Old Michigan City Lighthouse

Michigan City, Indiana - 1858 (1837**)

Photo of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse.

History of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse

Isaac C. Elston was born in New Jersey in 1791, and by 1824, was living in Crawfordsville, Indiana. After turning a profit in 1826 helping several friends promote the new settlement of Lafayette, he realized there was money to be made in land speculation.

His next purchase was a large tract of land on the shore of Lake Michigan in 1832 where he would layout the future town of Michigan City. People quickly purchased the plots of land providing Elston with a tidy profit. Elston knew that he would need to create a port if the city was to be successful. The most logical place for the harbor was the area where Trail Creek emptied into Lake Michigan. To help encourage the construction of a lighthouse, Elston deeded a tract of land near the mouth of the creek to the federal government.

The problem with Trail Creek was a constantly shifting sandbar at the mouth of the creek, which made entry nearly impossible for all ships except those with the shallowest draft. To get around this obstacle, larger ships would anchor just off shore in the lake and offload the cargo to a vessel with a shallower draft called "lighters." These lighters could then make it across the sand bar into the creek to offload the cargo. At this time, the light to mark the creek was nothing more than a lantern on a pole, which was maintained by the locals.

Almost immediately following the sale of land in 1832, the Indiana State Legislature had put forth a measure asking Congress for an appropriation for the construction of a harbor. One of the legislators, Edward A. Hannegan, who voted for the resolution, would be elected to Congress in the next election where he continued to push for the harbor. On June 30, 1834, Congress had made an appropriation of $5,000 for the establishment of a lighthouse at Michigan City. It would take several more years of wrangling before a bill would wind its way through Congress appropriating $20,000 for the harbor. It was signed off on July 4, 1836 by President Andrew Jackson.

The news that the Federal Government had set aside funds for the harbor made its way back to the townsfolk who happened to be celebrating down at the lake when the schooner Sea Serpent arrived. The locals hooked up ropes to the schooner and literally dragged it across the sandbar into the docks.

By March 3, 1837, Congress had appropriated another $30,000 for continuing construction on the harbor at Michigan City. Also within the first six months of 1837, an additional $3,000 was put forth to finish construction of the lighthouse.

The man assigned to construct the harbor was Captain Ward C. Burnet of the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers. The contract for the construction of the lighthouse was awarded to a local builder named Jeremy Hixon, Sr. He constructed a rubble-stone tower standing forty feet tall and a detached one and one-half-story dwelling. For visibility, both structures were coated with whitewash. Like most lighthouses at that time, the lighting apparatus consisted of eleven Argand lamps and 14" reflectors.

The 1837 lighthouse would be used until 1858, when a traffic increase to the harbor called for a more robust light. The new lighthouse was built of Cream City brick over a Joliet stone foundation. The dwelling was a two-story structure with an attached wooden lantern room at the north end. Inside the lantern room was a fifth order Fresnel lens capable of being spotted from fifteen miles out in the lake. Several lighthouses built around the same time bare a close resemblance to this structure, such as Port Washington and Pilot Island in Wisconsin and Grand Traverse in Michigan.

John M. Clarkson was appointed the first lighthouse keeper of the new tower. He would serve for several years until Harriet Colfax took over in 1861. Harriet Colfax would serve for 43 years until retiring in 1904 at the age of 80.

It appears that in the 1860s, squatters were a significant problem around the lighthouse grounds. In the Reports of the Committees of the Senate of the United States dated 1864-1865 there is a letter from a Dennis Nolan to an Honorable James Harlan asking to buy a parcel of land on the grounds of the lighthouse. Given that the parcel was owned by the Lighthouse Board, the matter was referred to them. W. B. Shubrick, Chairman of the Lighthouse Board responded on February 3, 1865 with the following:

"The attention of the light-house engineer of the district has been called to the subject, and if it is found that Mr. Nolan is in occupation of any part of the premises belonging to the light-house establishment, such steps will be taken as the interests of the public service may require."

However, it doesn't appear that this issue was taken care of. In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1880 states that a fence was erected around the lighthouse grounds, and then in 1891, the following entry appeared:

1222. Michigan City, Lake Michigan, Indiana. - A number of persons have occupied the light-house grounds without authority. Measures have been taken to cause them to remove their shanties and other property.

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 some protection from the lake. This would set the stage for the Michigan City 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.

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.

The keepers lived in the structure until the last one retired in 1940. After that, the building sat vacant for many years, letting vandals and weather take their toll. The City of Michigan City assumed ownership in 1964 and leased the property to the Michigan City Historical Society a year later. It would take several years, but the historical society restored the structure, which included the installation of an original replica of the lantern room. The museum opened on June 9, 1973.

Directions: The lighthouse is located in Washington Park. From Route 12 in Michigan City, take Franklin Street north to Lake Shore Drive. This will lead you into Washington Park.

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Tower Information
Tower Height: 34.00'
Focal Plane: 52'
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (1904)
*Latitude: 41.72300 N
*Longitude: -86.90600 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.