Sunday, March 1, 2020

Lost Towns of Illinois - Port Clinton, Illinois and the Story of the Port Clinton Lighthouse.

The town of Port Clinton, Illinois had been laid out by Jacob Clinton Bloom in January 1850. At that time the area was mostly forest with few settlers although there was a steam-powered sawmill owned by Mr. Bloom located on the shore of Lake Michigan just north of Highland Park, and a 620-foot pier extending into the lake. Mr. Bloom had the only contract to supply over 200,000 board feet of road planking to the City of Chicago. Bloom was also a highly respected land developer in the State of Illinois.

A post office was established in 1850, and a mail wagon express. It was said that the postmaster slept with the mailbag under his bed, and his gun under his pillow.

If the Port Clinton Lighthouse (1856-1859) was still standing today, it would be situated along the shores of Lake Michigan in a Chicago suburb known today as Fort Sheridan, Illinois. The actual placement of the lighthouse was at the junction, known today as Oak Street and Walker Avenue, just east of Sheridan Road at the lakefront. 
The Port Clinton area was growing in population and by January 1851 it had reached more than 100 residents. Shortly thereafter the Port Clinton Land Company was formed and the men behind that company began to look for ways to promote the area. They decided to promote freight and lumber shipments to various ports on Lake Michigan.

From all accounts, the pier took less than a year to build and soon there was minor shipping traffic running in and out of the newly formed harbor. Port Clinton was a mixed bag of trades and people that consisted of a steam-powered sawmill, a lathe, skilled artisans and a few stores of various kinds. Life in a fledgling town was hard, but those who lived there held their own through the worst of times. 

If Port Clinton were to become a major shipping port it would need a lighthouse and better roads. The politicians in the area were contacted and freshman Congressman Elihu Washburne introduced a bill on De­cember 6, 1853 providing for a lighthouse at Port Clinton. Washburne was also a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee. On August 3, 1854, the United States Congress authorized $5000 ($155,640 today) to build the lighthouse.

During this period other events were taking place that would severely affect the future of Port Clinton. In Chicago, efforts were underway to create the Chicago and Milwaukee railroad. Many political leaders were buying property along the proposed rail route and in particular, Mr. Walter S. Gurnee was buying extensive properties in the area of Highland Park located just south of Port Clinton. 

By 1854 Mr. Gurnee had become the president of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad and had gained con­trol of the development of its route near Highland Park. Gurnee forced the railroad to build a freight station in Highland Park, very near the property he owned and forbad even a passenger stop in Port Clinton to be built. 

After the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad had established the station to the south in Highland Park, an effort was made by the Port Clinton Land Company to build a town in its vicinity. Among the stockholders of the company appeared the names of many of the substantial businessmen of that time, and all were Chicago residents. One of these men was Gurnee, who ultimately purchased all the stock of the company becoming the sole owner of its property.

Meanwhile, in Port Clinton, plans were going forward for the lighthouse. On January 16, 1855, a Deed from the Port Clinton Land Co. was given to the U.S. Government for 1½ acres of land for the lighthouse at no cost. Later on February 13, 1855, the State of Illinois formally ceded jurisdiction of this land to the U.S. Government. On April 3, 1855, the deed was received by the Department of the Treasury's Lighthouse Board and was sent to the Attorney General for approval. The Lighthouse Board received a letter certifying the validity of tide to the lighthouse site at Port Clinton on April 30, 1855, and in June the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board reported that a contract to build the Port Clinton, Illinois lighthouse had been created. Finally, on September 15, 1855, the contract to build the Port Clinton Lighthouse was signed with David Shook, a contractor from the Detroit area. The amount of the contract was $3350 with the U.S. Government to supply the illuminating equipment at no cost. A brickyard was started.

By 1856, Port Clinton built a plank road, Half-Day Road (Rt.22), going westbound to perhaps as far as the Des Plaines River. On May 21, 1856, the Lighthouse Board told Captain Sitgraves, the 11th District Inspector, to go ahead with the building of the Port Clinton Lighthouse and the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board reported that the lighthouse authorized at Port Clinton, Illinois had been completed on June 15, 1856. Later in June, the new lighthouse was inspected, found to be satisfactory, and the inspector recommended that the builder's contract be paid.
The only known photograph of the Port Clinton lighthouse taken shortly before the structure was demolished (circa 1890).
The design of the Port Clinton Lighthouse was as follows: The main dwelling was built of red brick and was twenty-four feet square and 1½ stories tall. It had a total of six rooms and a slate roof. The cylindrical tower was twenty-one feet tall to the base of the cast-iron lantern, which had ten sides. There was an oil storage room with two oil butts at its base and a watch room just below the lantern. The watch room and lan­ tern were each reached by iron ladders. The illuminating equipment consisted of a 6th order Fresnel Lens covering 180° showing a white light. The illumination came from a fountain lamp that burned whale oil and there was a spare lamp on site. In addition, the lighthouse stood on a high bluff above the waters of Lake Michigan. The combined height of the bluff and the tower placed the focal plane of the lens at 70 feet above the surface of the lake.

Several local men were proposed for the keeper's position at the Port Clinton Lighthouse and on July 1, 1856, Mr. Owen Monaghan was selected as the keeper. The light­ house began operations in July 1856; however, there were almost immediate calls for it to be shut down. With a railroad freight station close by in Highland Park, it was felt by many that the shipping port at Port Clin­ ton was useless. Of course, Mr. Gurnee and the other railroad men helped to foster these ideas. In addition, the roads in the area were not improved and extended to Port Clinton as had been planned, and its harbor remained just a small lumber shipping port.

By April of 1859, the calls for the closing down of the Port Clinton Lighthouse were too numerous to be ignored and the Lighthouse Board began deliberations concerning its closure along with the closure of several other lights. Finally, on June 6, 1859, the Lighthouse Board decided that Port Clinton was to be discontinued. Keeper Monaghan was asked to submit receipts for all costs as­ sociated with the closure. Notices to mariners on the Great Lakes were sent out indicating that the light would be discontinued as of the first of August 1859. The lighthouse illuminating equipment and lantern were removed and sent to the 11th District Depot in Detroit. Just eleven days later, the first petition arrived at the Lighthouse Board pleading that the light be restored.

The light remained closed and the former keeper Monaghan was allowed to live in the lighthouse dwelling as a caretaker and later as a renter. With the lantern having been removed, Mr. Monaghan built a wooden eight-sided enclosure on the stub of the tower to keep out the elements. On May 21, 1866, the Lighthouse Board received a letter indicating that former Port Clinton keeper Owen Monaghan had moved away and had left a Mr. Martin Connerton in charge. Mr. Connerton was allowed to rent the property until December 12, 1867, when the 11th District appointed a new custodian.

In 1867 a special charter was granted to the Highland Park Building Company by Act of the Illinois General Assembly, and a corporation was organized. Mr. Walter S. Gurnee sold the Port Clinton Land Company and its properties and assets to the Highland Park Building Company. 

During this period the town of Port Clinton was in serious decline as was the pier and harbor. At the same time, Highland Park was growing rapidly and the railroad was now carrying both freight and passen­gers. Port Clinton merged into Highland Park during the period between 1865 and 1869 and the town of Highland Park was incorporated on March 11, 1869.

The question now was what to do with the former lighthouse and its 1½ acre property. In 1870 and again in 1872, the Lighthouse Board received inquiries about purchasing the property. Early in October 1872, the 11th District engineer recommended that the property be sold at auction and on October 10, 1872, the Lighthouse Board gave its authority for the auction to be held the following summer. Starting on July 2, 1873, and for the following thirty consecutive days, the advertisement shown below was placed in the prominent newspapers in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas.
Office of Lighthouse EngineerEleventh District Detroit MichiganJuly 2, 1873

Sale of Sites of discontinued lighthouses at Port Clinton and Taylorsport, Illinois.

In accordance with instructions from the Treasury Department, I will sell at public auctions to the highest bidder at Highland Park, Illinois on Wednesday the 6th of August 1873 at 10:30 am, the sites of the above mentioned discontinued lighthouses. The Port Clinton site will be sold first and the Taylorsport site immediately thereafter. Both sites on the west shore of Lake Michigan the former opposite Highland Park Station and the latter near Glencoe Station on the Chicago and Northwest Railway. On both sites, there is a small substantial brick dwelling, formerly occupied by the lightkeepers. The former site contains about one and one-half acres, the latter about two acres.

The terms of the sale are cash in U.S. or National Bank currency before the bid is accepted.

G. WeitzelMajor of Engineers USAEngineer 11th Lighthouse District
On August 6, 1873, the lighthouse property at Port Clinton was sold at auction to Mr. Michael Meehan for $750.00. On the following day, Mr. J. D. Ward and Mr. C. B. Farwell wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury strongly complaining about the sale. They said the sale had not been well advertised, that the government agent holding the sale would only accept cash, that the sales price received was too low and that others at the auction would have paid $1000 or $1500 to buy the property, but did not have that much cash with them and only had their personal checks.

The letter was passed to the Lighthouse Board, which then asked Major Godfrey Weitzel to make a full report. Weitzel was upset! He created a fourteen-page report refuting each of the claims. He became so incensed that he asks for, and was granted, permission by the War Department to demand an apology from both of the men who wrote the letter.

The Lighthouse Board was satisfied that the auction was properly held and on September 12, 1873, they created a title deed for the property and forwarded it to the buy­ er, Mr. Meehan. This was the last official government Act related to the Port Clinton Lighthouse. The lighthouse building was converted into a private residence and was later demolished around 1900.

Time has marched right pass the Port Clinton Lighthouse. Its short four-year life is a footnote in history. The State of Illinois let this lighthouse pass away into the dark abyss of time. What a tragedy and loss of history to those who once called the town of Port Clinton, Illinois home!

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. I believe the lighthouse was at Boardway and Port Clinton rd., which is now Edgecliff and Sheridan rd. There is a natural ravine there which makes access to the beach and Port Clinton Pier easy. This location was mentioned 50 yrs. ago in the Highland Park Centennial book. You have the lighthouse at Walker ave and Oak st. which would be where the St.Johns settlement would have been. St. Johns preceeded Port Clinton. It would be the S.E. corner of Ft. Sheridan. It was farms and a Brick factory. The Owners had 3 boats to haul bricks. One of reason that settlement failed was that one of the boats sank filled with bricks and the owners could not pay his bills or employees. Both both Port Clinton and St.Johns demise was helped by the cholera epidemic the hit the two settlements and the City of Chicago.


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