Chicago Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Chicago Harbor, Chicago Illinois



Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image

Historical Information

In August of 1803, on the order of the War Department, troops arrived at the mouth of the Chicago River to begin the construction of a stockade and living quarters. Named Fort Dearborn in honor of the Secretary of War, the fort provided the first real sense of security to the area. As a result, traders began operation outside the fort's stockade, and it wasn't long before a town began to spring up around the fort. While the fort was evacuated during the War of 1812, with its' rebuilding in 1816 settlement in the area began in earnest.

Click to view enlarged imageAs Chicago boomed, inbound vessels brought immigrants and supplies needed to build the rapidly expanding town, and outbound vessels carried grain and hogs for which the town was becoming increasingly well known. With this exponential increase in vessel traffic, the Federal Government authorized construction of the harbor's first lighthouse in 1832. Completed at the mouth of the river the following year, the masonry tower was equipped with a birdcage-style lantern room.

As a result of the harbor's position at the foot of the lake, wave action driven by northeast winds would drive sand into the southern shore, keeping the waters shallow at the river's entrance. Schooners bound for Chicago were thus forced to anchor a half mile offshore, with their cargoes transferred to lighters, which would make the trip through the shallows to the docks at the river mouth. Responding to this problem, the Federal Government appropriated $25,000 for improvements to the harbor in 1833. Under the direction of the Bureau of Topographical Engineers, work on the harbor improvements began the following year with the dredging of a channel from the deep lake water to the mouth of the river. As the town grew around it, Fort Dearborn was decommissioned in that same year, its grounds to gradually transform into what would become Grant Park.

By 1835 the work had progressed sufficiently to allow the one hundred-ton schooner ILLINOIS to enter the Chicago River. In 1837, with a population of 4,170 the town of Chicago was officially incorporated, work on a 1,1852 south pier was completed, and construction began on a 1,200-foot north pier to guard the opposite side of the new channel.

The following year, the Federal Government appropriated $30,000 for additional harbor improvements. Unfortunately these harbor modifications were a complete disaster, as the lake's winds and currents forced sand through the harbor opening, restarting the silting process.

When the City approached the Federal Government for additional funds, the response was unfavorable, and work on the project came to a halt in September of 1839. After considerable political wrangling on behalf of the city's political power brokers, Congress deeded federal land in the area to the City to be sold in order to raise additional funds. In 1843, Congress also made an additional appropriation of $25,000 to the project, and assigned Captain George B. McClellan to oversee the project.

By 1844, the city's population had again doubled, and a total of $247,000 had been expended on improving Chicago's growing harbor. With the arrival of the first canal boat through the newly completed Indiana and Michigan Canal in 1848, the city became a shipping point for the bounty of the continent's mid section through the canal's connection to the Mississippi River system. By the end of the canal's first season, Chicago held the honor of becoming the nation's busiest port.

In 1852, with the completion of an extension to the north pier, a new lighthouse was constructed at the pier's end, and the old 1832 structure standing by Fort Dearborn was decommissioned.

As the 1870's dawned, Chicago's meteoric growth was unstoppable. The city's newest buildings and spreading park system were fast rivaling those of New York City. And then, without warning, all Hell broke lose.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Great Fire of Chicago began at approximately 9.00pm on Sunday, October 8, 1871, and by midnight had jumped the river's south branch. By 1:30 a.m., the entire business district was in flames. Shortly thereafter the fire raced northward across the main river, and the many ships leading and unloading at the warehouses that lined the river mouth. While many captains managed to make their way out into open water, where they were safe from falling embers, a number of unlucky vessels burned at their docks.

With the coming of rain near midnight of the next day, the conflagration had consumed an area four miles long and almost a mile wide. Including over twenty-eight miles of streets, 120 miles of sidewalks, some eighteen thousand buildings stood in charred ruins.

Recovery from the fire was both rapid and dramatic, and by 1875 little evidence of the disaster remained. The City's rebirth fostered an unprecedented lumbering boom along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, with many towns such as Ludington, Whitehall and Manistee owing their very existence to supplying Chicago's insatiable hunger for lumber during its rebuilding efforts through the 1870's and 80's.

In 1872, the Lighthouse Board decided to construct a new lighthouse at Grosse Point, and with the completion of the station's construction in 1873 it was determined that the existing light on Chicago's north pier was no longer necessary, and the pier light was decommissioned and subsequently dismantled.

So proud were the citizens of Chicago of their beautiful new face and growing national and international importance, that they planned to host the World's Fair in May of 1893. Planned as a "White City," named for the white plaster of which the buildings were to be constructed, and sprawling along the waterfront, the Columbian Exposition would bring the world to Chicago, and in turn show Chicago to the world.

To prepare for the expected influx of travelers attending the Exhibition, a number of harbor improvements were undertaken including the construction of a new lighthouse near the entrance of the Chicago River, close to the location of the original 1832 tower. The forty-seven foot tall structure was constructed of steel plates, and lined with brick. In order to eliminate the need for a separate keeper's dwelling, the living space was designed within the eighteen-foot diameter tower itself. Capped with a decagonal cast iron lantern room with vertical astragals typical of the period.

Click to view enlarged imageAs was the case in all such World's Fairs, each participating government, agency or company took advantage of the opportunity to prominently display its "state of the art" wares and engineering achievements. The Lighthouse Board was no exception. Their display featured the engineering marvel of Spectacle Reef Light, a one hundred and eleven foot tall skeletal cast iron lighthouse tower, and a number of lenses, including a magnificent Third Order Fresnel lens which had previously been awarded a "first prize" at a Paris glass exhibition.

The lens featured alternating red and white panels, and had been ordered for installation in the new lighthouse at Point Loma California. However, with construction of the new Chicago harbor light completed at the same time as the closing of the Columbian Exhibition in October, the Lighthouse Board decided to keep the lens in Chicago, and thus the lens was installed in the lantern room of the new tower. Also at the close of the Exhibition, the magnificent skeletal tower was disassembled and shipped to Rawley Point just north of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where it was reassembled and placed in service the following year.

With a 1917 renovation of the breakwater off the harbor, it was determined that a light was needed on the structure to guide vessels around its southern extremity into the harbor. To avoid the expense of building a completely new structure, Congress appropriated $88,000 in June of that year to fund the relocation of the 1893 river mouth tower onto the breakwater.

Work on the relocation began in 1918 and continued through most of the following year. Once the tower had been relocated, it was augmented with two attached structures on opposite sides of the tower. One part of the new structure consisted of a twenty eight-foot square fog signal building, and the other an eighteen by twenty-eight-foot boathouse. By virtue of its location atop the concrete breakwater, the lens now boasted a focal plane of eight-two feet.

While fully automated in 1979, the light still exhibits its prize winning Third Order Fresnel lens, and while most of today's vessels use Loran, Radar or GPS to find their way into the safety of Chicago Harbor, the proud tower still displays its reassuring beam to welcome mariners to the Windy City.

Keepers of this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Chicago Breakwater Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light. We plan to visit in 2001, and will report on our observations at that time.

Finding this Light

The Chicago breakwater is a free-standing structure in the harbor, and thus close views can only be attained by boat. Views such as that at the top left can be obtained from the end of Navy Pier. There are also a number of harbor sightseeing boats that take trips from Navy Pier and pass close by the lighthouse on their trip.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
History of Chicago from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, AT Andreas,
Chicago's Front Door, Chicago Public Library Digital Collection, website
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1995
Chicago 1860-1919, Stephen Longstreet, 1973

Chicago, Scribner's Monthly, September 1875, Vol. X, No. 5.
The Long Ships Passing, Walter Havighurst, 1943
Photograph courtesy of Marge Beaver of Photography-Plus website
Photographs courtesy of Darryl L Chapman website
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Click to view current weather conditions in Chicago

Home Back

This page last modified 12/02/2007