Buffington Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Buffington Harbor, Indiana Home Back

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Historical Information 

While it was steel that built the nearby harbors at Gary and Indiana harbor, it was a by-product of the steel making process that served as the nexus for the development of Buffington Harbor.

Everything about the steel making process is immense, and being located at the foot of Lake Michigan, Chicago made the perfect location for steel mills because of its location on the world's largest natural fresh water highway and as central hub of the nation's railway network. When the mills outgrew the confines of Chicago itself, it was no suprise that they cast an eager eye on the empty dunelands to the east, with US Steel developing Gary Harbor in 1905 and Inland Steel following with Indiana Harbor in 1910.

Slag was an inevitable by-product of the smelting process, and to avoid suffocating under its heavy blanket, the steel companies began dumping slag into Lake Michigan to create new land in which to expand. Indiana Harbor serves as the quintessential example of this "slag expansion", with virtually all of the expansive mill property reclaimed from the lake in this manner.

As it happens, slag is not merely a useless by-product, since in combination with powdered limestone it serves as the primary raw material in the manufacture of high quality Portland cement. Already serving as huge consumers of limestone as a flux used in the smelting process, the mills were receiving almost daily shipments of stone from massive quarries throughout northern Michigan, and with a virtually endless supplies of limestone and slag, the manufacture of Portland cement repesented a natural areainto which the steel companies could easily move and eventually dominate.

Illinois Steel opened the first Portland cement operation in 1903. The operation grew quickly and soon spun off as The Universal Cement Company, and growing by leaps leaps and bounds, space around Gary Harbor became a scarce and premium commodity. As had been done by the Steel cmpanies previously, Universal began seeking a location to set up its own harbor to facilitate this expansion, selecting a site between Gary and Indiana Harbor. The name Buffington Harbor was selected in honor of E. J. Buffington, who had been serving as President of Illinois Steel since 1898.

With a total expected cost of $3,000,000, work at Buffington Harbor began in the summer of 1925 with dredging of a sixty-acre deep water turning basin. The eastern side of the harbor was created through the construction of a 2,000 foot long concrete wharf at which vessels would tie-up to unload stone onto a million-ton storage yard atop the wharf. To provide protection from the northwest winds, work began on a 1,200-foot rubble mound breakwater built of limestone cut and shipped from the quarry at Calcite in northern Lake Huron. On completion of the east pier on November 1, 1926 a 1.300 candlepower acetylene pierhead light was exhibited from atop a white skeletal iron tower at the piers outer end.

As work on the breakwater neared completion in early 1927, the company needed a light at its outer end to guide vessels into the harbor, and being a manufacturer of cement, there could be only one choice of material from which to build the structure, and that was concrete.

Designed and constructed under the supervision of engineers of the Universal Portland Cement Company, the new light structure was entirely cast of concrete and stood atop a cylindrical concrete base 30 feet in diameter and three feet thick. Rather than erecting this foundation on a timber crib as was standard practice for the Army Corps of Engineers in breakwater construction, Universal instead incorporated a stone-filled ring of interlocking United States Steel sheet piling driven into the lake bottom twenty-seven feet below to serve as the foundation.

A circular equipment room at the base of the structure housed a compressor for the diaphragm fog signal, and received its power via a submarine cable from shore. This equipment room also housed a pair of acetylene tanks to serve as a backup light in the case of loss of electrical service. The main shaft of the structure atop the mechanical room stood seven feet in diameter and rose to a height of fifty feet and was capped with an octagonal steel lantern. Within the lantern a 4,000 candlepower red incandescent electric lamp was designed to provide a range of visibility of 13 miles in clear weather.

On June 10, 1927, Buffington Harbor officially opened as US Vice President Charles G Dawes arrived to a sixteen gun salute to join Illinois Steel President E. J. Buffington, Universal Portland Cement Company President B. F. Affleck as they raised the flag over the new harbor and toured the facility to watch the company steamer EUGENE J BUFFINGTON unload a ceremonial load of limestone.

In 1995 then owners Lehigh Cement Company sold off most of the harbor to a group of investors who established a pair of floating casinos. Today, while the majority of vessels entering the harbor consist of pleasure boats entering to tie up at the marina while their owners visit the casinos, the Buffington Harbor light still shines from the end of the breakwater.

Seeing this Light

Because the breakwater and light are both on private property, and there are numerous large buildings between any public access areas and the lighthouse, the light is virtually impossible to see from the land. Either a private boat or a vessel chartered from a local fisherman represent the only opportunities to obtain a good view of this light. From time to time both the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and the United States Lighthouse Society offer tours of the south end of Lake Michigan, both of which have always provided great close-up views of this and the other lighthouses of the area.

GPS Coordinates: 4138'45.55"N x  8724'37.28"W

Reference sources

Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, various
Hammond Times newspaper, various
Pittsburgh National Labor Tribune, June 23, 1927
Great Lakes Light Lists, various
Great Lakes Coast Pilots, various

Copyright Terry Pepper. This page last modified 09-01-2012. 

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