|Fog signal house with a large sound deflector installed in 1901 to reduce disturbance to neighbors.|
The twenty-five-foot bluff on which the lighthouse was built had been known as Grosse Pointe (great point) since French fur trappers frequented the area in the seventeenth century. Explorer and Jesuit Missionary Jacques Marquette recorded camping on “Grosse Pointe” on December 3rd during his 1674 expedition to what would become Chicago.
The PS Lady Elgin (paddle steamer) was a double-decked, wood-hull, sidewheel steamship that sank in Lake Michigan off the fledgling town of Port Clinton, Illinois, whose geography is now in the City of Fort Sheridan, after she was rammed by the schooner Augusta in a Gale in the early hours of Saturday, September 8, 1860. Other shipwrecks occurred off Grosse Pointe during the next decade, spurring the residents of Evanston to petition Congress for a lighthouse.
In 1871, Congress appropriated $35,000 for a lighthouse on Grosse Pointe, and a 100 by 550-foot site was purchased for $1,200. Orlando Metcalfe Poe was appointed Chief Engineer of the Upper Great Lakes Lighthouse District in 1870, and in this capacity designed many of the tall, graceful brick towers that adorn the Great Lakes. Poe drew up plans and specifications for Grosse Pointe Lighthouse in 1872, and after proposals for the construction of the station were solicited by advertisement, they were opened on August 13, 1872. The lowest bid was accepted, and the excavation for the foundations of the tower, covered way, and dwelling commenced in September. By the end of the working season in November, the stonework of the dwelling had been brought up to ground level.
Work resumed the following April, and over a two-month period the brickwork of the dwelling was nearly completed and ninety-one piles were driven to a depth of fifteen feet and overlaid by a four-foot-thick concrete footing to support the tower. By the end of June, the passageway, the stonework for the tower’s foundation, and the outside of the dwelling were nearly completed. During the rest of the year, the 113-foot-tall brick tower, which tapers from a diameter of twenty-two feet at its base to thirteen feet three inches at the parapet, gradually rose above the attached dwelling.
A second-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in Paris by Henry-Lepaute, was installed in the lantern room, and the light was activated on March 1, 1874. Three panels of red glass were slowly rotated around the fixed lens by a clockwork mechanism powered by a sixty-pound weight that was suspended within the tower’s double walls. Click here to see a photograph of Keeper Edwin Moore winding up the weight in the tower’s lantern room. The light’s characteristic was fixed white, varied by a ten-second red flash every three minutes. A second-order Fresnel lens is the largest size ever used on the Great Lakes, and Grosse Pointe’s second-order lens was the first one installed on the lakes and the only one that remains active today.
|Grosse Pointe Lighthouse in 1914.|
The keeper’s duplex stands seventy-three feet west of the tower and had seven rooms in each of its two apartments. The head keeper resided in the south side of the duplex, while the first assistant was given four rooms in the other side, and the second assistant the remaining three rooms. The station originally had just one assistant, but a second was added in 1880 to help with the extra workload caused by the new fog signal.
In 1871, Chicago was America’s busiest port. Despite being closed in the winter, more ships arrived at Chicago than New York and San Francisco combined. The Evanston Index reported in 1885 that 8,787 sailing vessels and 3,566 steam vessels had passed Grosse Pointe during the navigation season. When traveling south on Lake Michigan from the Straits of Mackinac toward Chicago, mariners would steer for Grosse Pointe and then follow the shore to Chicago. Grosse Pointe thus functioned as a landfall light, and in 1880 two buildings were built seaward of the tower to house duplicate steam sirens to help mariners during times of poor visibility. In 1892, ten-inch steam whistles were substituted for the sirens. Between 1885 and 1894, the fog signal, which gave five-second blasts separated alternately by twenty and forty seconds, was in operation an average of 245 hours each year.
On July 26, 1888, Anthony Hagan, head keeper of Grosse Pointe Lighthouse, wrote the following to Inspector C.E. Clark: “Mr. Palmer, 2nd Asst., quit work at 10:30 a.m. as I was cleaning leaves in the Tower and told me that he did not care for the Light-house, now that I am left alone and the Light all upside down, I most respectfully request that Assistant will be sent me that will obey my orders. I shall get the Light in order to light tonight if the fog doesn’t get up.” There must have been more to the story as Keeper Hagan was removed from office less than two weeks later. Edwin J. Moore was appointed head keeper in his place and served at Grosse Pointe for thirty-six years, until his death in 1924 at the age of seventy-three.
Keeper Moore started his lightkeeper career as the second assistant at Grosse Pointe in 1883. He left in 1885 to become the head keeper of Calumet Pierhead Lighthouse, and then returned in 1888 to take charge of Grosse Pointe Lighthouse. According to a newspaper article on March 3, 1924, announcing his death, Keeper Moore’s last thoughts were of his duty. “'Is the light all right, mother?’ he asked his wife as he collapsed from heart failure, a few minutes after he had descended from the 147 foot tower, where he had turned on the light for what was to be the last time.” Keeper Moore was sixty-nine years old when he passed away on March 1, 1924.
In 1934, the station was electrified, and the fog signal was discontinued. These actions allowed the light to be operated by a photoelectric cell, and the last keeper left the station in 1935. With the help of its Congressmen, the City of Evanston acquired the station in 1935 and the tower itself in 1945. The North East Park District, now known as the Lighthouse Park District, manages the site.
Grosse Pointe’s light was discontinued in 1941 when lighted buoys were anchored seven miles offshore. The tower’s Fresnel lens was reactivated in February of 1946 and now serves as a private aid to navigation, showing a group of two flashes every fifteen seconds. During World War II, the lighthouse was used by two physicists from nearby Northwestern University to conduct experiments on photocells for detecting infrared light. Prototypes of these devices were used in advanced radar detection systems to monitor the movements of enemy aircraft.
|Newly completed Grosse Pointe Lighthouse.|
The north side of the duplex houses a museum for visitors and an office for the park district, while a “keeper,” a position held by Don Terras for many years, lives on the south side of the duplex. Grosse Pointe Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999.
1860 – Schooner Augusta rammed the side-wheel passenger steamer Lady Elgin, prompting calls for a lighthouse at Grosse Pointe.
1871 – Congress appropriated $35,000 for the lighthouse.
1872 – Construction began.
1874 – Construction of tower completed.
1881 – Fog signal installed.
1892 – Steam sirens replaced by a steam whistle.
1900 – Oil house built.
1914 – Walls of tower covered with 4” of concrete.
1923 – Lighthouse electrified.
1933 – Fog signal discontinued; photoelectric cell installed in the tower to turn light on automatically.
1934 – Bureau of Lighthouses discontinued the position of Keeper at Grosse Pointe.
1935 – Lighthouse property transferred to the city of Evanston, Illinois who, in turn, leased it to North East Park District.
1941 – Federal government abandoned lighthouse; light extinguished due to WWII.
1942 – Light tower transferred to the city.
1946 – Control of tower given from North East Park District to Evanston Historical Society. Beacon re-lit.
1976 – Lighthouse placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.