Grosse Point Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Evanston, Illinois Home Back

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Historical Information

Chicago of 1870 was in a state of tremendous industrial growth, and with that growth a pall of thick smoke from the industries around the city enveloped the foot of the lake, making it increasingly difficult for mariners to locate the harbor through the gloom. As part of ongoing harbor improvements, the Army Corps of Engineers had extended the protective piers at the river mouth to a length of over 2,000 feet, exacerbating the task of locating the narrow channel between the piers.

Click to view enlarged imageEvaluating the situation in the spring of 1870, newly appointed Eleventh Lighthouse District Engineer Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe recommended the establishment of a coast light to the north of the city to serve as a leading light to guide mariners towards the harbor entrance. After conducting a survey of the area, the decision was made to locate this new coast light on Grosse Point, a major promontory which lay 13 miles to the north of the harbor, and Poe requested that funding be provided for the station’s establishment in his annual report for that year. Congress evidently concurred with the need for the new light station, as it appropriated $35,000 for construction in March, 1871.

With funding in hand, Poe’s supervised the drafting of plans and specifications for the new station at the Detroit depot, and bids for furnishing the construction and iron work were opened on August 13, 1872. In accordance with Federal policy, the lowest bids were accepted, and contracts were entered into with the appropriate parties immediately. Work at Grosse Point began in September of 1872 with the excavation for the foundations of the tower and dwelling. When weather caused the end of work for the season in November, all of the stonework had been completed to grade level and the necessary drainage tile installed. Work at the site resumed in the beginning of May 1873, with the driving of a tight cluster of 30-foot long oak piles into the earth to serve as a base on which the tower’s concrete and stone foundation would be laid. By the end of June, work on the exterior of the dwelling and a 41-foot long covered way leading to the tower were virtually complete, and plastering of the interior walls and ceilings was well underway. Finding costs of construction to be greater than originally projected, an additional $15,000 was appropriated on March 3, 1873.

Click to view enlarged imageAs work drew to a close towards the end of 1873, the double walled Cream City brick tower stood 113 feet in height, with its 8-inch thick cylindrical inner wall serving as a support for the 141-step cast iron spiral stairway, which wound its way from ground level to the lantern scuttle. The outer wall stood 22 feet in diameter at the foundation, gracefully tapering to a diameter if 13 feet 3 inches at the cast iron gallery, which was supported by 18 gracefully formed cast iron corbels. A circular watch room was centered on the gallery, and topped by a lantern with vertical astragals and outfitted with a huge Second Order Fresnel lens. The lens was manufactured by the Henry-Lepaute Company of Paris. Outfitted with a red flash panel, the lens rotated around a three-wick lamp. Power for the rotating mechanism was provided by a clockwork mechanism with a steel cable which was suspended within the air space between the inner and outer tower walls. The clockwork was carefully adjusted on a daily basis to ensure that the station’s prescribed characteristic fixed white light with a red flash every 3 minutes. Work at the station continued through the winter of 1873 – 1874, with the station completed on March 1, 1874, in readiness for the opening of the navigation season a few weeks later.

Click to view enlarged imageThe following year it was found that the sandy shoreline in front of the station was eroding significantly, and $5,000 was requested to abate the problem. With finding finally available in early 1875, two large protective timber cribs were erected in front of the station in May.

As a result of implementations throughout the lighthouse system, it was determined that the establishment of a fog signal at Grosse Point would serve as a valuable aid to maritime commerce during periods of fog or thick weather. To this end, a pair of buildings, 15 by 12 feet and 20 by 12 feet were erected to the east of the tower in 1880. Standing 15 feet in height, both buildings were outfitted with identical horizontal steam boilers piped to steam-operated sirens located on the lakeward gable end. While only one of the signals would operate at any given time, the second was available to serve as a back up in the event of failure of the primary signal.

After the arrival of a work crew to replace the deteriorating water supply line from th Click to view enlarged imagee Evanston municipal water works in 1882, the following decade was relatively uneventful at Grosse Point, with only routine maintenance and repairs recorded at the station. As witness to the important role played by the station, the decision was made to upgrade the fog signal apparatus to 10-inch locomotive-style team whistles, whose blast was considerably louder than originally installed sirens. Work on the north signal was completed and the new whistle placed into operation on March 30, 1892, and the south signal activated a month later on April 23. Prior to this time, lamp oil had been stored in the service room which was incorporated in the covered way between the dwelling and tower. In order to lessen the likelihood of fire spreading throughout the station, the work crew also erected a prefabricated circular iron oil storage building to the east of the signal buildings. While the new steam whistles were a remarked improvement over the smaller sirens, it took hours to get sufficient steam raised within the boilers to activate them. To solve this problem, water heaters were installed in 1898, allowing the keepers to build a head of steam much more quickly, and thereby getting the whistles screaming in less than an hour when conditions changed quickly.

Click to view enlarged image1900 was a busy year at Grosse Point, with a work crew arriving to erect an iron fence an gate on the Sheridan Drive property line and building a second oil house of brick, standing 8 feet by 10 feet and 12 feet in height. The work crew also raised a flag pole and poured concrete walks connecting the front doors of the duplex dwelling to the new Sheridan drive gate.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the area around the light station had undergone a metamorphosis. At the time of the station’s establishment 30 years earlier, the area was somewhat open, with but few houses scattered around the area. With Chicago’s commercial success and expansion, an increasing number of moneyed businessmen had built mansions along the lakeshore around the light station in order to escape the turmoil of the big city. A conflict between the need to sound the fog signals and the peace and quiet desired by the areas gentry was inevitable. Learning from previous experiments undertaken in Duluth in 1895 and Marquette in 1897, the Lighthouse Board installed reflectors behind the whistles in 1901. Built on a framework of pine and sheathed in iron, the reflectors were packed with sawdust to simultaneously absorb sound landward, while successfully deflecting the majority of the sound to sea. With a semblance of peace restored to the area, life again settled into a relatively uneventful ten year period at the station. The boat landing was re-planked in 1904, the north fog signal building remodeled in 1905, and the illumination apparatus in the light was upgraded from the triple wick kerosene lamp to an incandescent oil vapor system in 1910 with an increase in output to 10,000 candlepower for the fixed white light and 32,000 candlepower for the red flash.

Click to view enlarged imageEvidently the Cream City brick used in building the Grosse Point tower was of an inferior consistency, as Twelfth District Inspector Lewis M. Stoddard noted the deteriorating condition of the brick during his inspection of the station in 1913. While similar conditions had been rectified with the installation steel casings over the brick at Big Sable Point in 1900 and at Cana Island in 1902, Stoddard proposed a less expensive remedy at Grosse Point. The following Spring, a work crew from the General Cement Gun Company arrived at the station, and after erecting a wooden scaffolding around the tower, applied a protective coating of cement to the entire tower exterior from ground to gallery. The work was completed on May 20 at a total cost of only $2,678.52.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1935, the decision was made to automate the station, and a work crew was dispatched to Grosse Point to undertake the work. Electricity from the municipal utility was brought to the building, and the light automated with the installation of an incandescent electric bulb with automatic twin bulb changer. As part of this new installation, the lamp was also outfitted with an automatic flash mechanism and the characteristic of the light changed to exhibit a pair of 68,000 candlepower white flashes every 15 seconds. While the automation work crew was on site, a large gap was found between the Assistant keeper’s wing and the main dwelling. With the station’s automation eliminating the need for live-in keepers, the decision was made to demolish both this wing and the covered way connecting the tower and dwelling.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter the placement of the Grosse Point Outer Lighted Bell Buoy offshore in 1939, it became clear that the Grosse Point light was rendered obsolete, and the station was decommissioned in 1941 and turned over to the City of Evanston. The building sat empty until 1944, when the tower was used by two physicists from Northwest University to conduct experiments in the us of infrared transmission as a form of enhanced radar. After creation of the historic Lighthouse Park District, the City of Evanston managed to obtain permission to have the light reestablished as a private aid to navigation in 1946.

With Evanston’s conversion of the station into a museum, a major $100,000 improvement project was undertaken during the early 1990’s to restore the buildings to their turn of the century appearance. To this end, the Assistant’s wing and covered way which had been removed during the station’s automation in 1935 were both reconstructed to allow full interpretation of the station during the height of its operation. The majestic light station continues to serve as a museum, and is open to the public for a small admission fee during limited hours during the summer months.
Keepers of this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Grosse Point Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.
Seeing this Light

Directions will be forthcoming after we visit this light in the Spring of 2001.
Contact information

Lighthouse Park District
2601 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60201-1752
Telephone: 847.328.6961

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1871 – 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service
, various, 1910 – 1929
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Association
, 1903 – 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists
, various, 1873 - 1999
Lewis M. Stoddard note book,
Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy collection
Statutes at Large, 42nd Congress, 3rd Session
, March 3, 1873
Grosse Point Light Station - National Historic Landmark Study
- by Donald J. Terras
The Keeper’s Log
, United States Lighthouse Society, Fall 1993
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/11/2003

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