Alice Mabel Gray was a woman ahead of her time. She was intelligent, accomplished, a visionary and an early preservationist. Born in 1881, during the Gilded Age (1878-1889), she grew up in the busy city of Chicago, Illinois. The time Alice was born and lived in was significant in United States history. For emigrants who came looking for an opportunity the American dream seemed to be within reach as the railroad and steel boom brought jobs and instant wealth to people who might not otherwise have a chance to enjoy a better life. Alice grew up in an upper class family, educated and the head of her class. But she like many women of her time and used her intelligence and social status to further her curiosities in mathematics, astronomy and foreign language.
After graduating from the University of Chicago, Alice found work as Computer (one who computes numerical data) under the direct supervision of Professor William Eichelberger at the United States Naval Observatory. The work was not satisfying for Alice as she considered, “the life of a salary earner in the cities is slavery, a constant fight for the means of living.” In 1905, her continuing educational interests brought her overseas to Gottingen University where she befriended Bohemians, who enjoyed free roaming and a simple lifestyle infused very much with nature. Upon returning to the United States, she took up a simpler secretarial job. Soon after realizing her true passion was environmental studies, she gave up everything and moved to the Lake Michigan dunes where she earned the nickname, “Diana of the Dunes”. This nagging attraction would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Alice was more than a circus spectacle or a folklore nymph. She was a visionary and preservationist. She loved nature and longed to be as close to it as possible. In the dunes, Alice could observe nature in its original form. Alice was charitable as well. She shared her knowledge with others by educating the public. Alice passed on any information that she could get her hands on to make people realize the beauty of the dunes. She also wanted the public to know how vital the dunes were and how much they offered for learning and research. The dunes provided her a peaceful place to live and study. She found amazement at the reaction people gave as they listened to her speeches. She was able to sustain herself financially by selling driftwood boxes to buy needed commodities. Even though it was a far cry from the lavish lifestyle others enjoyed during the Gilded Age, she made her life simple, and it was good enough for her.
Solitude and opportunity for scientific research were short-lived as the encroaching industrial age expanded Gary, Indiana which was situated next to the dunes. The dunes became a focal point in a proposed steel plant that would bring growth opportunity for the town. The only problem was that the dunes being so close to the plant placement plans threatened the lands natural habitat. Alice became alarmed at this and joined forces with local activists who opposed the expansion. They argued it was not environmentally conducive to move the plant so close to the dunes and would harm research data. To offer an alternative and a protesting one at that, The Prairie Club decided to garner public help for the establishment of a park. In the 1920s, the Indiana Dunes State Park was established. It seemed Alice and the support of others pulled off the impossible of preservation of the dunes. She did not enjoy it much for long. Because of her odd behavior as a recluse, her troubled relationship with her husband, and public taunting she became known as, “Diana of the Dunes.” She longed for quiet and privacy the dunes had afforded her but no longer found and planned to relocate to the Texas coast before her untimely death in 1925 at the age of 43.
For many years a festival was celebrated in honor of Alice and others who worked hard to preserve the beauty and heritage of the dunes. But because of inadequate revenue and a lack of general public interest, the celebration was discontinued. Today anyone who wishes to visit the dunes may do so. It remains as a reminder of the need to preserve such nature so that many people in the future may enjoy quiet solitude to observe and reflect.