Port Clinton Lighthouse Story (Archive)

Port Clinton, Illinois was an old forgotten town that was located approximately 12 miles south of Waukegan, Illinois. The entire town was laid out and built up by those important entrepreneurs who first settled in this area. They were also responsible for the engineering and building a 620 foot pier that extending far into Lake Michigan. From all accounts the pier took less than year to build and soon there was minor shipping traffic running in and out of the newly formed harbor. Port Clinton was a mixed bag of trades and people that made up their 100 residents (Steam powered saw mill, a lathe, skilled artisans and stores of various kinds). Living in a fledging town was hard, but those who lived there held their own through the worst of times. Those important entrepreneurs petitioned Congressmen Stephan A. Douglas, in an attempt to get a lighthouse build in their fledging harbor town. The details of this petition and how it materialized are somewhat sketchy. The only thing that is known is one of the key players responsible for securing the necessary funds for the construction of the Port Clinton Lighthouse was Congressman Stephan A. Douglas nicknamed “Little Giant”.

Congressman Stephan Douglas was the chairman of the Committee on Territories in Washington D.C. and had powerful ties to the Lighthouse Board. Congressman Douglas, Illinois Land Developer Bloom and United States House of Representative Elihu B. Washburne introduced the bill before Congress on the 3rd day of August 1853. Elihu B. Washburne was also a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Each member pressured Congress to approve the construction of Port Clinton Lighthouse. The United Stated Lighthouse Board estimated it would cost approximately $5,000.00 to build the Port Clinton Lighthouse. Congress reviewed the cost figures and agreed with the Lighthouse Board estimates. Congressman Stephan A Douglas assisted with the approval process in Congress and on the 3rd day of August 1854 appropriations to construction the Port Clinton Lighthouse were approved. In January 1855 the Port Clinton Land Company deeded two acres of land along Lake Michigan to the Lighthouse Board.
Side Note:

“Mr. Bloom owned the saw mill in Port Clinton, Illinois and had the only contract to supply over 200,000 board feet of road planking to the City of Chicago. Bloom was also a highly respected land developer in the State of Illinois.”
Bids were taken by the Lighthouse Board from September 1854 to just prior to the start of the New Year. Bids were approved and construction of the Port Clinton Lighthouse started in early months of 1855. Construction crews and Lighthouse Board personnel took about a year to complete the entire project. Once finished the newly constructed Port Clinton Lighthouse was a 1 ½ story brick keeper’s quarters with 6 rooms, a tower that had walls that were 17” thick at the base, a “Lake Ward Gable” that connected the Keeper’s Quarters and tower. This Lake Ward Gable was also designated as a storage room that housed sperm whale oil. The oil was contained in two air tight oil butts. The new constructed lantern room floor was made up of stone and was capped off with an octagonal cast iron room with exterior railings. The Lighthouse Board ordered a “Fixed White 6th Order Fresnel lens” from Paris, France. When it arrived from Paris the new Fresnel lens was manually hoisted into the newly constructed lantern room. The light source at that time came from two fountain lamps that consume 3.14 oz. of oil per hour. The center elevation of the lantern room was approximately 22 feet above the tower foundation and the lighthouse sat atop a 52 foot bluff (Presently know today as Moraine Beach). The focal point designated for this light was fixed at 70 feet above the mean of Lake Michigan. The white beacon that shined through the sixth order Fresnel lens was visible for 6 nautical miles providing the weather was good and the skies were really clear. The architect decided the roofing material of choice for both structures (Keepers Quarters & Lake Ward Gable) was red slate. The water source came from Lake Michigan and water storage was a cistern that was excavated to a depth of 6 feet below the existing grade of the Keeper’s Quarters. The containment tank that surrounded the cistern was constructed out of brick from the St. John’s Brickyard.

Records show there was only one keeper station at Port Clinton Lighthouse. Owen Monaghan (Immigrant from Ireland) was appointed keeper on the 1st day of July 1856 at a starting salary of $350.00 per year and remained at his position until 1860. Records also revealed that Keeper Owen Monaghan took great pride in his work and the lighthouse was well maintained while in his custody.
According to other documents the town of Port Clinton and the harbor never grew to their full potential. This caused the Lighthouse Board to re-evaluate the need for a light in a city that wasn’t growing and a harbor that was somewhat inactive. The other problems facing the Lighthouse Board was the start of the Civil War between the North and South was lingering on the horizon and they had a lighthouse that really didn’t serve any type of major maritime traffic. After careful consideration the Lighthouse Board decided it would be best to closed Port Clinton Lighthouse in 1860.

Authors Note:
“According to Keeper Owen Monaghan daughter, Keeper Monaghan witnessed one of the most tragic maritime accidents recorded in Great Lakes history. According to his daughter, Keeper Owen Monaghan watched from the lighthouse the lumber ship “Augusta”ram and sank the “Lady Elgin”. Keeper Monaghan wasn’t able to signal either vessel, because the light was turned off.” His daughter stated that prior to this tragic accident and loss of human life, former Keeper Monaghan begged the United States Lighthouse Board to “Turn the Light” back on, but they refused his numerous requests.”

I got the feeling that former Keeper Owen Monaghan witnessed other near tragic or tragic events that really concerned him while he was still living at the lighthouse. I believe that’s why he continued to ask the Lighthouse Board to “Turn the Light Back On”. What was the official reason why Keeper Owen Monaghan final left Port Clinton Lighthouse? According to his daughter, Owen Monaghan was asked by the Lighthouse Board to stay on at the lighthouse, but if he decided to stay he would have to pay them rent. According to Owens daughter, he declined the offer and sent them a very short letter. His explanation to the Lighthouse Board was:
“I beg to inform you that I wish to leave the lighthouse which has been in my custody since the lighthouse has been disconnected. I will thank you to instruct me at your earliest convenience to whom I shall give up the possessions of its premises. I would like you to have someone come out and inspect the premise prior to my departure”

Owen’s daughter stated her father wanted to make sure the Lighthouse Board felt he had taken proper care of Port Clinton Lighthouse.
If Port Clinton Lighthouse was still standing today, it would be situated along the shores of Lake Michigan in a Chicago suburb known today as “Highland Park, Illinois”.The actual placement of the lighthouse would be at the junction point known today as Broadway and Edgecliff Drive just off Sheridan Road. Today that spot is now occupied by the B’nal Torah Synagogue.

As I wrote this I’ve had time to reflect on the lighthouse, those that once lived in the town of Port Clinton and the man (Owen Monaghan) who kept the light burning well after the flame was extinguished. The unfortunate part of this whole tragedy is the only remnants of Port Clinton Lighthouse are the stories told by Owen Monaghan’s daughter, those of us who investigate the history of Great Lakes Lighthouses and those of us who want to know more about the history old towns that once stood along the shores of Lake Michigan. Time has marched right on pass the Port Clinton Lighthouse, its short four year service history is a footnote in time and the State of Illinois has let this lighthouse pass away into the dark abyss of time. What a tragedy and loss of history to those who once called the town of Port Clinton, Illinois home!
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