established. H. B. Ritchie headed the Griffith Fire Department at its start. Currently, there is still a Volunteer Fire Department in the town of Griffith. The Fire Department was well equipped with the technologically advanced equipment for that time period. The “Red Speed Wagon” was the department’s pride and joy. Most of these older fire engines can be seen at various fire stations throughout Griffith or in Fourth of July parades to this day.
The Great Depression
Griffith was riding high along with the rest of the country on the morning of October 24, 1929. By the evening of that day, dreams of permanent prosperity were torn apart by the crash. The new Griffith State Bank had just opened its historical doors on the corner of Main and Broad. It tried its best to stay open during the depression until it was robbed and was forced to close. It is uncertain who robbed the bank, but it has been speculated that it was the work of the infamous John Dillinger. The bank turned into a library, and then an art center. Currently, this building is vacant, but is protected as a historical site and is one of the oldest buildings in Griffith.
Although Griffith was in the middle of the Great Depression and World War II had broken out in Europe, optimistic views were still present throughout the town. In 1930, Meinhard Nissen and Ernie Strack opened the Royal Blue grocery store in downtown Griffith, their partnership lasted until 1943.
Mr. Strack went on to become a success in Northwest Indiana, and the chain is currently known as Strack and Van Til.
Start of the modern age
In the late 40s and early 50s after the second world war, the man where "The Buck Stopped" Harry S. Truman was president of the United States, and the baby boomer generation was evolving. Along with the baby boomers came the nuclear age (the era after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending WWII.) Griffith experienced success and a larger population. New subdivisions were added to the town. Elementary schools, such as Ready, Beiriger, and Wadsworth, were built to satisfy the population. The original Griffith High School was one of the first public high schools in the area. Students from Munster, Highland, and Schererville attended Griffith High School until those communities established their own high schools. Later, a new high school was built, and the original Griffith High School became a fourth elementary, now known as Franklin Elementary School. Griffith became a community known for its warmth and friendliness. Athletics are a large part of the community, good and bad. Many people at this time called Griffith “Baseball Town USA” for its popularity in the town. Over the years football seemed to overtake baseball's popularity, and now Griffith is one of the biggest football towns in the state of Indiana. In 1997 soccer played a big part of the schools new found love of super sport fans "The Pitt". "The Pitt was a rambuxious group of punk rock/ sport fans that made several appearances on TV and in the papers. Wrestling also took over the town when Alex Tsirtsis (following in his family tradition of wrestling powerhouses Marino and Michael)won 4 consecutive state titles from 2000-2004.(all while staying unbeaten). Griffith also boasted at this time a new apartment complex off Ridge Road called “The Mansards”. At the time, their advertising slogan was “Living in the Mansards is like taking a vacation at home.” Now, the Mansards might not seem as extravagant.
Currently (as of 2010), the population of Griffith is at 16,893 citizens and it still holds true to its reputation of a friendly community, even though it is not a farm town anymore, rather a built up metropolitan suburb. However, Griffith still has room to grow. Griffith recently annexed unclaimed land to its south and is looking at more areas to its south such as New Elliot.