The Illinois Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is a dynamic marvel situated to the east of the Navy Pier and the mouth of the Chicago River. The motivation behind the lighthouse was the Chicago World’s Fair. Erected in 1893 and moved to its current location on the north breakwater in 1919, the 48 foot lighthouse was fully automated in 1973. Prior to the full automation, four different keepers watched over the lighthouse for years. Congress budgeted $5,000 for the lighthouse having Samuel Jackson as the original contractor, then duties passed to Lieutenant Webster of the Corps of Topographic Engineers.
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Between 1852 and 1910 the United States Lighthouse Board presided over modernization of navigation. Featured on display was its engineering creation of a skeletal cast iron lighthouse tower from the Spectacle Reef Light, the most expensive lighthouse ever built on the Great Lakes at the northern end of Lake Huron, Michigan. Since 2007, the Spectacle Reef Light is actively being used for navigation. Also on display were many Fresnel lenses, including a Third Order Fresnel lens. This type lens had alternating red and white panels and was ordered for a lighthouse in California. The mission was diverted and the lens was installed in the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse. The lens was removed and can now be seen at the Cabrillo National Monument in California.
A Lighthouse of Distinction
The Illinois Chicago Harbor Lighthouse foundation is constructed of rubble stone or riprap with a concrete pier. Rubble stone or riprap absorbs the strength of the wave allowing the lighthouse to stay intact. In 1890 Congress appropriated $51,000.00 for a highly sufficient breakwater-light. This marked the breakwater and served as the primary lighting for the harbor. The lighthouse itself is constructed of brick, cast iron and glass, and sits atop a cylindrical base of a cone tower with two red roof attached buildings. The attached buildings are a fog signal room and a former boathouse. The tower height is 66 feet high with the lighthouse property encompassing an area of 24 miles.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and categorized a Chicago landmark in 2003, the Illinois Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is a must-see attraction. Chicago does not have a lighthouse preservation committee, so the lighthouse is maintained by the Chicago Department of Water.
The Illinois Chicago Harbor Lighthouse continues to be an active aid to navigation but is not open to the public. The light is clearly visible from nearby downtown Chicago or the Navy Pier, yet is best seen from a private or tour boat. If in Chicago, travel route I-94, exit off of 50B and head east to Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. By water, the coordinates are 41°53′22″N 87°35′26″W.