For a piece of real Indiana history, or for an educational and fun day trip from Indianapolis, check out the Old Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City. The museum is managed by the Michigan City Historical Society, and it’s quite a busy spot in the touristy summer months. While you’re up in northwest Indiana, be sure to relax on the beach at the Indiana Dunes, or get an awesome tour of the famous Ragtops Museum.
Before the Old Michigan City Light was built, Michigan City was only a small village with three taverns, four grocery stores, a tanner, blacksmith shop, tinsmith, brick kiln, two hotels and one Episcopalian church. When Major Isacc Elston visited the area, he saw major potential for a successful port. He took his ideas to the U.S. Senate, who approved a request for $20,000 to establish a port and to build a lighthouse. On Independence Day in 1836, two years after the request for funding, it was granted. This was the day when the town was officially incorporated. A year later, more funding was provided to finish construction and make improvements. Thus, the Old Michigan City Light and a keeper’s house was built.
The first lightkeeper of the Old Michigan City Light was Edmund B Harrison. To keep the lighthouse glowing at night, and safely steering ships to harbor, the lightkeeper climbed to the top of the beacon to tend the light twice each night. No matter the weather, each night at dusk and midnight, the lightkeeper had to trim the wick, polish reflectors and add lard oil or kerosene to recharge the light. There was a small house located next to the lighthouse for keeper’s living quarters, and the starting pay was $350 per year.
In 1858, the time had come for some upgrades to the lighthouse, and the living quarters. The port had grown busier over the years as shipping in Michigan City increased greatly. The U.S. Government funded a new construction on the grounds, replacing the old lighthouse with a brighter one. The Keeper’s living quarters were upgraded to a seven-room, 1.5 story house, with the lighthouse beacon adorned the roof. Several upgrades were made to this structure over time, including the addition of a fence, extensive roof repairs and dozens of paint jobs to keep it’s “dazzling white” color. In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers extended the piers, and to guide the way between them was a second beacon, a pierhead light.
One very district lightkeeper was Harriet Colfax, appointed in 1961 at age 37. At first, she didn’t seem fit for the job because she was a frail looking, petite woman. She quickly proved her doubters wrong, and she diligently kept the light, and for many years she did it alone. She was granted assistance by dear friends and government appointees after the second beacon was added. She worked as the loyal lightkeeper for43 years, and five months after her retirement, she passed away.
In 1939, the lighthouse building was closed, and the U.S. Coast Guard took over the coastlines. For many years the building was vacant, and vandalized. Demolition was in the planning when the Michigan City Historical Society began raising money to save the legendary lighthouse. Eight years later, the society had raised more than $80,000, and the Old Michigan City Light was eventually converted into a museum.
Head up for a visit to the Old Lighthouse Museum the next time you’d like to have an adventure away from Indianapolis. The museum is now open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m to 4:30 p.m. A small admission fee is charged. For more information about seasonal hours, museum attractions, or for directions, visit the Michigan City Historical Society online.
Old Lighthouse Museum
Michigan City Historical Society, Inc.
P.O. Box 512Michigan City, IN 46361