Indiana has a number of lights to guide seafarers, but only the Indiana Michigan City Lighthouse is designated as a historic facility. The lighthouse has for more than 150 years served as a reminder of how the mostly landlocked state still has connections with the sea.
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None of the other light facilities found along the northern shores of Indiana have the unique history of the Indiana Michigan City Lighthouse. The facility and the surrounding community owe themselves largely to a 19th Century developer by the name of Isaac C. Elston, who purchased a parcel of land that would later become Michigan City.
City and Lighthouse Develop Together
Before the town could be created, it needed a port. The port, in turn, needed a lighthouse so it could run safely and efficiently. The two came together at a location where the lake was joined by the previously-named Trail Creek. Unfortunately, the port located at the confluence of Lake Michigan and Trail Creek was inhospitable to ships, especially larger vessels that had to stay some distance off shore to avoid running aground on a sandbar. There was also the problem of visibility, with the only light available to guide seafarers being a lantern atop a pole at the mouth of the creek.
The federal government was tapped to assist Michigan City, and authorized a total of $50,000 for an artificial harbor. Congress also committed $8,000 to build the all-important lighthouse. The harbor would be constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the lighthouse by a local contractor.
The original lighthouse was a stone structure that stood 40 feet tall and included a detached dwelling. Both buildings were whitewashed to enhance their visibility. The actual lighting was accomplished through a combination of Argand lamps and reflectors.
The harbor outgrew the original lighthouse, and a new facility was completed in 1858. It is this structure that still stands in what is today Washington Park. Constructed of brick and stone, the lighthouse was two stories tall. Inside the attached lantern room was a high-reflectivity Fresnel lens, which was powerful enough for the light to be seen up to 15 miles away.
The Long Tenure of Lighthouse Keeper Harriet Colfax
John M. Clarkson became the first keeper of the 1858 Indiana Michigan City Lighthouse. He was replaced in 1861 by Harriet Colfax, who would serve as keeper for 43 years until her retirement at the age of 80 in 1904. One of her more harrowing experiences was undoubtedly a gale that in 1886 tore down a pier light that had been added to the facility 15 years earlier.
The lighthouse was deactivated in the early 20th century and replaced by the Michigan City East Light, actually a pier facility that was for many years operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Michigan City hopes to attain the light in the future.
The 1858 lighthouse remained vacant from 1940 until Michigan City assumed ownership of the facility in 1964. The structure was restored by the Michigan City Historical Society and turned into a museum that is open to the public. The museum contains a replica of the original lantern equipment. Fittingly, it also features a tribute to Harriet Colfax for her long service to the 1858 Indiana Michigan City Lighthouse.