Port Clinton Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Port Clinton, Illinois



Historical Information

The 1850’s were clearly destined to be a decade of unprecedented growth throughout the western Great Lakes. A growing number of vessels were being built to carry lumber from forest to growing cities along the shores. A throng of immigrants were heading along the Erie Canal, through Buffalo to seek new lives on the frontier, and with the planned opening of the new lock at Sault Ste. Marie, shipments of copper, iron and grain would soon be heading down the river from Lake Superior bound for Chicago, Detroit and the growing industrial centers in the east. To take advantage of this burgeoning population and trade potential, speculators and investors were searching throughout the area for locations in which to establish new towns, each of them firmly convinced that their infant communities would become the “next Chicago.” 

It was such a dream that brought German immigrants John Hettinger and John Peterman to a high bluff approximately 23 miles north of Chicago in 1847 where they platted their community of St. John. Although over the following three years they established a brickyard and a 450-foot pier on the lakeshore, a lack of connecting roads to the north and south barred the town's growth, and they sold their interests in the town to John Clinton Bloom in 1850. Bloom immediately renamed the town as "Port Clinton" in his own honor, and seeking to capitalize on the seemingly endless forests to the west, Bloom and his partners set up large sawmill which by 1853 was supplying lumber to fuel the Chicago building boom.

Likely as a result of political pressure applied by Bloom and his associates to provide an air of permanence and importance to their harbor, US Representative Elihu B. Washburne introduced a bill before Congress calling for the establishment of a lighthouse at Port Clinton on December 6, 1853. After further pressure from fellow Illinois Congressman Stephen A. Douglas in pushing the matter over the ensuing year, Congress was finally convinced to pass an appropriation of $5,000 for the construction of a lighthouse at Port Clinton on August 3rd 1854.

A contract for construction was awarded in 1855, and the work completed the following year. The station took the form of a small but substantial 1 ½-story brick dwelling with a cylindrical brick tower connected at the center of its lakeward gable end. Capped by an octagonal cast iron lantern housing a fixed white Sixth Order Fresnel lens, the center of the lantern stood 22 feet above the tower’s foundation. By virtue of its location atop a 52-foot bluff, the light featured a focal plane of 70 feet, and was visible for 6 nautical miles in clear weather.

While Bloom continued to develop the area, building a grain elevator and laying plank roads leading west into the wheat fields and south to Chicago, a devastating outbreak of cholera in the area in 1854 killed off many of the town’s occupants. After tracks were laid into the area by the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, a much faster and less expensive means for transporting area goods to the Windy City was provided. As such, Port Clinton never grew to reach its expected potential, and coming to the realization that the four year old lighthouse was in reality serving no maritime commerce, the Lighthouse Board closed the station in 1860.

The combination of the spreading growth of nearby Chicago and the existence of ready railroad transportation redefined the area over the ensuing decades. Renamed Highland Park, the area that was once Port Clinton developed into a residential bedroom community and resort area, with fine homes and hotels springing up to serve Chicago’s gentry.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

Unfortunately there is no trace left of this short-lived lighthouse. From all accounts, the B’nai Torah synagogue is located in the location on which the old lighthouse used to stand.

Reference Sources

House Journal - December 6, 1853
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board 1855, 1856 & 1860
List of Lighthouses, Lighted Beacons and Floating Lights of the United States 1857
Treasury Department Annual Report for 1858
Historical Sketch of Highland Park, Blanche Mason. 1919
Creating Chicago’s North Shore, Michael H. Ebner. 1988

Copyright Terry Pepper. This page last modified 09/29/2012 

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