Tuesday, November 16, 2010
October Lighthouse Collapse Lends New Meaning to “Fall”
In 1831, Chicago was still known as Fort Dearborn. Only three ships arrived that year – one of which was the Telegraph, bringing Joseph Naper and company – but the swampy little settlement was poised to be a boomtown.
Innkeeper Mark Beaubien built the first frame house that summer, an elegant improvement over the log cabins and wigwams that were its neighbors, but that was only the beginning. $5000 had been appropriated after a party of United States engineers recommended a lighthouse plan and building commenced in March of the same year.
The contractor for the project was Samuel Jackson or Johnson, depending on who’s memoirs you read. One of the stonemasons working on the construction was Stephen Downer, who was joined the following summer by his dad, Pierce. Pierce Downer later moved out to DuPage County and founded a little settlement that still bears his name – Downers Grove.
The walls of the lighthouse were three feet thick and by autumn the tower reached fifty feet high. Some of the citizens were concerned that the edifice seemed to lean a bit, but on October 30, Jackson took his detractors for a tour to the very top, a group that included “some ladies,” to show off how well-built the tower was.
But just a few hours later, Isaac Harmon wrote his brother, “about nine o`clock in the evening, down tumbled the whole work with a terrible crash and a noise like the rattling of fifty claps of thunder.” Mr. Jackson or Johnson said there must have been quicksand under the foundation, but Isaac and his neighbors were more inclined to believe “that it was all owing to the wretched manner in which it was built.”
Jackson started building again and the lighthouse was completed in 1832. It had a fourteen inch reflector that could be seen for up to seven miles away and had a bell as a fog warning signal. The illustration above shows this second lighthouse as it looked in 1857.
One of the light-house keepers, and in fact, the last keeper, was Mark Beaubien, who tried out many careers in young Chicago. He was in charge of the lighthouse in 1843 and again from 1855 until 1859. During some of those same years, he bought a house in DuPage County and operated a toll house along the Plank Road on the Naperville/Lisle Border, although his son seems to have been the actual toll collector.
Isaac Harmon lamented to his brother “we have had a flattener pass over the face of our prospects in Chicago. The light-house, that the day before yesterday stood in all its glory, the pride of this wondrous village, is now "doused." But Harmon needn’t have worried. This was only a minor setback in a town that has seen its share of rebuilding.