Chicago Harbor Lighthouse

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is an automated active lighthouse, and stands at the end of the northern breakwater protecting the Chicago Harbor, to the east of Navy Pier and the mouth of the Chicago River.


It was constructed in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition and moved to its present site in 1919. The United States Lighthouse Board prominently displayed "its 'state of the art' wares and engineering achievements." Prominently featured was "the engineering marvel" of Spectacle Reef Light and a 111-foot-tall (34 m) skeletal cast iron lighthouse tower.

Also displayed were a number of Fresnel lenses, including a stunning Third Order Fresnel lens which previously was awarded first prize at a Paris glass exhibition. The lens featured alternating red and white panels, and had been ordered for installation in the new lighthouse at Point Loma Light (new) in California. The coincidental conclusion of construction of the new Chicago Harbor light and the close of the Exhibition prompted the Lighthouse Board keep the lens in Chicago, and thus the lens was installed in the lantern room of the new tower.

Also at the close of the Exhibition, the skeletal tower was disassembled and shipped to and reassembled as Rawley Point Light just north of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

Surrounded by rip rap, the structure has several levels: a concrete base and two red roofed buildings with a tapered white cylinder between them which is topped by a parapet and the light itself.

In 1917 the breakwater was renovated. At the time, the lighthouse was moved to its present site, and its attached fog signal room and boathouse were built.

The design is "unique . . . similar to that of the offshore sparkplug towers, but this tower is taller." Except for the additions made at the time of the move, it "bears some resemblance" to the Rock of Ages Light near Isle Royale on Lake Superior, which is its contemporary.

The lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 19, 1984, and later was designated a Chicago Landmark on April 9, 2003.

The original Third Order Fresnel lens (pronounced /freɪˈnɛl/) was removed, and is now on display at Cabrillo National Monument in California. It had been originally intended for and was destined for the Point Loma (California) light, but was diverted (for almost a century) and kept in Chicago following its display at the exposition.

In 2005, the light was declared excess by the Coast Guard. It was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. After an unusually long delay,United States Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar initiated transfer to the City of Chicago on February 24, 2009. The city had designated the lighthouse a Chicago Landmark on April 9, 2003.

The Lighthouse's "significant role in the development of Chicago" is commemorated in a relief sculpture, entitled The Spirit of the Waters located near the LaSalle Street entrance of Chicago City Hall.

Preservation efforts

"Illinois has two well-known and historic light stations in the Chicago area, plus two pierhead lights." The Chicago Department of Water maintains lights on each of its four water intake cribs.

Chicago has no area lighthouse preservation group, and this light has been the primary beneficiary of attention on preservation attention. However, Illinois and Indiana pierhead lights may need defense against demolition in the future. The Calumet Harbor Light, just across the border in Indiana, was demolished in 1995.

Seeing the Light

The light is an active aid to navigation, and no access is permitted.

From I-94 in Chicago, take exit 50B and proceed east to Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. There is parking on Navy Pier. A good view may be had from its end, from a private boat, or from various tour boats in the area.

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