Michigan City Lighthouse History
"The first light house keeper was old Mr. Harrison, but the present keeper, Miss Colfax, has had charge of it longer, and has discharged her duties more satisfactorily to the government, than any of her predecessors." --History of LaPorte County, 1876
At the bend of Trail Creek in the Michigan City harbor stands an historic old structure whose beacon served as a guiding light for Great Lakes sailors for more than 100 years. Michigan City's well-lighted port has a long and interesting history, bound to Lake Michigan with all its mysteries and beauties.
The story of Michigan City's lights began on June 23, 1835. Isaac C. Elston, the city's founder, deeded a tract of his land which ran from the bend of Trail Creek to Lake Michigan's shore to the U.S. Government. Elston knew that aids to navigation would be needed if the city and its harbor were to flourish. The land was passed on to the government for the purpose of constructing a lighthouse.
Michigan City's first light was a simple "postlight" located approximately 100 feet west of the present lighthouse. A "postlight" was a lantern on a tall pole.
In 1837, Jeremy Hixon, Sr. and his son (Jeremy Hixon, Jr.) were contracted by the U.S. Government to build a permanent lighthouse in Michigan City. That structure consisted of a keeper's dwelling with a 40 foot high whitewashed tower topped with a lantern to house the light. An early writing about the first permanent Michigan City light describes it as "a storey and a half house, plastered on the outside and dazzling in its whiteness, more of a portico than a veranda ornamented the front and was covered with trailing vines. It fronted south and was surrounded by a grove of small oaks on the west. The well-kept lawn was dotted with shrubbery, flowers and enclosed by a low rustic fence, and from a little wicket fence led a white graveled walk to the residence."
The first keeper of the original Michigan City Light was Edmund B. Harrison, appointed on December 9, 1837, at a salary of $350 per year. He was followed by James Towner who was appointed keeper on October 26, 1841, Mrs. Harriet C. Towner appointed on March 21, 1844, and and then John M. Clarkson who became keeper on May 3, 1853.
As shipping in Michigan City increased, primarily grain and lumber, a brighter light was needed to guide ships into the busy port. In 1858, the U.S. Government constructed a lighthouse using Joliet stone for the foundation and Milwaukee or "Cream City" bricks for the superstructure. The date of 1858 can still be seen on the south outside wall of the building. The northern wall that supported the lantern tower is 24 inches thick. The other three exterior walls are 18 inches thick.
South exterior wall of Old Michigan City Lighthouse, photograph by Brian Forist, Old Lighthouse Museum/Michigan City Historical Society, Inc.
The lantern tower was located on the north end of the lighthouse. It housed a fixed light with a 5th Order Fresnel Lens, which could be seen at a distance of 15 miles. The lantern was originally fueled with whale oil. Eventually lard oil was used as it burned much cleaner that whale oil and the American whaling industry was on the decline. Finally kerosene was used as it was cheaper than lard oil. Mr. John M. Clarkson, the last keeper of the 1837 Michigan City Light, was also the first keeper of the new lighthouse until he was replaced by Miss Harriet E. Colfax on March 19, 1861.
Harriet Colfax served as the keeper of the Michigan City Lighthouse for 43 years, from her appointment in 1861 until her retirement at age 80 in 1904. She was the cousin of Schuyler Colfax, a member of the Congress of the United States when Miss Colfax was appointed lighthouse keeper, and later Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant. It is likely that Schuyler Colfax arranged her appointment, a common practice during the 19th century when all aids to navigation were under the oversight of the U.S. Treasury Department. Miss Colfax was a native of Ogdensburg, New York where she had been a teacher of voice and piano. She moved to Michigan City in the 1850s with her brother who had founded a local political newspaper. Miss Colfax worked as a typesetter on the paper as well as a music teacher. Her brother sold the newspaper and moved from the area but Miss Colfax remained in Michigan City with her companion, Miss Ann C. Hartwell, also a teacher and native of Ogdensburg, New York. At age 37 Miss Colfax took up the lighthouse keeper's position. Harriet Colfax and Ann Hartwell spent the rest of their lives together, primarily in the Michigan City Lighthouse. Miss Colfax retired in 1904 at age 80 due to the responsibilities of tending the newly built Pierhead Light and to her failing health. She died the very next year, on April 16, 1905, shortly after the death of Ann Hartwell.
Miss Harriet Colfax and Miss Ann Hartwell, photographs from the collection of the Old Lighthouse Museum/Michigan City Historical Society, Inc.
Click here to read a transcription of an October 2, 1904 Chicago Tribune article about Harriet Colfax, transcriptions of Miss Colfax's and Miss Hartwell's obituaries, and other information about them.
On November 20, 1871, the first beacon light was installed on the east pier. The east pierhead light was accessible by a 1,500 foot long elevated walkway or "catwalk." Maintenance of the pier light was also the responsibility of the Michigan City Light keeper. In all weather, the light keeper had to climb to the lanterns twice each night at dusk and midnight to trim the wick, polish the lens, and refuel the light. In cold weather, the oil would sometimes congeal before the keeper reached the light. This meant repeating the trip after reheating the oil. At daybreak, the process was repeated and the lights were extinguished. So diligently did the keepers perform their tasks, with many tales of bravery and heroism to their credit, that the Michigan City Lighthouse became known throughout the Great Lakes as "Old Faithful."
In October of 1874, the Lighthouse Board decided to move the pier beacon from the east side of Trail Creek to the west pier which extended an additional 500 feet into Lake Michigan. IN the days that Miss Harriet Colfax was responsible for maintaining the west pier light she would have to row across Trail Creek and then travel out the pier and catwalk with fuel for the light. On occasion, depending on available funds, Miss Colfax was able to hire an assistant keeper who lived on the western side of the creek and maintained that light.
Earliest known journals of the lighthouse keepers began in 1872. From one of the early journals we find the following record: "Commenced using kerosene at Beacon, July 16, 1880." Conversion to a kerosene burning lantern eliminated the problem of having to reheat congealed fuel. The beacon which had been moved to the west pier was destroyed by a storm in 1886. Starting in 1887, the light atop the lighthouse was kept lit year round rather than only during the shipping season from April through November.
The 1858 Michigan City Lighthouse which served as both light and the keeper's living quarters was remodeled in 1904. The building was enlarged by adding two northern rooms on each floor. The expanded structure contained duplex apartments. The keeper and his or her family used all three floors on the east side of the building. Tee west side apartment was designated for the assistant keeper and family. On October 20, 1904 the lantern was moved to the newly constructed Pierhead Light where its beacon shone until it was replaced in 1980. The lantern tower was also removed in 1904. The original 5th order Fresnel Lens that illuminated the 1858 Michigan City Light and the 1904 Pierhead Light is now on display in the Old Lighthouse Museum.
Michigan City East Pierhead Light, photograph by Brian Forist, Old Lighthouse Museum/Michigan City Historical Society, Inc.
Harriet Colfax was succeeded by keepers Thomas Armstrong (appointed October 14, 1904), Philip Sheridan (appointed September 1, 1918), and Walter Donovan (appointed August 1, 1930). Keepers continued to service the light and the fog signal which was installed in the Pierhead Light structure in 1905. In 1933 the Michigan City Pierhead Light was electrified. On July 1, 1939 the U.S. Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service. In August of that year, upon the death of the last keeper, Walter Donovan, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed charge of the Michigan City Light. The last person to live in the building that had been the 1858 lighthouse and the quarters for keepers was Assistant Keeper Ralph Moore. He retired in 1940 and the building was closed.
The1858 building stood vacant for nearly 25 years. It suffered significantly from neglect and vandalism. It became the property of the city of Michigan City in 1964 and in 1965 it was leased to the Michigan City Historical Society to restore and establish a museum. The Old Lighthouse Museum opened officially on June 9, 1973. That year a replica of the original lantern tower was placed on the building's roof. Since the lighthouse keepers owned all of their own furnishings, the keepers took everything when they left. All of the furnishings currently found in the Old Lighthouse Museum have been donated by interested citizens.
The Old Lighthouse Museum
Updated March 14, 2015