The Grosse Point Lighthouse, built in 1873, stands a monument to a time when the U.S. heavily relied on maritime navigation. The building of the Erie Canal in New York and the Illinois & Michigan canal in Illinois connected New York, Chicago, and New Orleans, turning the Great Lakes and connecting rivers into a national water-highway system. As a result, speculators heavily invested in Chicago, turning it into a major port city (and eventual railroad hub). The waters near Grosse Point (in what is now Evanston) proved to be quite dangerous, thus the lighthouse was deemed necessary by the federal government.
The lighthouse is only open for tours during the summer months, but the grounds are free for visitors to walk around on throughout the whole year.
Constructed in 1873 on a peninsula that stretches out into Lake Michigan, Grosse Point Lighthouse played a pivotal role, for nearly seven decades, in guiding the nation's maritime transportation network and shipping interests that connected New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. Much of the lighthouse's success can be attributed to advanced engineering that allowed its light to reach nearly 20 miles from the shore. Its existence stands as a tangible reminder of the importance of inland waterways in the U.S. during the last half of the nineteenth century.
Grosse Point, meaning "Great Point" in French, obtained its name from early 17th-century pioneers who sought to explore and map the Great Lakes region. Indeed, explorer and Jesuit Missionary Jacques Marquette's diary referenced "Grosse Pointe" on December 3, 1674, during his expedition with Louis Jolliet to what would become Chicago.
The important of Gross Point grew significantly with the construction of Erie Canal in 1825 that ostensibly connected New York to Chicago; the canal connected New York to the Great Lakes through Buffalo. What followed was the development of the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal that essentially connected Chicago to the Mississippi River, and effectively connected New York to New Orleans through Chicago. With those canals complete, the Great Lakes grew into a prominent, national water highway. Concurrently, investors and speculators considered Chicago worthy of investing. Thus Chicago quickly grew from swampland into one of the largest cities in the U.S.
By 1870, Chicago rivaled New York, Boston, and San Francisco as the busiest center for maritime commerce in the country, handling roughly 20,000 vessel arrivals and departures in 1888 during its weather-shortened eight-month shipping season compared to New York's 23,000 over an entire twelve-month season.
While Chicago, overall, increasingly handled maritime traffic, the area that became Evanston, notably Grose Point, enjoyed some of the most heavily traveled shipping lanes in the country. However, the waters in that area were plauged by low lying shoals -- 28 shipwrecks occurred near Grose Point between 1851 and 1873, including a disaster that killed nearly 300 people. As a result, the federal government approved funds to build a lighthouse, which was completed in 1873.
At 113 feet, Grosse Point stands as the fourth tallest light on the Great Lakes, the tallest of which exists on the mainland around the lakes. lakes. Grosse Point Lighthouse relied on a second-order Fresnel lens, developed by Henri LePaute in Paris, France, in 1850, which allowed Grosse Point's beacon of light to reach nearly 20 miles. This lens was the largest of its kind ever used on the Great Lakes.
In its 67-year history, Grosse Point Light Station was managed by ten principal keepers, who also had the job of working in tandem with the U.S. Life Saving Station at nearby Northwestern University. In fact, in August, 1885, the Life Saving crew successfully rescued everyone on board the schooner Jamaica, which had sprung a leak in the middle of Lake Michigan and struggled to make it close to Grosse Pointe.
Electricity arrived in 1923 leading to the tower's decommission by 1935 when the tower grew to be completely automated. By then, of course, the nation had since turned increasingly towards railroads, automobiles and eventually airplanes.
Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.
"History." Grosse Point Lighthouse Official Website. http://www.grossepointlighthouse.net/history.html
"Jacques Marquette." Biography. Accessed June 11, 2016. http://www.biography.com/people/jacques-marquette-20984755#early-life
Lamb, John. "Illinois and Michigan Canal." Newberry Library: Encyclopedia of Chicago. . Accessed April 26, 2018. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/626.html.
Teaford, John C. Cities of the Heartland: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Midwest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Terras, Donald J. "Grosse Point Light Station." National Historic Landmark Nomination. August, 3, 1998. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/b824e120-c769-4961-9db1-bf9d54466794/