Gary Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Gary Harbor, Indiana Home Back

Gary 01 Terry Pepper
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Historical Information 

Formed in 1901 as an amalgamation of Carnegie Steel, Federal Steel and a number of other small companies, the alumni of the Pittsburgh based US Steel Corporation were a veritable “Who’s Who” of American Industry.  Created by J. P. Morgan, Elbert H and Andrew Carnegie, with Charles M. Schwab serving as its first President, within four years of its founding, the company was experiencing meteoric growth, with its eye on dramatically expanding its operations.

Elbert H GaryWith a need to locate close to a harbor to receive ore, coal and limestone, to rail lines to ship finished product, and to a population center which could fill the numerous jobs the new mills would create, it quickly became evident that the area around Chicago provided the key to the company’s growth potential. However, water front property in the Chicago area was virtually nonexistent and prohibitively expensive in those rare cases in which it became available. Taking a cue from competitor Inland Steel, which had previously purchased unimproved lakeshore to build its base of operations at Indiana Harbor, US Steel Chairman Elbert H. Gary set his sights on the sprawling Indiana dunes two miles to the east of Indiana Harbor as a potential site at which to base its expansion.

Tar papers shacks on Grand CalumetAfter consummating the necessary land purchases in 1905, U. S. Steel formed a subsidiary by the name of Indiana Steel which would be charged with building and operating the new plant. As a result of the completely unimproved nature of the dunes, the formidable task of leveling and preparing the land was already underway in the spring of 1906. With no local accommodations in this virtual wilderness, a village of tar paper shacks quickly sprang up along the shore of the Grand Calumet River to serve as temporary housing for the thousands of workers and their families who swept into the area to help clear the land and build the mills and harbor. Working teams of horses and mules pulling grader blades and wagons, the army of workers made innumerable passes along the dunes to level the hills and valleys, removing many thousands of tons of sand, marshland and vegetation in the process.

Removing the dunesChicago’s Great Lakes Dock and Dredge Company was awarded the contract to build what would become known as Gary Harbor, and while work was underway on shore, a fleet of dredges, barges, tugs and workers, were busy excavating a huge 25-foot deep channel some 5,000 feet long and 250 feet wide into the shoreline to supply the planned compliment of twelve blast furnaces and forty-seven steel furnaces. At the inner end of this huge slip, a 750-foot turning basin, large enough to allow the largest steamers of the day to make a turn, was established. 

To serve as a protection to the channel entrance, two 2,000 foot long parallel piers were erected at its mouth, also with a width of 250 feet between them as an extension to the dredged channel. To serve as a range for vessels approaching the harbor, the outer end of the west pier was lighted with a skeletal iron tower equipped with an acetylene illuminating apparatus at a height of 30 feet above the water, with a second similar structure with its light located at 45 feet above the water some 200 feet to the rear of the pierhead light to serve as the rear range.

Great Lakes Dock and DredgeWith construction of the harbor underway, a subsidiary of Indiana Steel known as the Gary Land Company was formed to plan, lay out, and build both the mills and the town of Gary. The mills and the town were built simultaneously. Broadway Street and Fifth Avenue were designated as the two main thoroughfares, with Broadway running from the south end of town northward toward the main gate of the steel mill. When building the town, workers initially laid out streets and sidewalks, and then began construction of public and commercial structures. In a clear indication of Gary's identity as a “company town,” the city hall and public library were built on Broadway to the north of Fifth Avenue, and immediately facing the main mill entrance.

Down in the harbor, it was soon found that vessels docked within the channel were buffeted by northerly winds, and to further protect in such conditions, two cross-channel piers were erected in order to create a rudimentary stilling basin. The outer cross-channel pier extended 133 feet at a right angle from the east pier, and the inner cross-channel pier extended 160 feet at a right angle from the west pier approximately 790 feet inside the outer cross-channel pier. These cross channel piers left a clear space of 90 feet between the piers for vessels to enter and exit the channel. Minor post lights also graced the end of the west pier and the inner ends of both cross-piers.

The first load of iron oreIn a grand celebration attended by company dignitaries and newspaper men from far and wide, the US Steel owned ore boat E. H. GARY arrived with the first load of ore from the Mesabi mines on July 23, 1908. On December 21st  of that same year, the first blast furnace was fired, and the mill was in operation a little over two years after the first load of sand was cleared from the dunes to make way for the complex.

With U.S. Steel now serving as one of the largest companies in his district, Indiana Congressmen Crumpacker introduced wording into the 1910 River and Harbor Bill through which the federal government was requested to evaluate the harbor at Gary with an eye on taking on responsibility for its future maintenance and lighting. However, in hearings on the bill in Congress that year, it was determined that since the harbor solely served the interests of US Steel and its subsidiaries, it was not in the general interest of area commerce to absorb the harbor, and unless the scheme of development of the harbor were modified so as to permit a more general use, the federal government was not bound to accept any responsibility for its ongoing maintenance.

The new breakwaterThe cross piers proved to be a less than successful solution, and without the prospect of receiving any federal assistance in improving the harbor, over 1910 and 1911 the company had no alternative but to build a substantial breakwater emanating from the western side of the harbor to fully protect the channel from northern seas. Constructed of stone-filled timber cribs, the upper surface of the breakwater was covered in pine boards in order to create a substantial deterrent to waves.

Since vessels would now need to make a sharp turn around the end of the breakwater in order to align themselves for entry into the channel, a new and more substantial light was erected on a concrete base at the breakwater’s outer end. The structure consisted of a maroon-painted, stepped cylindrical tower capped by a Gary Breakwater lightlantern with helical astragals housing a lens lantern at a focal plane of 40 feet above the lake level. Powered by acetylene gas from tanks stored in the base of the tower, the light output 900 candlepower and was automatically lighted at dusk and extinguished at dawn through the use of a sun valve. As was the case with virtually all acetylene lighting systems, the light exhibited a fast flash in order to conserve the expensive gas. Exhibiting a repeated 15.7 second characteristic consisting of a 2 second flash Gary acetylene installationfollowed by a 2.7 second eclipse, a second 2 second flash and an eclipse of 9 seconds, the new Gary Breakwater light was exhibited for the first time on the night of July 5th, 1911. To help provide guidance during thick weather, the structure was also equipped with a six-inch air operated siren which emitted a repeated characteristic of a 2 second blast followed by 28 seconds of silence.

Under Chairman Elbert H. Gary’s stewardship, U.S Steel continued to grow to incredible proportions. By 1916 he was leading a corporate empire with income and resources greater than most countries. For that year alone, the company’s gross receipts topped $1,230,000,000, and employed over 275,000, more than the US army and navy combined.  If laid end-to-end, the company’s fleet of over 100 steamers would stretch over ten miles, and its own railroad lines would have stretched from San Francisco to New York and a couple hundred miles beyond.

US Steel furnacesAs the years passed, U.S. Steel's corporate mission and structure passed through a number of changes. As demand for domestic steel dropped in the 1980s, U.S. Steel went through a major restructuring, diversifying its holdings into the energy and transportation sectors and ultimately adopted the name USX Corporation. In 2001, shareholders voted to separate the steel component of its business from USX and reestablished a new publicly traded company under the original name, U.S. Steel Corporation. After this reorganization, the Marathon Oil Company emerged from former USX energy sector businesses.

Thousand footerU.S. Steel continues to maintain its headquarters in Pittsburgh, and maintains a significant presence among worldwide steel companies. It maintains large-scale production operations in the U.S., Canada and Central Europe, as well as joint ventures in Mexico and South America. In 2007, it was ranked by the World Steel Association as the world’s tenth largest steel producer.

Today, the old 1911 Gary Breakwater light and diaphragm horn receive their power from an electrical conduit which runs out along the concrete breakwater from shore. While certainly not as busy as they were when US Steel reigned as the single largest steel producer in the world, today’s thousand-footers still look for the Gary Harbor light as they seek to make their turn around the breakwater and into the docks in the channel to unload Lake Superior ore for the hungry steel mills.

Seeing this Light

Because the breakwater and lighthouse 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 opportunitis to obtain a good view of this light. Both the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and the United States Lighthouse Society offer infrequent tours of the suth 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:  41°37'49.17"N x  87°19'13.03"W

Reference sources

Hammond Times newspaper, February 12, 1909
Report on the River & Harbor Bill, 1910
Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, various
Report of Hydrographic information for Lake Michigan, 1911
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Asssociation, various
Chicago, Its History & Builders, J Seymour Currey, 1912
Great Lakes Light Lists, various

Copyright Terry Pepper. This page last modified 09-03-2012. 

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