Spotlighting the Lighthouse Museum
March 28, 2012 3:38PM
If you go
The Old Lighthouse Museum is at the west end of Washington Park on Michigan City’s lakefront. Hours are from 1 to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for ages 14 and older, and $2 for children. To get to the museum from Interstate 94, take exit 34B (State Route 421/Franklin Street) north toward downtown Michigan City. Turn right at 9th Street, then left onto Pine Street. After crossing the bridge, go right then immediately do a U-turn back into the free museum parking area. Note that a separate fee lot is required for visitors also doing other activities in the park.
Updated: April 30, 2012 8:18AM
For more than 150 years the lighthouse in Michigan City has been shining, and for almost 40 years the Old Lighthouse Museum has been shedding light on the stories of both the city and the dedicated men and women who kept the beacon burning. Theirs is an interesting story from the years before electric power, when keepers had to brave the breaking waves, ice and winds to keep the light glowing and the boiler fired to keep the fog horn operating.
The Old Lighthouse Museum opens for the season Sunday, April 1.
“The question we’re asked most frequently is why the lighthouse is so far from the water, but in 1858 when the building was built, it was near the water’s edge,” said Laura Shields, museum director.
At that time the light was in a tower on the building, the lamp was fueled by burning whale oil, and the light guided primarily grain and lumber ships and fishing boats into the busy commercial and industrial port.
Shields pointed out a series of maps in one exhibit that show the effect that depositing sand has had over time on reshaping the shoreline and essentially moving the lighthouse inland. The museum also has images that document what was likely the biggest movement of sand in the area, the mining of sand from the big dune known as Hoosier Slide as the sand was shipped out in rail cars for use by the glass industry.
“Hoosier Slide was about twice as tall as Mount Baldy. It was a popular spot for visitors, and even for weddings,” said Shields, as she pointed out a large painting of Hoosier Slide on the wall. She said that the huge dune would have dominated the view from the museum window, and is now the spot where the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. generating station stands. Information in the museum indicates that about 30 train cars of sand were removed daily for more than 30 years before the dune was leveled by the 1920s.
The museum also shows how the development of Washington Park in the 1890s changed the lakefront to a recreational destination, drawing excursion steamships from Chicago and as many as 10,000 visitors in a weekend.
The tragic story of one of those steamers, the Eastland, is also told through texts, artifacts and prints from a graphic postcard collection. The ship was loaded with Chicago area families bound for a company picnic in Washington Park, but never made it. The Eastland tipped over while still tied to the dock in Chicago, and 800 people died.
As the lakefront changed, so did the lighthouse. The light was moved out onto the pier a quarter mile walk from the keeper’s house. Whatever the weather conditions, the keeper had to make the trek several times each day to fuel the light and clean soot off of the lens. The interesting and even heroic stories of those who served as keepers and assistant keepers, and lived in the home, are also told. Two upstairs rooms display a collection of household artifacts from that time period.
This engaging little museum also has exhibits on shipbuilding and shipwrecks, the Coast Guard, Great Lakes lighthouses, lighthouse technology, lifesaving and much more. Self-guided tours, using a pamphlet or with push button audio descriptions, are available. I understand that most visitors spend about an hour in the museum, but school-age children move through much quicker.
Shields said that children tend to enjoy the exhibit cases on shipwrecks, climbing to see the view from the tower, and the plaster cast life mask of Abraham Lincoln in the collection chronicling the stop his funeral train made in Michigan City. If visiting with children, leave time to visit the adjacent park or the nearby beach or zoo. It’s also fun, and fitting, to take a walk out to the lighthouse at the end of the pier catwalk.