Waukegan Harbor Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Waukegan, Illinois Home Back

Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image

Historical Information

The Little Fort Light station was established in 1849, but as a result of the use of shoddy materials and inferior workmanship, it was already found to need significant repairs a year after construction. In 1852,
William B. Snowhook, the Collector and Superintendent of the Eleventh District found the brick on the tower to be so badly decayed that he recommended that a pierhead light be built on the breakwater under construction in the harbor, and the Little Fort Light be demolished.

It would appear that Snowhook's recommendation was well received, since in 1860 Congress only approved $1,000 for the Lighthouse Board to keep the Little Fort Light shining, but appropriated $10,500 for the Army Corps of Engineers to construct an iron pierhead beacon on the end of the breakwater on its completion.

Without the type of long-term repairs recommended by Miller ten years previously, the brick of the old tower had continued to deteriorate, reaching the point at which its continued survival was in serious doubt. With a mere $1,000 appropriation available, the Eleventh District Engineer was forced to seek a considerable less expensive alternative to keep the light shining until the new breakwater light's completion. Conducting a complete survey of the station's structures, it was found that the keeper's dwelling was still in excellent condition, and thus a wooden tower with a standard octagonal cast iron lantern was constructed at the apex of its roof in 1860. With the relocation of the lens from the old brick tower, the new temporary Light was placed in service, and the old brick tower was demolished.

Subsequent changes and additions in the harbor plan continued to delay the construction of the breakwaters, and with the Little Fort keeper's dwelling continuing to serve as the only light for the harbor, 1867 saw the construction of new outbuildings at the station, and replacement of the roof in 1870.

Unbelievably, the arrival of 1880 saw the Army Corps of Engineers still busy in the harbor, and without an apparent end in the work, it appeared that the "temporary" installation of the light atop the keeper's dwelling was fast becoming a permanent arrangement. Since the town of Waukegan was now encroaching on the station reservation on the bluff, a picket fence was constructed around the entire reservation to provide security.

Finally, in 1898, work on the breakwaters was drawing to a close, and a temporary iron post supporting a white lens lantern was erected at the outer end of the north breakwater. With the construction of a small lamp cleaning building on the pier to provide keepers with a protected area in which to perform the constant maintenance required of the illuminating apparatus, this new light was exhibited for the first time on the night of August 10, 1898. The characteristic of this post light was subsequently changed to red in October, and finally on December 31, 1889 the "temporary" Fifth Order light installed on the Little Fort Keepers dwelling twenty years previous was permanently discontinued.

Click to view enlarged imageThat same year, bids were advertised for the fabrication and erection of a permanent iron tower on the south pier, and a contractor was selected for the work. The old Little Fort lighthouse reservation was surveyed, and the entire reservation, with the exception of the area along the water front and the station buildings were purchased by the city of Waukegan at public auction on June 20, 1899. The iron work was delivered to Waukegan on June 29, along with an unused Fourth Order lantern which had been in storage at the Detroit Depot.

A base of bags filled with concrete was constructed at the end of the pier and a concrete foundation sixteen by fifteen feet in plan, and six and a half feet high was cast upon the bag foundation to receive the tower. The following year, the circular cast iron tower was finally erected on the concrete foundation constructed the year before at the end of the south pier. Painted white, and crowned with a circular lantern with diagonal astragals, the lantern was outfitted with Fourth Order Fresnel lens with a characteristic of fixed white for twenty seconds followed by four red flashes, each at five second intervals. Standing 35 feet from the base to the top of the ventilator ball, the "sweet spot" of the lens sat at a focal plane of 36 feet above high water, and was visible for a distance of 13 miles. Appearing in official Light Lists as the "Waukegan Harbor Light," the light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of August 31, 1899.

Click to view enlarged imageSince the breakwater was frequently inundated with waves crashing across its surface, an elevated walk 400 feet in length was constructed from the tower towards the shore, and 45 wrought iron posts and 1,075 feet of braided cable were installed along the center of the pier from the shore to the elevated walkway to provide a measure of security to the keepers making their way to service the light. With work on the light complete, the temporary post light on the north pier was discontinued.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Corps of Engineers was laying plans for additional dredging of the harbor in order to make it accessible to the larger vessels now plying the lakes, and extending the piers almost 1,500 feet further to provide enhanced harbor protection. With this decision to extend the piers, it became immediately evident to the Lighthouse Engineers that the iron tower would need to be relocated to the new pierhead, since it's present location would leave it sitting almost 1,400 feet from the end of the pier, and thus would no longer serve as an effective aid to navigation. At this time, the District Engineer had been considering the construction of a fog signal on the pier, to serve as a warning to mariners during the thick fogs which frequently blanketed the area. Realizing that the construction of such a signal plant coincident with the tower relocation would be advantageous, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $10,000 for the project in its 1902 annual report.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the requested appropriation made by Congress in 1904, the District Engineer set about determining the type fog signal station that would best suit the situation. With work recently completed on an iron two story combined keepers dwelling and fog signal station on the pier at Kewaunee, and that same plan currently being duplicated across the lake on the south pier at Holland, the decision was made to use the same plan here at Waukegan. Bids for the metal work, fog-signal equipment and oil engines were advertised, and contracts awarded for their fabrication and installation.

In order to have the minimum effect on navigation, the work of lifting the cast iron tower from the pier, and relocating it approximately 1,400 feet to the outer end newly completed pier extension was undertaken during the late winter of 1905, with the light reestablished and exhibited from its new location on the night of February 7. Also on this night, a red lens lantern was displayed from a skeleton steel tower at the end of the north breakwater to delineate the opening into the harbor.

Click to view enlarged imageOver 1906, the new two story fog signal building with two distinctive gables, was constructed on the pier immediately behind the iron tower, with access to the tower from both its first and second floors. The fog signal plant consisted of a pair of sirens operated by compressed air, supplied by a pair of diesel powered air compressors. While only one siren was operated at a time, the second unit was installed as a back-up in case of failure, since once such stations were established, mariners came to rely on their being there when the weather thickened. The need for the fog signal was quickly validated, as the sirens operated 442 hours in that first year, their diesel engines consuming 804 gallons of oil to keep the sirens screaming their warning across the lake.

Other than general maintenance and upgrading of illuminating and fog signal apparatus, the station stood on the pier in relatively unchanged condition for the following sixty years.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the adoption of RADAR, radio beacons and Loran-C, the station became virtually obsolete In 1960's, and in 1967, for reasons that we have as yet been unable to determine, the entire structure caught fire. While the thick cast iron of the tower was virtually undamaged, the fog signal and lantern were virtually destroyed, and no longer serving as an active fog signal station, the lantern and fog signal building were removed and demolished. The lantern-less tower was capped with a flat steel "lid" to prevent water from entering, and the top capped with a green acrylic lens.

Photographs taken soon after the fire show the tower as being painted completely white, however today it sports a bright green painted belly band, likely to increase its effectiveness as a day mark against the backdrop of the city of Waukegan. While many visitors walk the pier to look at the stubby tower today, it is unlikely that many have any concept of the impressive and vital structure of which this tower was an integral part at the turn of the twentieth century.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Take Grand Avenue (Hwy 132) east into Waukegan until you reach Pershing. Turn south onto Pershing and proceed approximately 1/4 mile to Madison St. Turn east on Madison, and look for Government Pier on the right. Park in the area, and walk out the pier to the light.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1953-1912.
Great Lakes Light Lists, 1861 - 1953.
Annual reports of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, 1909-1939.
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1909-1953.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/01/2007

Home Back

This page last modified 12/01/2007