Chicago’s Lighthouse


The Chicago River Lighthouse circa 1939.

During the war, commercial marine traffic greatly increased on the Great Lakes as war materials and food were needed to feed the union army. The Lighthouse Board responded with an ambitious navigational light building program throughout the Great Lakes. Reef lighting, that consisted of constructing a cast iron structure topped with a light, was developed and put into use. It was this technology and a new type of Fresnel lens that the board planned to demonstrate at an exhibit called, the Spectacle Reef Light at the Columbian Exposition. A newly developed 3rd Order, Fresnel lens was brought to the exposition. It had previously been awarded a first-place prize at a Paris glass exhibition. The lens, constructed using alternating red and clear glass, was destined for a new lighthouse at Point Loma, California. Placed upon a 110 foot cast iron tower, the light acted as a beacon that thrilled visitors and encouraged Chicago politicians to persuade the Lighthouse Board to leave the lens in Chicago permanently.

As the exposition closed, the skeletal tower was shipped to Rawley Point near Two Rivers, Wisconsin and the Fresnel lens was installed in the lamp room of the Chicago Lighthouse tht stood at the mouth of the Chicago river. That lighthouse had been extinguished in 1872 when a new lighthouse was constructed at Grosse Point.

In 1917, a major renovation of the breakwater off the Chicago harbor brought about a need for a new navigational light there. Congress appropriated funds to dismantle the entire lighthouse at the mouth of the river and relocate it to the breakwater. In 2005, the Coast Guard, determined that the lighthouse was unnecessary and offered to convey it at no cost to any eligible entity such as a non-profit organization. In 2009, the City of Chicago took ownership of the landmark.

As for the famous and valuable Fresnel lens that was in the lighthouse, that was shipped off to California where it now resides on display at Cabrillo National Monument. Having undergone a more than century long delay in its arrival.

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Posted by on Mar 1st, 2013 and filed under Feature Story. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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