Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Interpretive Digital Essay : Water in Chicago
Essay: People and the Port
Photo Essays:
Solitary Lives
City of Bridges
Chicago Harbors
Essay: Using the Chicago River
Photo Essays:
Goose Island
Indiana Dunes
Essay: Sanitation in Chicago
Photo Essays:
The Sanitary and Ship Canal
Water-Related Epidemics
Essay: Water and Urban Life
Photo Essays:
Houses and Water
Shoreline Development
Growing Up Along Water
Solitary Lives along Chicago’s Lakes and Waterways

Lighthouse Keepers

Lighthouse keepers worked in solitary, standing watch for ships, maintaining equipment, and in the case of the lighthouse keeper at Chicago in the 1850s, taking climatic measurements. Many keepers were expected to live in their lighthouses, in order to provide round-the-clock attention.

There were four lighthouses in the Chicago Region: a lighthouse at Waukegan built in 1889; a lighthouse at Gross Point (Wilmette) built in 1873; a lighthouse at Chicago River; and a lighthouse at the Calumet River. At Chicago, the first lighthouse was built on the north end of Fort Dearborn (south bank near the mouth of the Chicago River) in 1832. This lighthouse remained in operation until 1852 when a new lighthouse (with keeper’s quarters) was built at the mouth of the Chicago River, adjacent to the burgeoning central city. In 1873, the lighthouse at the mouth of the Chicago River was decommissioned with the construction of a lighthouse at Gross Point to the north of Chicago. A new lighthouse was constructed in 1893 at the mouth of the Chicago River and was moved to the end of the breakwater at the entrance to the Chicago River in 1919.

Lighthouse Keeper Statistics, 1859

The first lighthouse at Chicago was constructed in 1832, and was replaced with a larger structure in 1852. Early lighthouse keepers at Chicago not only took care of the lighthouse, but also maintained a variety of records about the lake, weather, and shipping. Seen here are the statistics maintained by lighthouse keeper Richard Millar on tidal changes and weather conditions in early January 1859.

See also: Lake Michigan; Climate

Chicago Lighthouse, 1951

Unlike many lighthouses, the Chicago lighthouse was set just to the east of the busy downtown and was connected to land through a walkway. Nevertheless, this work location was as solitary as any Chicago lighthouse.

See also: Chicago River

Walkway to the Lighthouse at the Mouth of the Chicago River, 1880

The lighthouse at the mouth of the Chicago River was particularly isolated in winter. Even though a breakwater extended out to it, icy conditions made it difficult to travel to and from the lighthouse.

See also: Near North Side; Chicago River


Calumet Harbor Lighthouse, 1951

The lighthouse at the mouth of the Calumet River was much like that at the Chicago River. It stood at the end of a long protective breakwater that created an outer harbor for the Calumet River.

See also: Calumet River

Calumet River Lighthouse, 1962

This 1962 image of the lighthouse at the mouth of the Calumet River gives a sense of the site as a workplace and a residence.

See also: Calumet River