MICHIGAN CITY | Recently some of our staff visited the Old Lighthouse Museum to present them with a 2001 Michigan City Christmas themed authentic Harbor Lights, Limited Edition figurine of the Michigan City Lighthouse.
Volunteer Larry Swiger met with the staff, gave them a tour and shared some history. He said, “This beacon has served Lake Michigan sailors for more than 100 years. In 1837 the first lighthouse and keepers dwelling was built near where the present day museum stands. It was not very substantial and did not withstand the storms, so it only lasted 20 years. In 1858, the U.S. Government constructed the present day lighthouse. The northern wall that supported the lantern tower is 24 inches thick. The other three exterior walls are 18 inches thick, so they can withstand the weather.”
The first keeper of the original Michigan City Lighthouse was Edmund B. Harrison, appointed in 1837. He was followed by James Towner who was appointed keeper in 1841, Mrs. Harriet C. Towner appointed in 1844 and then John M. Clarkson who became keeper in 1853. 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. Mr. Swiger says that Ms. Colfax was probably the best know keeper because of her diminutive size and how hard she worked. He said, “When you visit the museum you can retrace the steps that Ms. Colfax took several times a day to keep the light burning. In all weather, the light keeper had to climb to the lanterns twice each night at dusk and midnights 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".
The 1858 Michigan City Lighthouse which served as both light and the keeper's living quarters was remodeled in 1904 and 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.
Harriet Colfax was succeeded by keepers Thomas Armstrong in 1904, Philip Sheridan in 1918 and Walter Donovan in 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 Lighthouse. 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.
The 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.
Mr. Swiger said, “Taking a tour of the museum is steeped in history because there are so many artifacts here. We have things from shipwrecks, from the Eastland tragedy and from the President Lincoln Funeral Train. This is a neat historical place and I encourage local people to visit and take pride in their Great Lakes heritage.”
You can get your own replica of the Michigan City Lighthouse from the Harbour Lights collection at Visit Michigan City LaPorte Convention & Visitors Bureau, 4073 S Franklin St, Michigan City, IN 46360.