13 Fascinating Facts about Michigan City and the Old Lighthouse

Whenever we stumble across a lighthouse, I have to take a photo. There’s something romantic about lighthouses, perhaps the beacon of light welcoming sailors into a harbor or warning them of hazards. Maybe it’s the romanticizing of the keeper’s job, as backbreaking as it was. Or maybe it’s just that the splash of color—often red—against the blue of the sky and water makes a great scenic photo. Having taken the photo of the beacon that stands at the end of a pier in Michigan City, Indiana, we were surprised to find the light keeper’s house, the original Michigan City lighthouse. Refurbished, it’s now a museum run by the Michigan City Historical Society. We visited the museum earlier this year and came away with several fascinating facts about the lighthouse and the city during our self-guided tour. Here are 13 of them:

The Keeper’s House and Tower

1. The keeper’s house was rare in that it housed both a keeper and an assistant keeper. The original house, built in 1837 was a single residence. A remodel in 1904 turned the house into a duplex.

Old Lighthouse Museum2. The lantern was originally on top of the house. After the remodel, the lantern was moved to the end of the pier, where it still exists today. A replica of the original lantern tower was placed on the house roof in 1973, the year the building was reopened as the Old Lighthouse Museum.

Pier at Michigan City

3. A female, Harriet Colfax, was lighthouse keeper from 1861 to 1904, an unusual position for a woman at that time.

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4. Climb the spiral staircase to the tower for a view of Lake Michigan, as well as the lookout tower erected in the Washington Park Zoo as a Work Projects Administration (WPA) project during the depression.

spiral staircaseLake Michigan viewed from lighthouse towerlookout tower5. The lantern originally burned whale oil, then lard oil and finally, kerosene.

6. The Coast Guard took over the lighthouse service in 1939 when the last keeper, Walter Donovan passed away. The building was closed in 1940 when the assistant keeper retired.

The Shipwrecks

7. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Great Lakes storms are more difficult to navigate than ocean storms. I knew there were a lot of shipwrecks but didn’t realize the great numbers of them. This map indicates documented shipwrecks at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, mostly in the late 1800s.

shipwreck map8. I had also known about the SS Eastland Disaster but wasn’t aware of the connection to Michigan City. Employees of Western Electric in Cicero, Illinois, were scheduled to take charter tour ships from Chicago to a company picnic in Michigan City in July 1915. The crowds gathered on the upper decks of the Eastland, and the top-heavy ship rolled to its side while still tied up in the Chicago River. Eight hundred people perished in the disaster.

The City

9. The Abraham Lincoln funeral train stopped in Michigan City on May 1, 1865. Local residents made breakfast for the train crew. Others brought armloads flowers to the train. The museum includes a Lincoln display. Among the items is Lincoln’s life mask. Lincoln sat through four molds of his face, something commonly done with famous people of his time.

Abraham Lincoln life mask10. A huge sand dune called the Hoosier Slide was mined away for glass making. This witch ball was made in the local glass factory.

witch ball11. Many other manufacturing firms existed in Michigan City, as well. Those who are old enough will remember the black licorice-flavored Smith Bros. cough drops.

Smith Bros cough drop poster12. Another Michigan City factory built these unique cradles that you could roll out to the field as you did your outdoor work. It came equipped with runners that worked as a sled on frozen ground.

cradle13. The South Shore Railroad, which still runs today, is the last inter-urban electric train in the country. The train begins in South Bend, Indiana, and stops in Michigan City before making its way to Chicago. Commuters make the trip five days a week, for over one million rides per year.

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Because the lighthouse keepers provided their own furnishings, none of the furnishings in the museum are original to the building. Individuals have donated items on display, unrelated to the lighthouse, but good examples of Michigan City’s past.

The Old Lighthouse Museum, located at 1 Washington Street in Michigan City, Indiana, is open April through October every day except Monday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Central Time. Check the web site for admission fees and further details.

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7 thoughts on “13 Fascinating Facts about Michigan City and the Old Lighthouse

  • June 12, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    What an interesting and eclectic collection. Can you imagine needing one of those cradles?!

    • June 12, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      Especially using the cradle runners to pull the baby outside onto the snow while you did outdoor work? No thanks.

  • June 21, 2015 at 12:15 am

    I agree with you about lighthouses. There is something romantic and compelling about them. I also photograph them whenever I see them. In Australia many lighthouse keepers cottages have been converted into holiday accommodation. We have never stayed in one but we have often been tempted to.

    • June 21, 2015 at 1:44 pm

      We have some lighthouses in the States that have been converted into holiday accommodations, as well. In some you can be “keeper” for the week and actually have assigned tasks. We haven’t done that yet either, but would like to.

  • April 12, 2020 at 7:31 pm

    I visited Chesapeake Bay and visited the old iron lighthouses there, plus several old museums, one of which contained a 4 gauge punt gun for harvesting ducks 150 years ago. Think of a big shotgun on a rowboat. I was born in Michigan City in 1948, almost on the front lawn of St. Anthony Hospital. We lived on Eighth Street a block from Franklin Street. We could walk to the Lake. The old pier to the second lighthouse and the Washington Park Tower were closed to the public due to safety concerns in those days. We picnicked and swam at the beach east of the public beach. It was named Fedder’s Alley. We had a mayor named Francis Fedder, but the beach was called that before Mayor Fedder. I remember the squeak of the “singing sands.” We used to ride the South Shore line to Chicago when I had to go to a special opthomologist and podiatrist. We called the train the “Vomit Comet” in those days.

  • April 12, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    I was born in Michigan City in 1948, almost on the front lawn of St. Anthony Hospital. We lived on Eighth Street, a block East of Franklin. We could walk to the Lake and swam and picnicked at the Fedder’s Alley beach East of the public beach. For safety reasons we couldn’t climb the Washington Park Tower and couldn’t walk out to the newer lighthouse. We rode the South Shore into Chicago many times. On one of my trips to DC, I visited the old iron lighthouses in Chesapeake Bay.

    • April 18, 2020 at 7:52 am

      I love your story of growing up in Michigan City, Pete. Thanks for sharing. I’m well familiar with the South Shore. Growing up in Calumet City, Illinois, the South Shore was the train we took to Chicago, too, picking it up in Hegwisch.


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