Piers were built by the local townsfolk and businesses in Michigan City in the early 1830s. They were used, but it would take until 1836 before Congress would appropriate $20,000 for the construction of a harbor at Michigan City. By March 3, 1837, Congress had appropriated another $30,000 for continuing construction on the harbor at Michigan City.
Not much else would take place over the years, however, by 1869, $75,000 was appropriated for extending the original piers which were constructed during the 1830s, dredging the channel, and to sheath pile the north bank of the river. However, an additional $35,000 was needed to complete the work. The eastern pier was extended 96 feet while the western pier was extended 256 feet. It would take almost two years before a light was erected and lit at the end of the east pier. The pierhead light, connected to the mainland by an elevated catwalk, was lit on November 20, 1871. The Michigan City Lighthouse Keeper, Harriet Colfax, would be responsible for the maintenance of the new pierhead light as well as the shore light.
The Lighthouse Board made plans in October of 1874 to move the pierhead light to the west breakwater since it was five hundred feet longer. This meant that the keeper would have to row across the creek to access the tower. Because of this, an assistant keeper was assigned to the site. An entry in the Executive Documents of the House of Representatives dated 1875-1876 lists the following entry:
608. Michigan City pier head light, Lake Michigan, Indiana. - The beacon and elevated walk have been removed from the east to the west pier, and about 800 feet of new elevated walk built.
The catwalk and pierhead tower were always under attack from the lake. In October of 1885 work was undertaken to repair the catwalk. It was completed on November 30, 1885, only to be severely damaged again in December. At this point, access to the tower was limited to calm weather due to safety reasons. The keeper removed the lighting apparatus and discontinued the light until repairs could be made.
By spring, the repairs were made to the tower and the catwalk. However, a gale on October 14, 1886 would tear the whole tower from the pier. Keeper Harriet Colfax had fought her way out to the west pierhead tower to light the lamps. After completing the task, she made her way back to the shore only to turn around and see the tower fall into the lake. She made her way to the lantern room of the 1858 tower and kept watch. In the morning, she would find the remains of the west pierhead light and several sections of the pier on the beach.
The Lighthouse Board had decided the west pierhead tower would not be replaced, and instead kept the 1858 tower lit year round starting in 1887. The remainder of the elevated catwalk was removed and shipped to Ludington, Michigan where it was reused.
The harbor would receive some attention starting in 1902 with a new east pier measuring 2,276 feet long being constructed. In 1903, a new detached breakwater was built to provide harbor protection from the lake. This would set the stage for a new east pierhead lighthouse to be constructed in 1904.
The new tower would be better constructed to stand up to the gales of Lake Michigan. Starting at the bottom, the new foundation would be made of concrete. A steel frame was then constructed and covered with cast-iron plates. It was then lined with brick to provide added durability. The lower half of the structure would house a fog signal, which would be installed in 1905.
Michigan City East Pierhead Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
In 1904, significant changes would take place to the 1858 lighthouse as well. An addition to the north side of the structure would add two new rooms per each floor to significantly increase the square footage. This would allow the tower to be converted to a triplex providing on-site living quarters for the head keeper and two assistants. Separate entrances were added at this time as well. The east side received a round porch and balcony while the west side received a rectangular porch only. On October 20, 1904, workers completed the last portion of the renovation, which was to remove the tower section from the lighthouse and install a new roof. At this time, the fifth order Fresnel lens was transferred to the new east pierhead lighthouse thus relegating the old lighthouse into keeper's dwelling, which the keepers lived in the structure until the last one retired in 1940.
Other changes took place in the harbor at that time as well. A light to mark the west pier as well as both ends of the detached breakwater were constructed to improve navigability. The lighthouse Board also constructed an elevated catwalk to the east pierhead light.
BY 1933, electricity came to the pierhead light. This allowed the light and fog signal to be switched over to the more efficient electrical power. The east pierhead was fully automated in 1960. By 1983, the catwalk was in poor condition. The Coast Guard scheduled it for demolition as it was no longer needed. The city's residents rallied against it, getting it added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, and raising the necessary funds for restoration by 1994.
The lighthouse and catwalk are closed to the public, but people are permitted to walk the pier after paying for entry to Washington Park. The original fifth order Fresnel lens has been replaced with a modern plastic optic, however, it is available for viewing in the museum which is in the Old Michigan City Lighthouse.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on a pierhead in Washington Park. From Route 12 in Michigan City, take Franklin Street north to Lake Shore Drive. This will lead you into Washington Park.View more Michigan City East Pierhead Lighthouse pictures