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 Calumet Harbor, IN    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: The plain, modern lights that mark Calumet Harbor today reveal little about Calumet’s earlier lighthouses and the colorful personalities that staffed them.

After surveying potential sites for new lighthouses on the Great Lakes in 1837, Lieutenant G.J. Pendergrast gave the following report on Calumet River:

Little Calumet river is twelve miles distant from Chicago. It possesses no very great advantages other than its being in the south bend of the lake, and affording sufficient water to allow of a harbor being formed at its mouth. Harbors at the head of this lake are of the utmost importance to the sailor who is so unfortunate as to encounter a gale from any quarter except from southeast to southwest. A lee shore is met with in all directions, and his only alternative is to beach his vessel; for as to beating off in a flat, shallow vessel, such as are usually met with here, it is out of the question. Hence it is that we hear of so many vessels being lost on the lakes, and the great anxiety felt to have places of shelter provided for them.

Pierhead light and fog bell in 1914
Photograph courtesy National Archives
On March 3, 1849, Congress appropriated $4,000 for a lighthouse at the mouth of the Calumet River, and during 1851, a Mr. Irwin superintended the erection of the lighthouse using stone quarried at Blue Island and transported down the Little Calumet and Calumet River by barge. Hiram Squires lit the light for the first time in 1853.

On October 28, 1853, several ship owners and captains sent a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury that called for the discontinuance of the lighthouse. The light “results in serious inconvenience,” the men wrote, “and greatly endangers both property and life, from the fact the there is no harbor, and the light is mistaken for that at Chicago.”

Calumet Lighthouse was extinguished on July 28, 1855, and the property was sold at auction for $125 to George W. Clark, who rented it to the Oehmich family for $50 a year.

With improvements planned for the harbor at Calumet, the government decided in 1870 that it would reactivate the light. This proved to be both difficult and expensive, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1873 that a title to the old lighthouse had been obtained at a cost of $10,000. Repairs commenced in May 1873, and the lighthouse was reactivated on September 7, 1873, by Mary Ryan.

Keeper Ryan remained at the post for over seven years, which given the following sampling of her log entries, might have felt like an eternity.
Dec. 4, 1873Wind so bad, I think it will blow the tower over.
Dec. 25, 1873I was supposed to have been informed when this light would be discontinued, not a vessel since the 15th of Nov. and nothing to light for and this is such a dreary place to be all alone in.
April 7, 1874 So dull, in this place it is killing me. Wind blowing violently.
April 15, 1874 Oh, for a home in the sunny south, such a climate.
April 16, 1874Such a time, everyone is in despaired think summer is never coming.
May 1, 1874 So cold, mayday, those people who goes for flowers will be disappointed.
May 2, 1874 Nothing but gloom without and WITH IN.
Oct. 31, 1874 The promise of a cold hard winter as old signs goes, so many out of employment at this early season, and what will it before winter is over? God “only knows.”
May 31, 1874 So dull in South Chicago. This place is growin down all the time.
April 22, 1880 I think some changes will have to be made this is not a fit place for anyone to live in.
July 31, 1880 This has been the most trying month of my keeping a light house, the most important question, can anything worse come?
Aug. 28, 1880 The light house Engineers never do anything for me.
Aug. 30, 1880 Oh what a place.
Oct. 1, 1880 The news is that the light will soon go from me forever.
Nov. 1, 1880 This is all gloom and darkness.

Mary Ryan’s final day on the job was November 6, 1880. Chester B. Rushmore, a new keeper with a new outlook on things, took over shortly thereafter.
Nov. 13, 1880 Commence the duties of light keeper. The sun set behind a bank of dark clouds, yet it is not gloomy for the poets and our good sense teach us that there is a Silver Lining beyond.

Breakwater Lighthouse in 1913
Photograph courtesy National Archives
A thirty-foot-tall, open frame tower was erected on the north pier in 1876 along with an elevated walkway that facilitated access to the light. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was transferred from the old lighthouse to the pier light on August 15, 1876, and the old lighthouse fell dark once again. As the harbor works were improved, the pierhead light was moved lakeward 350 feet in 1880, 630 feet in 1882, and another 300 feet in 1884.

After a new foundation, consisting of fifty-two yards of concrete with embedded rubblestone, was built in the pier, a cylindrical metal tower was erected in 1898 to replace the wooden pierhead tower. The following year, a twenty-by-forty-foot fog signal building was built just shoreward of the tower, and a ten-inch steam whistle commenced operation on July 1, 1899. This mural shows both the 1853 lighthouse and pierhead light.

On June 28, 1902, Congress provided $7,500 for a new dwelling for the station, as the old lighthouse had been declared “unfit for human habitation” by the Lighthouse Board. A two-story triplex was built for the station’s keepers in 1903.

In 1899, the construction of a breakwater to create an artificial harbor at the entrance to the Calumet River was authorized. Starting from a point roughly a half mile north of the river’s entrance, the breakwater, formed of timber cribs capped by concrete, projects east into the lake for about 4,000 feet before bending to the southeast. Work on a new metal combination lighthouse and fog signal building to mark the end of the 6,714-foot breakwater began in 1905. The stout, rectangular structure originally consisted of two full stories, topped by a pitched roof, with a cylindrical tower extending above one end of the roof. The new light and compressed-air fog signal commenced operation on July 20, 1906. Exactly a year later, a fog bell replaced the old pierhead steam whistle .

Breakwater Lighthouse in 1913
Photograph courtesy National Archives
For several years, both the pierhead and outer breakwater lighthouses were active and maintained by keepers in season. A lifesaving station was located on the Calumet River, and one of the station’s lookout towers was positioned near the pierhead lighthouse. When the surfman stationed at the lookout saw the flag at the outer breakwater lighthouse flying at half mast, he knew the keepers required assistance. Thanks to the lifesaving station logs, several instances of the keepers lowering their flag to signal the lookout tower were recorded, including the following one.

Early on the morning of April 16, 1921, the surfman on lookout noticed the distress signal was being flown at the outer breakwater lighthouse. A gale wind was blowing, the seas were very high, and the temperature was just above freezing. As the lifesaving station’s lifeboat was out of commission, a rescue team was forced to request that the M.B. Mary tow their surfboat to the lighthouse. Accompanied by two keepers of the pierhead lighthouse (James Muckiam and Carl Graan), the crew rowed the surfboat the final few yards up to the lee side of the breakwater lighthouse.

The lifesaving keeper recorded that “the windows of the lighthouse were broken in. The floors flooded. The building shifted about two feet, breakwater going to pieces around it and other places.” Still, the keepers refused to leave the lighthouse. They did, however, request that the lighthouse superintendent be informed of their situation. After returning to shore, the lifesaving keeper telegraphed the superintendent, who gave his permission for the keepers to be removed from the lighthouse if their lives were endangered. The lifesaving keeper judged the lighthouse keepers’ situation to be quite grave, and they were accordingly brought ashore with the assistance of a tugboat.

On March 28, 1922, $66,000 was provided for reconstructing the “old, inadequate, and unsafe building” on the breakwater and replacing its worn out fog signal machinery with a “modern electric motor-driven air compressor air diaphone and electric light in lens.” That year, the outer end of the breakwater was removed down to the water and rebuilt in concrete. The old steel lighthouse was raised and a deck slab and a basement with reinforced concrete walls were built beneath it. The new diaphone fog signal commenced operation on July 1, 1924, and the lighthouse’s old frame second story was later removed. In parallel with the work on the breakwater, the outer 400 feet of the north pier was removed, and the cast-iron pierhead tower was installed on top of the shortened pier and equipped with an electric type “C” diaphone, which went into operation on September 10, 1924.

Breakwater Lighthouse atop concrete basement
Photograph courtesy National Archives
The worst storm experienced by Keeper Jerome Robinson, who served at the breakwater lighthouse for twenty-one years, was in December 1928, when he was marooned in the lighthouse with three other men for four days in sub-zero weather as waves swept over the eighty-foot-tall tower. The force of the waves moved the lighthouse’s concrete basement six inches and shattered the three-quarter-inch plate glass portholes on the structure’s first floor. The storm left the lighthouse encased in nine feet of ice, and the light was obscured for many hours until the keepers managed to chip away the icy coating.

Due partly to the nearby steel mills that pumped plumes of black smoke into the air, the fog horn at Calumet was typically in operation 260 hours a month. After Keeper Robinson transferred to Sheboygan Lighthouse in 1930, he was elated to find that the horn there averaged just over 90 hours a month.

The mouth of the Calumet River and the surrounding land all lie within the State of Illinois, however due to the length of the breakwater, the breakwater lighthouse was located just east of the Illinois-Indiana State Line, which runs north-south. Since it is exposed to the full force of northern storms that can sweep the entire length of Lake Michigan, the lighthouse was damaged on several occasions. After two severe storms struck the station late in 1929, over 12,000 tons of rip rap were placed along the breakwater in 1930 to provide better protection for the station.

In 1934, a new dwelling was built for the station’s keepers, and plans were being made for two new lights for the detached, 5,020-foot breakwater that was under construction. A 600-foot gap, which provides a direct route to Calumet River from the lake, separates the old and new breakwaters. A light and fog signal tower, which had previously been in use at Holland Harbor, was transported to Calumet and placed at the southeast end of the detached breakwater. The new light and fog signal, which were remotely controlled from the breakwater lighthouse, were placed in commission on June 4, 1937.

Armand Seguin was stationed at the lighthouse in 1961-1962. During his service, the lighthouse was generally staffed by two coastguardsmen who spent four days at the lighthouse followed by two days off. Seguin remembers that there were two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and an office/living room on the upper level, while the lower level housed the furnace, a water tank, and the air compressor for the fog signal.

Calumet Harbor Lighthouse in 1983
Photograph courtesy David Wilson
The U.S. Steel South Chicago works provided electricity to the lighthouse for free via a submarine cable. The only catch was that it was AC at 25Hz. This meant that the lights flickered, and while a motor/generator was used to convert the electricity into a standard 110V and 60Hz signal for powering a television, the picture would periodically get off sync.

Inspectors from Chicago visited the station and found that the well water was contaminated. When Sequin inquired how bad it was, the inspector replied “Well, you might take a bath in it, but don't get it anyplace by your face! And, boil it like mad before you cook with it.” From then on, the Coast Guardsmen had to haul their own drinking water out to the lighthouse.

In 1995, the two-story, breakwater lighthouse was demolished over a period of twenty-two days. In its place, stands a white cylindrical tower marked with a red band, as seen in the bottom photo to the left. The nearby end of the detached breakwater is marked by a similar tower with a green band. The steel tower standing on four cylinders shown in the top two photographs is the one relocated from Holland Harbor that marks the other end of the detached breakwater.

Calumet Lighthouse Head Keepers: Hiram Squires (1853 – 1855).

Pierhead Head Keepers: Mary H. Ryan (1873 – 1880), Chester Bradley Rushmore (1880 – 1886), Edwin J. Moore (1886 – 1888), Andrew J. Davenport (1888 – 1911), Alfred C. Erickson (1911 – 1913), Carl J. Graan (1913 – 1923).

Breakwater Head Keepers: John C. McKinnon (at least 1908 – 1911), Jerome M. Robinson (1913 – 1930), Ardell E. Pierce (at least 1935 – at least 1940).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Lake Carriers’ Association, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  4. East Side Centennial Commemoration booklet, 1951.
  5. History of Cook County, Illinois, A.T. Andreas, 1884.
  6. Life Saving Station South Chicago Logbook, provided by H. Harmon.

Location: Located at the end of a 6,714-foot-long breakwater that extends from the mouth of the Calumet River into Lake Michigan.
Latitude: 41.72604
Longitude: -87.49336

For a larger map of Calumet Harbor Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: This lighthouse can be seen distantly from Calumet Park but is best seen from the water. To reach the park, take Exit 62 from I-94 South of Chicago and go east for five miles on 95th Street (Highway 12/20) to the park.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.

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