Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Chicago connection at Twin River Point

The first lighthouse in Chicago was built in 1831. It was located on the south bank of the Chicago River just to the west of fort Dearborn. Built entirely of stone, the tower was poorly constructed, falling to the ground as construction was nearing completion. The illustration below is from from Harpers Magazine and  shows the lighthouse as it appeared soon after completion.


 As the city of Chicago and the number of vessels entering and departing the river grew through 1850’s, protective piers were established at the mouth of the river, effectively relocating the river entry considerably farther to the north of the lighthouse. Now located considerably inland from the new entry point, and frequently enshrouded with smoke from the numerous factories in the area, it is no surprise that old lighthouse was no longer serving as an effective leading light into the river. The 1856 photograph below is the only known photograph of the old Chicago River light, and gives a sense of the growing industrialization around it.


 In 1847, a temporary beacon was erected on the North pier to assist mariners locating the harbor entrance. Finally, in September 1851, District Engineer J. D Webster supervised the driving of a network of piles and the sinking of a 47-foot square crib foundation atop them at the end of the pier to serve as a base for a new, improved lighthouse. Work quickly ground to a halt as a result of a lack of funding, and the lighthouse structure itself was not completed until 1858. The location of the lighthouse and detached dwelling are readily visible in the wonderful 1868 “birds eye” illustration of the Chicago harbor below.


The tower of the new Chicago lighthouse consisted of an iron central stair cylinder supported by eight iron legs with a network of intermediate cast iron bracing and turnbuckles. Standing seventy two five feet above the surface of the crib the Third Order lens in the lantern stood at a focal plane of 83 feet, and was visible for a distance of fifteen miles. A detached dwelling stood shoreward of the tower, and was connected to the bottom of the central stair cylinder by an elevated covered way, which is ready visible in the following single side of a stereo view photograph of the structure.


  The Federal government continued to extend the piers which protected the Chicago River, and by 1870 the 83’ tall skeletal iron tower was located 1,200 feet from the end of the north pier. With increasing industrialization, the smoke which shrouded the city on a daily basis had worsened, and with no respite in sight, Eleventh District Lighthouse Engineer Orlando Metcalfe Poe recommended that the leading light for Chicago be relocated to Grosse Point, in Evanston some 13 miles to the north. The State of Illinois consented to the transfer of land to the federal government in 1871 and the new lighthouse shown below under construction was built on Grosse Point in 1873 and lighted for the first time on the night of March 1, 1874.


With the Grosse Point lighthouse serving as the primary leading light guiding mariners toward the Chicago River after 1874, and a pair of small beacon lights marking the outer ends of the two piers, the 1870 skeletal iron tower now served only as a minor marker for vessels entering the river. As can be seen in the following 1885 photograph, the dwelling had been removed and a long stairway added to provide access to the tower from the pier surface. Work was also underway on the construction of a 4,000 foot long breakwater to better protect the river entry and create a 455 acre contained harbor, and with plans to place a major light at the opening in this new breakwater on its completion, the days of the old skeletal iron Chicago River tower on the north pier were numbered.

 160 miles north of Chicago, 11th District Lighthouse Engineer Orlando Metcalfe Poe oversaw the construction of a new light station on Twin River Point in 1873. The lighthouse was built to the same plan as lighthouses at Little Point Au Sable on Lake Michigan and Au Sable Point and Outer Island on Lake Superior. The new lighthouse took the form of a “hundred foot” tower of Cream City Brick with a hip-roofed dwelling of the same material attached to the tower by a covered way. Work at Twin River Point progressed through 1874, with the station’s Third Order lens exhibited for the first time on the night of November 18, 1874. The 1884 photograph below, courtesy of the Woodward Collection, is the only known photo of this original Twin River Point lighthouse.

Contracts for lighthouse construction under the administration of the Lighthouse Board were issued under the “lowest bid” system. As such, any sub contracts issued by contractors for materials were also obtained as cheaply as possible, and it appears that in order to save cost, the Cream City Brick used by the contractor in the Twin River Point tower lighthouse was of terrible quality, containing a high percentage of inclusions and poorly fired during its manufacture. Moisture entering the bricks degraded the masonry as a result of the annual freeze/thaw cycle to the point that by 1890 consideration was being given to razing and rebuilding the entire tower of a more substantial masonry material. By way of example, this photograph of a section of the exterior of the Old Mackinac Point lighthouse shows how such inferior bricks degrade in this manner.


Meanwhile, back in Chicago, with work on the new breakwater nearing completion in 1890, work was underway on the construction of a major new light to mark the entrance to the harbor at the split in the breakwater. Known as the Chicago Harbor Light, the new structure is shown in this 1914 photograph. The structure took the form of free-standing crib with a 59 ½-foot conical cast iron tower located at its center and flanked by a pair of corrugated iron fog signal buildings. Simultaneous with the first exhibition of its light on the night of November 10, 1893, the light in the old skeletal iron Chicago River light was permanently extinguished. However, the life of the old 1858 lighthouse was far from over….


 With the old Chicago River light no longer serving as an active aid to navigation, and a new tower needed at Twin River Point, District Lighthouse Engineer Milton B. Adams drew up a plan to modify the old Chicago tower for use at Twin River Point. A portion of Adams’ plan for this modification appears below. The statement “Project for enlarging the present Chicago River Tower, making 100 feet to focal plane” can clearly be seen at the upper left.

 In the winter of 1893/1894, District Engineer Milton B Adams awarded a contract to the Vulcan Iron Works in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to cast the new iron components required to increase the height of the old Chicago River lighthouse from seventy-two feet in height to 100 feet. Work in disassembling the lighthouse commenced on June 7, 1894, and by the end of the month, the entire lighthouse had been reduced to its individual components, which were boxed and bundled for shipment to Twin River Point. The lighthouse tender AMARANTH arrived in Chicago in late August with the new components from Vulcan Iron Works on board and the packaged components from the old lighthouse were loaded on her decks and she steamed north to deliver them to Twin River Point.


On a site approximately fifty feet to the west of the Twin River Point dwelling, a construction crew had completed excavations was pouring concrete foundations for the eight columns of the old Chicago River tower. By the end of September 1894 the refurbished metal work of the first section had been erected. Over October, 166,000 pounds of iron had been erected, reaching the upper part of the fourth story, completing the structure to the main gallery deck. In November the service room, watch room and lantern were erected, and the illuminating apparatus transferred from the old brick tower into the lantern. Erection of the refurbished skeleton iron tower at Twin River Point was completed on December 1, 1894.


Since duplicate 10” fog signals had been established at Twin River Point in 1890, three keepers were now crammed into a dwelling originally designed to accommodate a single keeper and his family. In January 1895, District Engineer Adams oversaw the preparation of plans, specifications, and estimates for modifying the keepers dwelling and the removal of the old brick tower at Twin River Point, and submitted them to the Lighthouse Board in Washington for approval. As seen in the north elevation of his plans below, Adams' design called for an extensive modification and enlargement of the dwelling to incorporate the lower portion of the shortened tower, using the space within the tower as additional accommodations. After receiving Board approval to proceed with the project, the lighthouse tender AMARANTH again returned to Twin River Point, landing a construction crew and all necessary materials at the point on April 10, 1895.

As can be seen in the following “before and after” photographs to the left and right, Engineer Adam's modification and enlargement of the dwelling at Twin River Point was extensive. However as seen in the center image, the heritage of the original 1874 dwelling are still visible if you know the attributes to look for.


 The following photograph of the Twin River light station was taken in 1895, immediately after the dwelling modifications were completed. Re-erected and elevated to its new height on Twin River Point, the old Chicago River lighthouse tower now stood at a height of 111 feet from its foundation to the lantern vent, making the Twin River Point lighthouse the tallest shore light on the Great Lakes, an honor it continues to hold to this day.



  1. I love the modifications made. It has been improved beautifully and what`s been there before has been preserved.

  2. I can't see any of the pictures. I really would like to because I'm doing some research on the history of the Chicago River.