Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-11-23.
Calumet Harbor in South Chicago, Illinois was originally developed to help alleviate traffic from the nearby busy Chicago Harbor. However, it developed into a port of its own, rivaling that of Chicago. It came to be known that larger bulky freight would go to Calumet while smaller goods and passenger traffic would go to Chicago due to the inability of the larger lake freighters to maneuver within the confines of the Chicago River.
The first lighthouse at Calumet was built in 1853 at a cost of $4500 to mark the mouth of the Calumet River. The rubble-stone tower was built on the north bank of the river, but would be used for less than a year. A sandbar at the mouth of the river would leave only four feet of water above it preventing ships from entering the river. Mariners complained about the lack of a true harbor at Calumet and how the light was frequently mistaken for the light of the nearby Chicago Harbor. With that, the lighthouse was discontinued on July 28, 1855 and sold.
The Federal Government recognized the need for harbor improvements at Calumet and took action in 1870 when Congress appropriated $50,000. The sand bar was removed and several piers were built parallel to the shoreline to allow ships to dock. The Calumet River was also widened and dredged to increase depth at this time as well.
With these improvements, the Federal Government repurchased the decommissioned Calumet River Lighthouse in 1870. Over the next couple of years, it was rehabilitated and put back into use on September 7, 1873. It would only be in use for several years before being decommissioned again.
On August 15, 1876, the lens and lighting apparatus was removed and installed in a new wooden tower that sat at the end of the north pier. Like most Great Lakes pierhead lights, this tower was connected to the shore by an elevated catwalk. This tower would become known as the Calumet Pierhead Light.
Harbor improvements continued over the years. By 1896, the north pier had been lengthened to 3,640 feet while the south pier was extended to 2,020 feet. The wooden pierhead tower was replaced with a cast-iron tower in 1898. This design would be used less than a year later in Northern Illinois for the lighthouse at Waukegan. A fog signal building was constructed immediately behind the tower in 1899 to house a 10" steam whistle.
A report shows some planning taking place for the future of the pierhead lighthouse. From the Reports of the Department of Commerce and Labor dated 1906 stated:
514. Calumet Pierhead (South Chicago), Lake Michigan, Illinois. - A brick oilhouse was erected. A 1,500-pound fogbell with a striking apparatus was delivered at the station. This apparatus will take the place of the 10-inch steam whistle, which will be discontinued.
514- Calumet pierhead, South Chicago, III. - This 10-inch steam whistle, in duplicate, was in operation some 528 hours, and consumed about 61 tons of bituminous coal and 2 cords of wood. It will be discontinued, and a fog bell will be established when a fog-signal is established at Calumet Harbor Station.
The steam whistle would be decommissioned one year later on July 20, 1907. Also at that time, the fourth order Fresnel lens was replaced with a sixth order lens and the color changed to display a fixed red light. This is in preparation of its diminished importance given that a new harbor light was in the process of being established on the outer breakwater.
A breakwater which started on the north side of the Illinois Steel Company's slip was authorized to be lengthened to 4,400 feet long following an Act of Congress on March 3, 1899, and completed on October 31, 1902. By 1904, a 6,714 foot long breakwater was completed, which headed southeasterly from the end of the 4,400 foot long pier. The breakwater's length actually puts the end of it in the neighboring state of Indiana. This created a protected harbor for Calumet.
With this, there was a need for a new light at the end of the breakwater. From the Reports of the Department of Commerce and Labor dated 1906 stated:
513. Calumet Harbor, Lake Michigan, Illinois. - The metal work for a fog-signal building and tower was transported to the site. The building and tower with lantern gallery and lantern were built during the fall. A temporary fixed red lens-lantern light was erected 23 feet above water and shown from a red gas buoy on the end of the breakwater in front of the fog-signal building and established on November 15, 1905. The fog-signal apparatus, consisting of two 16horsepower oil engines with compressors, together with pressure tanks, pipes and fittings, automatics, siren and trumpet, were delivered at the station and erected. On July 20, 1906, the light will be exhibited for the first time.
513. Calumet Harbor, Illinois. - This compressed-air siren will be established about July 20, 1906.
The Calumet Harbor light was described as a steel structure with a brick lining, with a second story and a roof of wooden-frame construction. Three of the four sides had gables with windows, with the lake facing side having a cast-iron tower rising from the peaked roof. The tower was outfitted with a fourth order Fresnel lens casting its light fifty-one feet above the lake for the first time on July 20, 1906.
The tower would be in use for several years before being heavily damaged in a storm in the 1920s. The storms severely damaged the timber work of the breakwater so much so that the Army Corps. Of Engineers began reconstruction with concrete to reinforce it. The other recommendation that was put forth by George R. Putnam, Commissioner of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, had recommended the creation of a strongly reinforced concrete foundation to double as a basement, and then lift the entire structure on top the new foundation. This would effectively raise the tower up fifteen feet to provide protection from strong waves and ice.
The other recommendations he made were to build a switch house at the inner end of the breakwater and then run the cable atop the breakwater to the outer end. He then recommended electric lights be installed in the lantern rooms at both the pierhead and harbor lights as well as upgraded fog signal equipment at both. As a final recommendation, he purposed the pierhead light and fog signal be remotely controlled from the harbor light thus eliminating two keeper positions and the maintenance of the station saving $1,700 per year.
The Calumet Harbor Lightstation would stay put until October 22, 1929. It was then that a storm swept over the lake and pounded the station with massive waves. The waves were so powerful that they pushed the entire structure eighteen inches out of alignment with the concrete base on which it sat. The storm would also be responsible for the sinking of The Milwaukee Car Ferry, a 338-foot long ferry carrying twenty-seven rail cars and 52 passengers. All hands would go down with the ship.
The Lighthouse Service deemed the station a loss, and set forth to rebuild it. The work would be completed in 1930. The concrete "basement" was not affected by the storm, but the structure that sat on top needed to be rebuilt. This time, the station would be rebuilt as a single story structure with a cast-iron tower at the one end. Rather than the gabled roof of the previous station, the roof would be flat with a hand rail around the outside. To make sure the structure's stability in future storms, the walls were made of concrete framed in steel. And to provide further protection, they were then covered in steel plating.
Calumet Harbor Breakwater Light (Courtesy Coast Guard)
In 1935, the harbor was enlarged to make room for the larger freighters now prevalent on the Great Lakes. A 5,007 foot long detached breakwater was constructed of cellular steel just off of the current breakwater. A small gap was left between the two breakwaters to allow for passage of smaller craft, but the larger freighters would have to go to the end of the newly constructed breakwater to gain entrance to the harbor. This led to the diminished importance of the Calumet Harbor Light.
When the new breakwater was completed, both ends were marked with a light. The northwest end was marked with a nondescript light, while the southeast end was marked with the tower you see in the photograph above. The tower had originally served as the Holland Pierhead Lighthouse in Michigan. When it was decommissioned from Holland in 1936, it was placed on a barge and shipped across the Lake Michigan to Calumet Harbor. It originally had a lantern room, which was removed at some point over the years.The Calumet Pierhead Light served its post until August of 1976 when it was struck by a ship. The tower was so damaged that the Coast Guard had it demolished. It was later replaced by a light on a steel pole, which has since been removed as well.
The Calumet Harbor Lighthouse would stay put on the breakwater for another 60 years. However, with the freighters using a channel to the far south of the harbor, the original harbor light was no longer needed. It would suffer years of neglect until the Coast Guard would award a contract for demolition in 1995, and by June the tower would be down. A maintenance-free "D9" style light was installed in 1998 for recreational boaters that use the breakwater gap. David Wilson has a great photo of the Calumet Harbor Lighthouse dated from October of 1983.
Looking at Calumet Harbor today, you would never know that three other lighthouses once played a part in the growth of the harbor. The only original tower still standing today is the Calumet Harbor Breakwater South End Light in the photo above.
Directions: The light sits off shore on a pier in Lake Michigan and therefore the best view is by boat. However, distant views are possible from Calumet Park in East Chicago. Exit I-90 (Chicago Skyway) at Route 20/Route 12 (East 95th Street)and head east. East 95th Street will turn into South Crilly Drive and lead you into the park. Make a left onto South Walton Drive. From here, you will be able to see the lighthouse.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard.View more Calumet Harbor Breakwater South End Lighthouse pictures