About that Chicago Harbor Lighthouse...

Posted on August 05, 2016

If you have ever cruised with us, you likely have seen the lighthouse that stands almost directly east of the Chicago Lock, where the Chicago River and Lake Michigan meet. However, did you know lighthouses have been a prominent part of Chicago’s history since the 1800’s? In fact, the lighthouse you see today was actually the third lighthouse built in Chicago.

The first lighthouse was constructed at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831, but soon collapsed. It was replaced in 1832 and the new lighthouse stood near Fort Dearborn on land. As Chicago continued to grow as an important industrial city, the small lighthouse soon became inadequate as the smoke from the factories obscured the light. 

Drawing of Chicago's first lighthouse, courtesy of Lighthouse Friends

The city then chose to erect a lighthouse to the north in Evanston, called the Grosse Point lighthouse. This lighthouse still stands today.

Grosse Point Lighthouse in Evanston, IL

Following the waning performance of the 1832 lighthouse, a second one was built called Chicago Pierhead Lighthouse. Unfortunately, both of these structures became obsolete after the expansion of the lakeshore at the end of the 1800’s. Interestingly enough, the Chicago Pierhead Lighthouse has a new home in Rawley Point, Wisconsin and is now named the Rawley Point Light.

Rawley Point Light; Photo credit: Brian Penberthy

All of this expansion on the Lake Shore led to the construction of a new lighthouse named Chicago Harbor Light in 1893, just in time for the Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. The structure was built with several levels, a concrete base, two red roofed buildings with a white cylinder between them, and finally topped with the light itself. The award-winning lens inside of the lighthouse was on display during Chicago’s World Fair as it was originally produced for a lighthouse in San Diego by Frenchman Henri Le Paute.

Chicago Harbor lighthouse

After the World’s Fair concluded, Chicago went through a drastic city-wide transformation. Lake Michigan was not overlooked either, as the City decided to renovate the breakwater system just outside the lakeshore in 1919. What’s a breakwater system you may ask? It is those lines of rocks you see just outside Lake Shore Drive that help calm, or "break", our waves before they reach the shore. When that happened, our beloved Chicago Harbor Light was relocated to its present site.

Historic Chicago Harbor lighthouse photo; Photo Credit: Ron Wozny

From there, the lighthouse operated for decades safely directing boats with its bright light and sometimes-obnoxious foghorn. As many Chicagoans commented early in the lighthouses years that its foghorn was so loud they could sometimes hear it from their workplaces. As a result, it was replaced with a lower volume horn in order to eliminate disturbing the population.

Surprisingly, the Chicago Harbor Light has also traded many owners over the years from the U.S. Coast Guard to its current owner, the City of Chicago. It even has been given Chicago Landmark status in order to honor its existence. Next time you’re on a cruise with us make sure to look out for this magnificent piece of Chicago architecture and history.