Four Chicago Lighthouses

When one thinks of architecture in Chicago, lighthouses might not come to mind.  But Chicago, long a preeminent American port, has an extended history with these vital, vertical structures.

Learning Chicago Lighthouses History

I recently had the opportunity to hear a fascinating talk by Chicago lighthouses expert, Donald J. Terras.  Terras is the author of Grosse Point Lighthouse: Landmark to Maritime History and Culture (Windy City Press, 1996) and Lighthouses of Chicago Harbor: Their History, Architecture and Lore (Windy City Press, 2006).

The first area lighthouse was constructed at the mouth of the Chicago River, years before the city incorporated. The 1831 structure had some problems, though, and soon collapsed.  Its 1832 replacement was forty-feet high and stood near Fort Dearborn. We’d walk right past it on the Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour if it were still standing.

Chicago’s first lighthouse was also the first on the Great Lakes.  As of 1848, there were 59 lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Chicago lighthouses were crucial for navigation; they marked dangerous passageways as well as harbor entry points. Hundreds lined the Great Lakes, but lighthouses became obsolete with modern navigational technology.

The Second Lighthouse

With the opening of the Illinois and Michigan canal in 1848, Chicago became the connecting point between the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi River… and soon, the nation’s busiest port. The first lighthouse quickly proved inadequate for such traffic.

Made of iron and in an octagonal design, the second Chicago lighthouse was built in 1859 out on the end of one of the newly built piers and was intended to be more visible and useful than the old lighthouse, which was by this time relatively hidden behind other structures inland. But the octagonal tower had its challenges, as well: its light was often obscured by the thick smoke from steamers and nearby factories.

The Grosse Point Lighthouse

 

 

Chicago Lighthouses Grosse Point Lighthouse Evanston
The Grosse Point Lighthouse in Evanston. Photo via Wikimedia.

After the Great Fire of 1871, the Lighthouse Board decided to build a substantial masonry lighthouse 13 miles north of Chicago at Grosse Point in Evanston. Completed in 1872, this Grosse Point lighthouse superseded Chicago’s. Ships relied heavily on this navigational aid; once spotting it, they would hug the shore down to the Chicago harbor. The Grosse Pointe lighthouse still stands today and they seasonally offer historical tours.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse

In the 1880s, a breakwater was built to protect Chicago’s harbor. Plans began for a new, powerful lighthouse for the Harbor of Chicago, which, the Lighthouse Board proclaimed, “was the most important on the lakes, with a greater average number of daily arrivals and departures during the season of navigation than any other in the United States…”  The new lighthouse was to stand at the mouth of the river, not far from where the original lighthouse was located.

The city was also preparing to shine before all the world during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The lighthouse was under construction during the World’s Fair, completed just as the Exposition was ending. A state-of-the-art Fresnel lens that had been on display at the Fair was then installed in Chicago’s harbor lighthouse, illuminating for the first time on November 9, 1893. The 1859 iron lighthouse was put out of commission.

A Local Landmark

Chicago lighthouses Harbor Lighthouse 1893
The current Chicago Harbor Lighthouse circa the 1940s. Photo via Wikimedia.

And this 1893 structure is the lighthouse we see in Chicago’s harbor today, now designated a Chicago landmark, and still active, though now automated. The lighthouse was moved and altered in the early 20th century: when the breakwater was extended, it was relocated to its new southern tip in 1918.  Along with its three-story keepers living facilities, a fog signal building and boat house were attached to it.  (An interesting note about the need for a fog signal: according to lighthouse expert, Donald J. Terras, Chicago was once a much foggier place; due to climate change, there is significantly less fog today. Photos of the Chicago lighthouse covered in ice are still frequent though.)

The Chicago lighthouses may be considered among the defining works of architecture that grace our city, though often overlooked in lists of Chicago sightseeing.

For more information about American lighthouses from enthusiasts who’ve ‘done’ them all: Lighthouse Friends

Lighthouse Facebook groups: Lighthouses and United States Lighthouses

And The American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and interpretation of American lighthouses.

— Wendy Bright, Professional Tour Guide

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

be a
curious
person!

SIGN UP FOR OCCASIONAL UPDATES FROM CHICAGO DETOURS.

Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
Robert
GetYourGuide

Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
Heather
TripAdvisor

Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
Lorit
TripAdvisor

Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K
TripAdvisor

Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K
Yelp

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F
Yelp

Book a virtual tour

Fill in your details below