Indiana Harbor Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Indiana Harbor, Indiana Home Back

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Historical Information
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Chicago’s industries were suffering congested freight conditions in the city streets, rail connections and harbor. For those industries wishing to expand or relocate within the city, skyrocketing land values served as an insurmountable challenge to many. A group of investors operating under the name of the Chicago Land Company saw the situation as advantageous to their interests, and began buying up large tracts of land in the area of East Chicago some seventeen miles east of the Windy City where they planned on establishing a major industrial complex. Controlled by Chicago real estate barons Aldis, Aldis & Northcote with the backing of Henry Clay Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company and New York banker J. Kennedy Tod, the group had dreams of creating a first class harbor with connections to the rail lines which passed along the south shore and of constructing a canal to connect the harbor to the Calumet River and the Mississippi beyond.

Realizing that they needed an anchor industry to attract new development, the Land Company came up with a gutsy proposal whereby they offered to provide fifty acres of free land to any steel company which would erect a facility with a minimum value of a million dollars in the new harbor. Formed in 1893 after purchasing the idle machinery of Chicago Steel Works in Chicago Heights, Inland Steel Company had grown to a level of $350,000 in sales in 1897, and by 1901 found itself outgrowing its existing facilities and found itself in a financial position in which the Chicago Land Company’s offer proved extremely attractive. Even though, at that point, the new “harbor” consisted largely of unimproved land among the sand dunes.

With Inland Steel now on board to serve as their anchor industry and a conviction that related industries would soon follow, in 1901 the Chicago Land Company entered into a $200,000 contract with Chicago marine contractor Hausler & Lutz to dredge and erect breakwaters for what would eventually become known as Indiana Harbor. By the following year, Inland Steel had completed construction of the first phase of its new plant, and was operating in the harbor.

In 1903, the Chicago Land Company reorganized under the name of The East Chicago Company. With this reorganization, the assets of the Standard Steel and Iron Company, Lake Michigan Land Company and the Calumet Canal Improvement Company were consolidated, provided direct control of over 7,000 acres of land in Indiana Harbor, East Chicago and Hammond. After considerable “speechifying” by such dignitaries as Senator Charles Warren Fairbanks, Congressmen Charles B. Landis and Congressman Edgar D. Crumpacker, Indiana Governor Winfield T. Durbin ceremonially pressed an electric button on October 24, 1903 which sent two monster dredges into action at the lake end of the new canal which would connect the harbor to the Calumet River, some 3 miles to the south.

Indiana Harbor was becoming a reality, and a number of other industries began construction of new facilities there, with American Steel Foundries and the Buckeye Steel Castings Companies among the first and largest. In order to add more industrial space around the harbor, at the request of the East Chicago Company, the mills began dumping their slag into Lake Michigan, and with the addition of fill brought out from the mainland, a continuing process of northward expansion of the harbor was underway.

With construction of the canal ongoing, the East Chicago Company began lobbying for federal maintenance and improvement of Indiana Harbor. Heeding the call of his influential constituent industries, Indiana Congressman Edgar D. Crumpacker of Valparaiso quickly introduced a number of bills calling for the federal government to take over improvement of the harbor. Among these, House Bill 10447 called for the establishment of a federal lighthouse to guide vessels into the harbor. The bill was referred to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, and then relegated to the Subcommittee on the Lighthouse Establishment, where it was finally discussed on January 16, 1905. With consideration concurrently under evaluation as to whether the Army Corps of Engineers should assume responsibility for the harbor, it was agreed that if and when the harbor were to become a federal responsibility then lighting the piers and breakwaters would be vitally necessary. However, until that time no federal action would be taken.

Finally in 1910, Crumpackers’ continued efforts on behalf of the East Chicago Company bore fruit. With the passage of the Rivers and Harbors Act of June 25, 1910, the federal government assumed responsibility for the long term maintenance and improvement of Indiana Harbor. With an initial appropriation of $62,000, the Army Corps of Engineers entered into a contract with the Great Lakes Sock and Dredge Company to enlarge the harbor and increase the width of the canal to 300 feet and the depth to 20 feet throughout. Work began in April of 1911, and by July the dredging had progressed to the point that a number of large vessels with drafts of 18 and 19 feet had gained entry through the new channel. Thus, with federal involvement in the project a done deal, Commissioner George R. Putnam of the fledgling Bureau of Lighthouses had no alternative but to turn his attention to lighting the entry into the harbor. However, since the Army Corps improvements at Indiana Harbor were as yet unfinished, and it had as yet been determined exactly how far the breakwaters would extend into the lake, the decision was made to start small, and improve over time.

As such, the first federal navigation aids erected at Indiana Harbor in 1911 took the form of a pair of prefabricated black skeletal iron range lights with a small enclosed shed within their bases. The Front Range light was located at the outer end of the rubble mound north breakwater with its light standing 17 feet above the concrete surface. The rear range structure stood 615 feet to shoreward on the same breakwater, its light standing 27 feet above the base. Both lights were illuminated by acetylene gas which was stored in cylinders located in the small enclosed shed at their bases, and outfitted with sun valves which automatically turned the lights on each day at dusk and off at dawn. Typical of such acetylene-powered structures, they incorporated a flash mechanism which caused the lights to flash for a very short duration, thereby reducing the consumption of the gas. Exhibited for the first time on the night of September 15th, the Front Range light exhibited a single flash of 0.3 seconds every second and the rear range a flash of 1 second duration followed by a 2 second eclipse.

With the Army Corps of Engineers construction of rubble mound breakwaters ongoing, the Lighthouse Bureau determined that on completion of the current phase of the project the harbor would be deserving of a significantly larger aid to navigation, and requested an appropriation of $100,000 to fund the project in 1916.

The United States declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917 had an incredible impact on the development of Indiana Harbor. The sudden surge in military production brought huge contracts to the industries around the harbor, with all working at full capacity to satisfy demand. With a seemingly endless parade of freighters loaded with iron ore from the mines on Lake Superior and limestone from the quarries on Lakes Huron and Michigan making their way into the harbor, the Corps of Engineers realized that the rubble mound breakwaters were becoming obsolete, and needed to be replaced with structures of a greater degree of permanence.  As such, plans for the new lighthouse were placed on the back burner until the new permanent piers were erected.

With an appropriation of $200,000 in hand, the Army Corps of Engineers advertised for bids in July 1919 to rebuild the east breakwater in concrete and to erect a foundation for the new lighthouse atop a timber crib in accordance with plans developed by the Bureau of Lighthouses. On August 21, 1919, the contract for the work was awarded to the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company, with the company’s equipment working in the harbor soon thereafter. The work moved ahead quickly, as prefabricated concrete caissons cast at an Army Corps facility on the waterfront in Milwaukee were used in building the breakwater, eliminating the need for casting them locally or in place on the breakwater. By July 1920, 810 feet of the planned 3,024 feet of East Breakwater was complete, and the lighthouse crib was virtually finished with the exception of steel ice sheathing. 

All told, construction of the timber lighthouse crib required the removal of 785 cubic yards of lake bed to create a solid base on which to sink the timber crib. Construction of the crib itself took 196,719 board feet of lumber shipped in by train from the west coast, 32,633 pounds of iron and steel, and 2,691 tons of stone to fill the pockets in the crib. Located 25 feet from the breakwater, the crib was connected to the breakwater by an iron and steel overhead walkway. Large rooms cast within the concrete foundation on the crib would serve to house the station’s full compliment of compressors, generators and heating plant. Other areas within this structure would serve as storage space for the supplies required to operate the mechanical systems, such as diesel fuel and gasoline.

Even though the lighthouse structure itself remained to be built, the Bureau considered activating the station to be of a sufficiently high priority that the complete fog signal plant was installed and placed into operation and a temporary light displayed from an “unpainted post” on the crib standing at a height of 58 feet above the water – the identical focal plane of the planned permanent structure. Thus, the new Indiana Harbor East Breakwater light was exhibited for the first time late in 1920.

With funding for completion of the lighthouse finally available in late 1922, work began on the superstructure of the station proper. The new rectangular building which was erected on the crib served both as a means for elevating the light and as a dwelling for the station’s planned compliment of three keepers. Designed in a manner similar to skyscrapers of the day, an inner framework of steel beams supported concrete walls and floors and steel stairways. Brick accent areas surrounding the relatively large steel-framed windows gave the otherwise austere exterior appearance of the structure a touch of visual warmth. Centered atop this main structure, a square combination watchroom and service room supported a circular steel and iron lantern with helical astragals. As was common with the majority of Great Lakes lighthouses, the lantern was sized to accommodate a Fourth Order Fresnel lens, and in order to cause the light to stand out effectively among the numerous lights of the steel mills along shore, the lens was equipped with bull’s eyes. Rotation of the lens caused the light to exhibit a flash as the bulls eyes passed between the light source of the observer, and created the station’s identifiable characteristic of a fixed white light with two bright white flashes every 20 seconds. With construction complete, and all systems in place, James C Peiterson, the station’s first keeper, made his way up to the lantern to exhibit the light of the completed Indiana Harbor East Breakwater Light for the first time on the night of July 14, 1924.

Evidently life at the lighthouse for Peiterson and his two assistants Arthur S. Almquist and Henry S. Means, must have been relatively uneventful, as little has been recorded about their lives at the station, either in government records or in the local newspapers at either Hammond of Gary. 

America’s steel manufacturers were now supplying the world. The complex of steel mills and ancillary industries located around Indiana Harbor continued their northward expansion into the lake, and as the land mass around the harbor grew, the entrance to the harbor moved northward and westward with it. While the Army Corps of Engineers continued extending the east breakwater northward so that it continued to adequately serve the harbor entry, the massive lighthouse and its crib now found themselves situated far from the outer end of the elongated breakwater. With land now pushing ever closer toward the side of the breakwater inland of the lighthouse, virtually all of the breakwater landward of the lighthouse was removed, allowing easier access to the industrial facilities to the north. As such, the lighthouse now served to mark the inner end of the breakwater, with the outer end unlighted.

This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that with the man-made land growing by leaps and bounds to the north, the light became virtually hidden by the land and increasingly difficult for mariners to see from the lake. In order to make the structure noticeable, floodlights were installed on all four sides of the structure in 1931, but the effort was futile. The Bureau of Lighthouses was forced to face the realization that due to its construction and massive size, there was no way the lighthouse could be relocated to the end of the breakwater. The only option was to replace the expensive structure a scant decade after it had been established.

By the early 1930’s, advances in the reliability of both illumination and diaphone fog signal systems had reached the point that virtually unattended lighthouses were becoming a reality. Thus the possibility of reducing the manpower required through the establishment of an automated system on the extended breakwater was particularly attractive. Also at this time, Lighthouse Bureau engineers F. P. Dillon and W. G. Will had been working on a modular design for breakwater and pierhead beacons for use on the Great Lakes.

Incorporating prefabricated cast iron and steel components, these inexpensive $35,000 structures stood approximately 40 feet tall from base to lantern, and were designed to be relatively easy to erect and disassemble if required. With plans already in place to install three of these new structures at Conneaut and Huron Harbors on Lake Erie, and on the new concrete breakwater at Port Washington, the decision was made to order an additional set of components for use at the outer end of the breakwater at Indiana Harbor.

As was the case at Port Washington, the structure at Indiana Harbor was erected atop a large elevated concrete pier with arched openings in order to increase its focal plane to 78 feet. This new East Breakwater light was erected and exhibited for the first time in 1935. In order to provide safe access to keepers along the breakwater when making their way from the old lighthouse to the new one when storm-driven waves were crashing across its surface, an iron and steel elevated walkway was erected on the breakwater, and the new light was built and exhibited in 1935.
The light in the old structure was electrified and downgraded to a 2,600 candlepower green 300 mm optic and renamed the “Indiana Harbor East Breakwater Inner light.” In this guise it continued to serve as the dwelling for the keepers of the harbor lights through the end of the days of the Bureau of Lighthouses and after the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s aids to navigation in 1939. The Coast Guard continued to use the structure until 1970 when the building was largely abandoned. At this time the station’s light was further downgraded to 1,100 candlepower and renamed the “Indiana Harbor Light 5,” reflecting its new status as a minor aid to navigation within the harbor.

Likely costing too much to maintain, and perhaps serving as an attractive nuisance, the superstructure of the lighthouse was demolished at some time in the mid 1980’s, leaving only the concrete crib and walkway which connected the structure to the breakwater. In order to allow it to continue to serve as a harbor aid, a white cylindrical “D9” tower with horizontal green band was erected on the crib, and today emits a green flash every 2.5 seconds.

One can only wonder how many of the mariners who pass this light today have the slightest inkling of the original purpose of that huge concrete crib on which it sits.

Seeing this Light

Because the lighthouse and old crib are located on a private breakwater, and there are numerous large buildings between any public access areas and the lighthouse, the lights are 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

Original 1924 lighthouse crib: 41°40'27.41"N x 87°26'19.64"W
1935 Lighthouse: 41°40'50.88"N x  87°26'27.99"W

Reference sources

New York Times newspaper articles, various
The Railway Age, Vol 31, 1901
Chicago Securities, The Chicago Directory Company, 1905.
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Association, various
Astandard History of Lake County, Lewis Publishing Company, 1915
Annual Reports of the Department of COmmerce, various
Hammond Times newspaper articles, various
A Guide to the Hoosier State, Teachers College, 1941

Copyright Terry Pepper. This page last modified 09-30-2012. 

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