Michigan Pierhead Lights  Seeing The Light

Michigan City, Indiana

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Historical Information

Since the founding of the settlement of Michigan City, the townsfolk had what at times seemed to be a losing battle with wind and wave-born sand which clogged the entry to Trail Creek, stifling their plans to make their city the important hub of maritime commerce of their dreams.

The first steps towards federal harbor improvements at the river mouth were undertaken in 1836, when $20,000 was appropriated to begin the work. With additional appropriations increasing the available funding to $110,000 by 1839, the Topographical Engineers completed the erection of a pair or parallel timber crib piers on each side of the river mouth. With the river thus opened up to greater commerce, the citizenry of Michigan City was looking forward to boom times, and in that first year alone, 150 barrels of whiskey, 50 barrels of cider and vinegar, 50 barrels of apples, 7,887 bushels of salt, 1.344 bushels of bulk goods, and 1,105 tons of merchandise were shipped into the harbor, and vessels departed loaded with wheat, corn, barley, oats, rye, pork, lard, flour and butter.

While a government dredge had been assigned to the harbor, it appeared as though it was of little advantage, as the depth of water between the piers had decreased to the point that it was barely sufficient to float a scow into the river by 1842. After an additional appropriation of $10,000 in 1844, the piers were extended further into the lake, and through frequent dredging a minimum navigable depth of seven feet throughout the entrance was maintained. However, it was clear that continued extension of the piers would afford insufficient protection, and the Engineers recommended an appropriation of $177,000 for the erection of a 1,000-foot breakwater outside the pier entrance to both retard sand deposition and serve as a harbor of refuge to mariners during storms out on the lake. Reticent to appropriate the full sum, Congress did approve an expenditure of $20,000 for harbor improvements at Michigan City in 1852, and work on rebuilding and further extension of the piers began the following year.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the entrance between the new piers a considerable distance from the Michigan City Lighthouse at the river mouth, the Lighthouse Board decided that a pierhead beacon would be needed to mark the entry, and an appropriation of $2,000 was made to this end on August 3, 1854. However, with the work still far from completion, installation of the light was postponed until completion of pier construction, and the appropriation was returned to the Treasury, and with the outset of the Civil War in 1861, the Engineers were called to battle, and work on the harbor came to a grinding halt.

Not content to sit back and allow the work on their harbor to languish for an undetermined period of time, local business interests formed the Michigan City Harbor Company, and with a stock capitalization of $300,000 in stock, approached the federal government to receive permission to build atop the existing piers in order to continue the harbor improvements in accordance with Engineer's plan. Congress not only gave approval to the endeavor, but appropriated an additional $75,000 for the project, but insisted on making the availability of the funds contingent on the Harbor Company's proving that it had expended a minimum of $100,000 of its own operating capital on the works.

While the Harbor Company was able to meet the demands of the contingency in June of 1867, with the war over, the company was reticent to continue expenditure of its own funds, and instead turned to applying all possible pressure on the Federal Government to complete the work. On behalf of the Company, the Indiana General Assembly passed a resolution on February 1, 1869 that Congress be "respectfully requested to make such an appropriation as may be necessary to complete the harbor at Michigan City." Additionally, Michigan's Senators and Representatives were requested "to vote and use their official influence in favor of passage of said appropriation." Congress responded favorably, assigning Major David C Houston to the task of completing the work, and after conducting a situation assessment in May 1870, Houston concurred that the construction of an outer breakwater was the only real solution, stating that "It seems impossible to maintain the required depth of water at the harbor, except by constant dredging ... and the only remedy seems to be the construction of an outer harbor."

Click to view enlarged imageThus, the Army Corps of Engineers returned to Michigan City in 1870, and with progress underway on extending both piers, the Lighthouse Board again requested an appropriation for establishing a beacon at the outer end of the longer pier on its completion. Funding for the beacon was approved on March 3, 1871, and the structure was erected that fall. Typical of pierhead beacons erected throughout the district, the structure took the form of a 27-foot tall white-painted timber framed pyramid beacon. With its upper section enclosed with clapboard sheathing, a small enclosed room was thus formed within the structure to serve double duty as both a service room and as shelter for the keeper when forced to spend time tending the light in rough weather. Atop this service room, an octagonal iron lantern was centered on a square gallery, and outfitted with a fixed red Sixth Order Fresnel lens. By virtue of the beacon's location atop the timber pier, the lens stood at a focal plane of 32 feet, and was calculated to be visible for a distance of 11 miles in clear weather conditions. The indomitable Harriet Colfax, who had been serving as keeper of the old Michigan City Lighthouse since 1861, now found maintenance of the pierhead light added to her responsibilities, and made her way along the wooden elevated walkway and climbed the wooden ladder within the beacon to exhibit the new light for the first time on the evening of November 20, 1871.

Click to view enlarged imageBy virtue of its location at the eastern foot of the lake, Michigan City was subject to numerous storms, and one can only imagine the sight represented by this diminutive lady making her was out to service the pierhead beacon in tempestuous weather. In typically stoic terms a number of Miss Colfax's station log entries tell of her difficulties, such as on September 18, 1872 when she reported "Cold day. Heavy NW gale towards night. The waves dashing over both piers, very nearly carrying me with them into the lake," and again on September 29, when she wrote "Wind blowing a westerly gale all day and still rising at 5 PM. Four vessels entered while the gale was at its height & ran against the elevated walk, breaking it in again. Went to the beacon tonight with considerable risk of life."

By 1875, the west pier had been extended 800 feet beyond the east pier to help shelter the opening from prevalent westerly winds, and a lighthouse crew arrived and relocated the elevated walk across the channel and re-erected it on the west pier along with 800 feet of new walk extending to shore. With completion of work on the elevated walk, the beacon itself was loaded on a scow, and carried across the channel and erected at the outer end of the pier and connected to the elevated walk. This was no doubt a less than enjoyable change for Harriet, as the main lighthouse was located across the channel on the east shore, and thus she was forced to row her boat across the channel to service the beacon every night. The following year, the entire beacon was painted inside and out, and repairs made to the elevated walk after it had been damaged by an unnamed vessel entering the harbor the previous winter.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1882, work was well underway on erecting the 1,200 foot long timber crib east breakwater, and plans for the harbor were further modified to include a 700-foot long detached breakwater to the northwest of the pierhead entrance in a further attempt to stem sand deposition. As a result of a major gale on the night if October 14, 1886, the pierhead beacon was ripped from the pier and destroyed by the crashing waves. Deciding against reestablishment of the beacon, the elevated walkway was removed from the west pier in 1891 and was shipped by the Army Corps of Engineers to Ludington, where it was reassembled on the south pier in that harbor. With frequent changes underway, the Lighthouse Board and Army Corps of Engineers reached an agreement whereby the Engineers would maintain a series of four tubular lanterns on posts throughout the breakwater construction, thereby facilitation frequent relocation of the lights as sections of breakwater were completed.

With completion of the new outer east pierhead in sight, the Lighthouse Board determined that the establishment of a first-class fog signal at its outer end, and new beacons to mark the ends of the west pierhead and breakwater would serve as valuable aids to mariners, and thus a request for an appropriation of $5,500 was included in the Board's annual report of 1894 for their erection. Without Congressional action, the request was reiterated in each subsequent annual report for the following five years. Congress finally responded to the Board's repeated requests on June 6, 1900. when an act was approved for establishing the new aids and immediately followed up with the necessary appropriation. With the Engineers still working on the outer end of the new breakwater, the work was postponed for two years until the fall of 1903, when Ninth District Lighthouse Engineer Major General Warren approved the detailed plans and specifications for the new structures.

The required metal work for the three structures was delivered to the lighthouse depot in Milwaukee over that winter, and after loading in the lighthouse tender HYACINTH, was delivered to Michigan City in June 1904, where a large work crew was waiting to help unload the materials and begin construction. Over that summer, work in the harbor reached a feverish pace as the construction crew worked on erecting the three new structures and undertaking significant modifications to the old dwelling.

Click to view enlarged imageThe new East Pierhead fog signal and light tower consisted of a 24' square structure built of 3/16" steel plates standing 14' 10" tall at the eaves. Within this structure, a pair of horizontal boilers manufactured by Kingsford Foundry in Oswego, New York were installed and equipped with a cam activated Crosby automatic timing apparatus to sequence the signals to attain the designated characteristic. Developing an operating pressure of 100 psi, the boilers were connected to a single 10" locomotive steam whistle located on the lakeward side of the roof, and their exhaust gases evacuated through a single 24" diameter stack which extended up through the roof to a conical rain cap standing 45' 3" above the deck of the timber pier. Centered atop the hipped roof, an octagonal tower of 3/16" thick steel plate was erected containing a set of spiral cast iron stairs with 5 landings rising from the pier deck to the gallery. With an inscribed diameter of 10' 6", the tower contained 4 portholes of 14 " diameter to allow light into the structure, and was capped with 7' 1" diameter circular iron lantern with diagonal astragals. A cast iron pedestal was erected at the center of the lantern, and prepared to receive the Fifth Order Fresnel lens from the old main light on completion of the construction. The entire building and tower were given a coat of buff-colored paint with the exception of the lantern, which was painted black to help it serve as a more effective day mark.

Click to view enlarged imageThe new structure on the west pierhead took the form of a buff painted cylindrical tower, which was a virtual duplicate of the tower which had been erected at South Haven the previous year. Standing 8' in diameter at the base, the structure tapered to a diameter of 7' beneath the gallery, and was built of pre-formed steel plates which progressively reduced in thickness from 5/16" at the base to " below the gallery. Four 14 diameter porthole widows located beneath the gallery allowed light to enter, guiding the way up the steel stairs and ladder contained within. Atop the circular gallery, a black painted decagonal iron lantern 7' in diameter housed a 5-day lens lantern equipped with a ruby glass chimney to impart a red characteristic to the light. Centered atop the lantern roof, a spherical cast iron ventilator ball stood 27' 9" above the timber pier, and was capped with a titanium-tipped lightning conductor.

To mark the end of the breakwater adjacent to the harbor entry, a simple square concrete post was erected and topped by a fixed red 5-day lens lantern.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the old lighthouse building would no longer be needed to serve as an aid to navigation, with three keepers planned to manage the aids at the station, the old structure underwent a complete modification to convert it into a triplex dwelling, with 4 rooms for the head keeper and 3 rooms for each of his two assistants. As part of the reconfiguration, porches were added on each side of the building and the bricks of the upper floor were covered with dark green painted shingles. A coal shed and double privy were erected to the rear of the station and concrete walks poured to connect the station buildings. Thomas J. Armstrong, who had been serving as keeper of the South Manitou Light Station for the past ten years accepted a transfer as the station's new keeper, and Harriet Colfax officially retired from lighthouse service on October 13, after 43 years as the steward of the Michigan City light station. The Fifth Order lens was removed from the lantern and reestablished atop the new East Pierhead light and fog signal, and all three of the new lights officially exhibited for the first time on the evening of October 20, 1904. No longer serving any purpose, the square wooden tower and lantern atop the dwelling were removed, and the building re-roofed.

Click to view enlarged imageDuring a particularly devastating storm in the late winter of 1905 - 1906, a large section of the outer east pier was completely obliterated, leaving a gaping hole in structure, the west pierhead light was inundated and pushed off its foundation and into the harbor, forcing the keepers to make their was out to the fog signal by way of the station boat. On the opening of the 1906 navigation season, a lighthouse crew arrived at the station and erected a temporary post at the end of the west pier from which a lens lantern was installed until the cylindrical beacon could be retrieved and re-erected later that year, and until the Army Corps of Engineers could effect a permanent repair to the devastated east pier, a temporary 400-foot long wire cable lifeline was installed to bridge the gap, and the keepers were forced to take a "joy ride" across the gap, seated on a metal seat suspended from the cable by pulleys. While this was likely considered a less than enjoyable experience by the keepers, it was almost certainly safer than attempting to scramble up the face of the east breakwater in heavy seas from their bucking boat. Work on rebuilding the pier was completed in 1907, and 1,000 feet of cast iron elevated walk were erected to replace that which had been destroyed by the storm. 1907 was also likely a memorable year for the keepers at Michigan City, as they toiled to feed 29 tons of coal and 2 cords of wood into the hungry fog signal boilers in order to keep their signal screaming its warning across the lake a station record 275 hours.

Click to view enlarged imageIn yet another violent storm in 1909, the breakwater light was destroyed, and the breakwater thus remaining unmarked until 1911, when a new pyramidal concrete structure was erected in is place. The foundation of the new light consisted of a tank house standing 5' 7" by 7' 9" in plan, above which a four-sided concrete structure stood 5' square at the base and tapered to 2' 6" square at its upper level 16 feet above the foundation. Atop the tower at a 32-foot focal plane, a 50-candlepower 200 mm American Gas Accumulator buoy lantern and sun valve was installed, visible for a distance of 16 miles in clear weather.

In 1917, the color schemes of both the east and west pierhead lights were changed, with the east pierhead fog signal being painted white with a red roof and the west pierhead beacon painted red with a black lantern. Also on May 17 of this year, the west pierhead beacon was converted to acetylene power, with its characteristic changed to a red flash of one second duration followed by an eclipse of 5 seconds.

Click to view enlarged imageMunicipal electricity was run out along the east pier in 1933, allowing the automation of the fog signal through the installation of a Cunningham air whistle and the replacement of the oil vapor lamp in the Fifth Order Fresnel with a 5,000 candlepower incandescent electric light bulb.

Strapped for funds and the necessary manpower to maintain the obsolete iron elevated walkway in the east pier, the Coast Guard began considering removal of the structure in the mid 1980's. Learning of the possibility that the historic walkway might be removed, concerned Michigan City citizens were successful in having the walkway listed on National Register of Historic places in 1988. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Coast Guard offered to donate the walkway to the City in 1991, and in 1994 the city launched a fund raising campaign to raise the necessary funds for restoration of the structure.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all the keepers of the Michigan East Breakwater  Light compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Finding this Light

Take 421 North into Michigan City, through downtown and to the Lakeshore. As 421 intersects with Lakeshore Drive, continue North into the park. The old shore lighthouse museum is to the left, and the pier light is to the east and approximately 1/4 mile further north around the Marina.


Reference Sources

Annual reports if the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, various, 1839 - 1852
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1853 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1910 1929
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1849 1958
Journals of the US Congress, various, 1834 1876
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Association, various, 1911 1944
Those Army Engineers, John W Larson, 1979
Women Who Kept The Lights, Mary Louise and J Candace Clifford, 1993
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research


This page last modified 08/01/2005

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