Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2011-06-06.
Little Fort, as the Town of Waukegan was known as before 1849, had experienced growth after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and again after the creation of a private pier in 1841. And given its location, about 34 miles north of Chicago and about 46 miles south of Milwaukee, it was a perfect location for a harbor.
The lighthouse at Waukegan, Illinois started not as an iron tower at the end of a pier that you see on this page, but rather a brick tower on shore back in 1847. Funding was requested from Congress as early as January 5, 1846, but wouldn't be appropriated until 1847. $12,000 would be set aside for the harbor with an additional $4,000 being set aside for the creation of a lighthouse, which would be built in 1849.
Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury was in charge of the nation's maritime interests at that time, and was well known for being miserly. Given his miserly ways, he usually ended up with inferior workmanship and shoddy materials. The Little Fort Lighthouse was no different than most lighthouses built on his watch, needing substantial repairs within a year of being built. The brick of the tower was re-pointed and whitewashed in 1850.
A visit in 1852 by the Superintendent of the Eleventh District, William B. Snowhook found the lighthouse again "in a dilapidated condition." To have the repairs that were necessary completed would have cost $10,500. Given the cost, Snowhook requested the funds anyway.
At this time, Snowhook noted that an Act had appropriated $15,000 for the creation of a harbor and breakwaters at Little Fort. With that, he also recommended a new lighthouse be placed at the end of a breakwater when they were completed.
In the Miscellaneous Documents Of The Senate Of The United States dated 1853-1854 lists the following:
For a temporary beacon light, at or near the breakwater now being constructed at Waukegan, Little Fort - $1000. For the foundation of a light-house on the breakwater now in course of construction at the harbor of Waukegan, and for a light, when the foundation shall be in a suitable condition for erecting the structure, in place of the present light at Little Fort - $10,500.
1860 Waukegan Lighthouse (Library of Congress)
Work was started on the breakwaters in 1853. One crib measuring 30 feet long by 25 feet wide was placed into position, however, a storm ended up carrying most of it away. At the request of the Secretary of War, the Attorney General of the United States at that time recommended that the breakwater, which was under construction at that time by the United States, could be viewed as an act of purpresture and that it would be lawful for the State of Illinois to remove it given the land beneath the breakwater belongs to Illinois. Also, given that the Congressman of that district which had championed the cause for harbor improvements had retired, no more funding would be secured, leaving the project essentially dead.
With the list of repairs needed on the brick tower growing, the Lighthouse Board used the $1,000 to build a wooden tower at the apex of the keeper's dwelling and fit a cast iron lantern to that which was outfitted with a fifth order Fresnel lens. Once this work was completed in 1860, the brick tower was razed.
The 1860 tower was meant to serve as the temporary lighthouse until the new iron tower was built at the end of the breakwaters to be constructed. However, with the harbor improvements stalled, it would end up being used longer than anticipated. Given the situation, the Lighthouse Board authorized construction of several new outbuildings in 1867 and the replacement of the roof of the keeper's quarters in 1870.
The town of Waukegan, which was continuing to grow, was now pushing towards the lighthouse. So in 1880, a picket fence was constructed to enclose the light station.
It would be 1879, before another Congressman would pick up the cause for the creation of a harbor at Waukegan. Through the efforts of Honorable Lorenzo Brentano, the Secretary of War authorized and appropriated $5,000 for a survey of the harbor at Waukegan on March 3, 1879. The survey would be carried out in September of that year. Honorable Hiram Barber Jr. would secure $15,000 for the harbor in 1881, which allowed the work to resume.
Waukegan Harbor without structure (Courtesy USCG)
The breakwaters would finally be completed by 1898. To mark the piers, a temporary iron post light and a cleaning house was established at the end of the north pier with the light first being lit on the night of August 10, 1898. The Little Fort Light, which was the keeper's house with the tower fitted to it in 1860, was extinguished on December 31, 1898 leaving only the pierhead light to mark the harbor. The 1860 lighthouse and adjoining land was sold at a public auction to the City of Waukegan on June 20, 1899, with the Lighthouse Board retaining ownership of the waterfront land.
At the time the iron post light was installed on the north pier, contracts were being drawn up for the permanent tower on the south pier. The metal work was shipped to the site on June 29, 1899 along with an unused fourth order Fresnel lens from the Detroit Lighthouse Depot.
That same year work was started on the foundation for the new tower. A concrete foundation standing six feet six inches tall by sixteen feet by fifteen feet was constructed at the end of the south pier. Work was started on the tower immediately with it being completed in August. The fourth order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower and first shown its light on August 31, 1899. It exhibited a fixed white light for 20 seconds followed by four red flashes at 5 second intervals.
Also at that time, an elevated walkway of four hundred feet was built to allow the keeper's safe passage from the shore. The walkway was lined by 1,075 feet of wire rope and suspended by 45 wrought-iron posts to provide a hand hold for the keepers.
With the River and Harbor Appropriation Act approved on June 13, 1902, plans were being formalized to expand and enhance Waukegan Harbor. These plans included dredging to achieve twenty-one feet of water, and to lengthen the piers.
In 1903, the south pier was extended 1399 feet and a year later; the north pier was extended nearly 1000 feet, while 588 feet was added to create the north breakwater. All these improvements meant that the 1899 pierhead light was no longer at the end of the pier. With this, plans were made to move the iron tower once again to the end of the pier.
In the Reports of the Department of Labor and Commerce dated 1904:
526. Waukegan Harbor, Lake Michigan, Illinois. - The following recommendation, made in the Board's last two annual reports, is renewed: The river and harbor appropriation act approved June 13, 1902. made provision for a harbor with 21 feet of water at this point. The work will probably be undertaken soon, with a possible completion next year. It is necessary in this connection to make provision for a light and fog-signal on the breakwater which is to be built. It is estimated that this light and fog-signal can be established for $10,000, and the Board recommends that an appropriation of this amount be made therefore.
In this, the Lighthouse Board had requested $10,000 for moving the lighthouse and creation of a fog signal at Waukegan. Plans were drawn up to move the tower over the winter of 1904-1905.
The Reports of the Department of Commerce and Labor of 1906 listed this entry:
526. Waukegan Harbor, Luke Michigan, Illinois. - The tower was moved and reerected on a concrete foundation at the extreme end of the south pier some 1,400 feet from its old location. On February 7, 1905, the light was exhibited. Some 1,100 feet of metal elevated walk was erected leading from the old to the new position. A contract was made for the structural steel metal work for a fogsignal house. The fog-signal appliances, consisting of oil engines and compressors, were received, and automatics were provided.
Waukegan Harbor with attached structure (Courtesy USCG)
At this point, plans were drawn up and construction was started on the two-story fog signal / keeper's quarters immediately behind the lighthouse. The Lighthouse Board, in an effort to save some money, would end up using the same design later that year at Holland, Michigan and Kewaunee Pierhead in Wisconsin a few years later.
This design would encompass the lower half of the building being set up to house the fog signal equipment, with the upper half of the structure divided into living quarters. The fog siren was driven by compressed air generated by a sixteen-horsepower diesel engine. It was first put into use on July 2, 1906.
The lighthouse would be virtually unchanged until May of 1967. Some sources report that there was an electrical short which resulted in a fire while other sources report an unknown cause of the fire. However, the results were the same. The fog signal and keeper's quarters were heavily damaged while the tower itself sustained less damage. Given the extent of the damage, the fog signal building was razed as it was no longer in use. The tower itself was repaired and put back into use; however, the lantern room was not rebuilt. The tower itself was capped off and a green light was put into place.
Directions: One of the best viewing areas is from North Beach Park. From Highway 137 (Amstutz Expressway), exit at Mathon Drive. Take this east to Pershing Road, then follow Pershing Road south to East Clayton Street. Head west on East Clayton Street to East Sea Horse Drive. Follow East Sea Horse Drive to the end to reach the park.
If you would like to walk out to the lighthouse, follow Pershing Road past East Clayton Street. (It may change names to North Dugan Street) to East Madison Street. Take East Madison Street east towards the lake. At North Harbor Place, make a right into the parking lot. The breakwater entrance will from this parking lot.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.View more Waukegan Harbor Lighthouse pictures