Lighting the way

A crowd gathered on the beach near Evanston to watch in horror at the unfolding tragedy just yards away.

Making its way into Chicago in the fog on September 8, 1860, the passenger ship Lady Elgin had collided with the lumber freighter Augusta just off the shore of Lake Michigan. Now the ship was going down within sight of land as hundreds of passengers and crew struggled to survive in the water.

Many of them did not make it. When it was all over, almost 300 had died in the sinking, just one of too many collisions happening on the lake near Chicago.

Local residents, the tragic scenes fresh in their minds, demanded action, and vowed to press the federal government for funds to construct a lighthouse to aid maritime navigation for the ships passing their city on the way to the busy port of Chicago.

It was from this disastrous beginning that Evanston’s Grosse Point lighthouse was born.

With the opening of the Erie Canal in the east and the Illinois and Michigan canal in the Midwest, maritime traffic into the port of Chicago saw a dramatic increase. The already-bustling port became much busier as it was now possible for ships to ply the Great Lakes and the river network of the upper Midwest.

But with this commercial and transportation boom came the inevitable traffic problems. In this case, too many ships trying to operate in too little space and too close to shoals, with little in the way of navigation aids to keep them from colliding with each other or with the rocks on the shoreline. Lady Elgin was not the first such wreck on Lake Michigan, but her loss was the catalyst for the kind of improvements to safe navigation that the Chicago area needed.

Yet even though the need for some kind of navigational aid was becoming clear, Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the nation’s inland waterways, was busy with the task of fighting the Civil War and did not return its attention to the Lake Michigan project until 1871. That year the sum of $35,000 was appropriated for construction of a lighthouse at Evanston’s Grosse Point, located just over a dozen miles north of the port and believed to be near the point where Marquette and Joliet made their first landing in Illinois in 1673. The light would help guide mariners toward the port and away from the shore.

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Construction began in August 1872, halted for the winter and then resumed in the spring of 1873. The tower, its foundation, a 41-foot walkway and a residence for the keeper were all constructed under the supervision of Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe, the Corps’ chief engineer for the upper Great Lakes. Another $15,000 had to be appropriated to finish the lighthouse, which activated its light for the first time on March 1, 1874.

Poe’s design would become a familiar look for lighthouses on the Great Lakes. In all there are eight such structures on Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior, with the Evanston light being the only one located in Illinois. Above its concrete base, the lighthouse is constructed of cream city brick, light yellow in color and made of clay found in the area around the southern end of Lake Michigan.

Atop the structure is a watch room with a second order Fresnel lens, constructed in Paris, France, by the Henry-Lepaute Company. The light rotated with the help of a clockwork mechanism which was itself recalibrated daily in order to ensure that the pattern of flashes from the lights remained precise: one red light every three minutes along with the constant white light. The lens was almost eight feet in height and was visible from as far as 20 miles away in good weather, a clear beacon for ships to beware of the shore.

The Fresnel lens was a mainstay of 19th century lighthouses and it earned the nickname, “the invention that saved a million ships,” a claim that might not have been much of an exaggeration given its widespread popularity and worldwide use in navigational aids.

The Grosse Point light quickly proved to be a valuable asset in helping mariners safely make their way to Chicago. In 1880 a fog signal was added, with two large steam boilers constructed to provide the power for the horn. A decade later the fog signals were upgraded to mechanisms similar to the whistles on train locomotives.

These fog signals would become an issue of contention around the dawn of the 20th century as a series of mansions were constructed on the lakeshore north of the city – approaching the lighthouse. The ear-splitting sounds of the fog horns came as a great annoyance to the new neighbors. The problem was not a new one, however, as similar conflicts had occurred around other Great Lakes lighthouses in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the preceding years. The issue was solved by installing noise reflectors around the horn to direct the sound out across the lake and away from the sleeping residents.

Other improvements in these early 20th-century years included projects to prevent erosion and an upgrade to the light itself which boosted its brightness to 10,000 candlepower. During that first decade of the century inspectors also noticed deterioration of the brick and opted to seal the entire lighthouse with cement, a job costing less than $3000.

Perhaps the biggest improvements to the lighthouse came in the 1920s and 30s with the decision first to electrify the light, then to connect it to Evanston’s municipal electricity and use an incandescent electric bulb for illumination. These upgrades made it possible to install a flashing light which would send a 68,000 candlepower burst across the lake at 15 second intervals.

Until the light was electrified and automated it required constant staffing by keepers and maintenance personnel usually working in three shifts, around the clock every day. With automation these workers’ services became unnecessary and the keeper’s residence was removed.

But with the dramatic upgrade in the luminosity of the facility came another risk which the lighthouse’s designers could not have anticipated. In 1941 the United States entered World War II and immediately began making preparations for civil defense unheard of when the lighthouse was designed in 1872. One of these precautions concerned protection of large cities and industrial areas from air attacks. A key aspect of this air defense effort involved instituting a blackout during nighttime hours so that the aircraft of a potential enemy air strike would not have the assistance of bright city lights in finding their targets.

Accordingly, in 1941 the Grosse Point light was turned off. The station was fully shut down and the building given to the city of Evanston. Other than some scientists from neighboring Northwestern University who found the lighthouse to be a good spot for conducting physics experiments, the lighthouse was unused for the duration of the war.

Advances in marine navigation threatened to make lighthouses largely obsolete by the 1940s, but Evanston found that the site had historical value. In 1946 the lighthouse, now part of the Lighthouse Park historic district, was re-lit and made into a museum, with its surviving buildings restored to the way they appeared during the light’s heyday. In 1999 the lighthouse became the first Great Lakes lighthouse to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The original Fresnel lens from 1874 remains in place to this day, still standing watch over the lakeshore and lighting the way for ships to find a safe voyage home.