The building which is now the Old Lighthouse Museum was built in 1858, replacing the 1837 lighthouse built on the same site. The 1858 structure, with a foundation of Joliet stone and walls of Milwaukee brick, was smaller than the present building, ending just north of the entrance doors and having no porches.
Atop that first building was a lantern tower (cupola) housing a Fifth Order Fresnel Lens fueled by sperm oil. The light was visible for 15 miles. John M. Clarkson, a keeper in the first lighthouse also was keeper of the new building until Miss Harriet Colfax became keeper in 1861. She served 43 years, retiring in 1904 at age 80. Miss Colfax was followed by keepers Thomas Armstrong, Philip Sheridan and Walter Donovan.
In 1904, the building was remodeled by adding two rooms on each floor at the north end. This resulted in duplex apartments, the keeper and his family using all three floors on the east and the assistant keeper occupying the rooms on the west side. At that time the east and west porches were added, as were the gable and Grecian style trim around the windows. The top floor, originally brick, was covered with shingles.
Also in 1904, the lantern was moved in October to the new fog signal lighthouse at the end of the East Pier. That structure is still in use today. The lens was damaged in 1982 and is now on display in the museum. The present museum continued to be home for the keepers until 1940.
On July 1, 1939, the Coast Guard Service took over the U.S. Lighthouse Service. In August, 1940, Keeper Donovan died and Assistant Keeper Ralph Moore moved out of the building. The structure became a private residence and was used by the Coast Guard Auxiliary for a time. Subsequently it was left vacant, vandalized, and declared surplus property in 1960. The city purchased the building in 1963 and in 1965 entered into an agreement with the Michigan City Historical Society to restore the building. The museum opened on June 9, 1973.
Keeping the light was the principal job of the keepers; of course this meant the beacon on top of the 1958 building and also other beacons. In November of 1871 a beacon light was installed on the pier. In Harriet Colfax's log, we read, "Commenced using kerosene at Beacon, July 16, 1880." A light on the West Pier was destroyed in an 1886 storm and the lighthouse beacon then stayed lit year around, rather than only for the shipping season of April to November.
Thru all kinds of weather, the keepers had to climb to the lantern twice nightly at dusk and midnight to trim the wick, polish the reflectors and recharge the light with lard oil or kerosene. Lard oil would congeal in cold weather and the keeper had to go back to the lighthouse and reheat it. At daybreak the light was extinguished and the process repeated. Keepers had to also maintain the structures in perfect condition, since lighthouse inspectors came at random.
The first light for shipping at Michigan City was established about the time the city was founded in 1833. This was a simple lantern on a post, about 100 feet west of the present building.
The 1836 plans were drawn for a keeper's house and a 40-foot tall conical lighthouse tower topped with a lantern. An early inspector's report describes the house: "A story and a half house, plastered on the outside and dazzling in its whiteness, more of a portico than a veranda ornamented the front and was covered with trailing vines. It fronted south and was surrounded by a grove of small oaks on the west. The well-kept lawn was dotted with shrubbery, flowers and enclosed by a low rustic fence, and from a little wicket gate led a white graveled walk to the residence." The first keeper was Edmund B. Harrison, appointed on December 9, 1837, "at a salary of $350 per annum." He was followed by Mrs. Harriet C. Towner and John M. Clarkson.
Today, the Old Lighthouse Museum receives 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a year. The museum’s director is assisted by volunteer docents and helpers from an organization of collectors and lighthouse buffs called the Hoosier Lighthousing Club.
Visit http://www.oldlighthousemuseum.org for more information and directions.