Digest>Archives> May 2003

Museum a Familiar Building to Its Director

By Jim Merkel


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The Old Lighthouse Museum.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

When visitors at the Old Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City, Indiana talk about a squeak in the museum steps, Director June Jaques may respond with a story.

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June Jaques with one of the two Fresnel lenses in ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

As a child in the 1930s, Jaques often stayed at the building, when it was a dwelling for keepers at the nearby Michigan City East Pierhead Light. The squeak made it impossible for Jaques to sneak back in after curfew with her best friend Jean Moore, daughter of Assistant Keeper Ralph Moore. “Her father had hearing like I don’t know what,” Jaques said.

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The Michigan City East Pier Head Light.

Jaques doesn’t tell the tale often, but just might at an open house marking the 30th anniversary of the reopening of the dwelling building as a museum, on June 8. She would do it between showing the two Fresnel lens at the station, and telling people of the history of the beacons in Michigan City since the first lighthouse went into service there more than 165 years ago.

One topic she might raise to visitors is that the brick building that now houses the Old Lighthouse Museum was not the first lighthouse in Michigan City. That started in 1837, when the U.S. Government authorized the construction of a 1-1/2 story keeper’s dwelling with a 40-foot tower. Keeper Edmund B. Harrison was appointed keeper at the station on Dec. 9, 1837, making $350 a year.

With the growth of grain and lumber shipping came the need for a bigger light. In 1858, a new lighthouse went into service nearby with a fifth order Fresnel lens visible 15 miles away.

One of the early keepers who kept that light was Harriet Colfax, who served more than four decades, from the 1860s to the start of the 20th century.

“She was adamant, ‘no one lights my light except me,’” Jaques said.

Besides tending the light on top of the dwelling, Colfax also had to care for a beacon light on the nearby east pier, which was installed in 1871. The pier was shaky and the beacon there was in a building Jaques described as a shack. It was moved to the west pier in 1886, after it was destroyed in a storm.

“In different parts of her journals, she’ll mention bad weather and walking or coming back from going across the harbor drenched and you know her clothing dragging because she wore those crazy big skirts.”

Most nights, Colfax had no problem traveling with a rowboat from the main light to the pier light. But in her journal, she told of a near-catastrophe when the weather turned ugly one night.

“The particular night she writes about, it sounds more to me like it was a tornado, but she called it a bad storm,” Jaques said. “She had to try two or three times before she made it across the harbor.”

Finally, she made it to the building and light the beacon inside. “She scrambled out of her building, got back to her rowboat and heard this crashing noise and turned around. The little building she had just been in had blown off into Lake Michigan,” Jaques said.

Colfax left the lighthouse in 1904, the same year the keepers’ living quarters were remodeled and enlarged to create a duplex house, with the keeper living on the east side of the three floors and the assistant keeper on the west. Also that year, the fifth order Fresnel lens was moved to the new Michigan City East Pierhead Light. The cupola and lantern room were removed from the top of the old lighthouse to allow for a second chimney needed for a second furnace installed after the building was split in two.

The next 36 years were fairly uneventful, save for Jaques’ effort to sneak in late at night with her friend. “I lived in the country and kids when I went to high school, you didn’t have a car handed to you when you were 16,” Jaques said. “I spent a lot of weekends here.”

Change came after the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939. According to a paper written by then-acting Curator Mrs. William H. Harris in 1974, Ralph Moore moved out of the dwelling after then-keeper Walter Donovan died in August 1940. “It was then used as a private residence and the Coast Guard Auxiliary headquarters for a short time,” she wrote.

In 1973, a replica of the original tower was placed on the roof. On June 9 of that year, it was rededicated and reopened.

Jaques, meanwhile, got married, had a family and had a career. And in the early 1990s, another sister of Ralph Moore asked Jaques if she wanted to help give tours at the museum.

“I think quite frankly I was beginning to get bored,” said Jaques, who retired in 1990 as an administrative services manager. Soon she did volunteer work as a docent. It wasn’t long before the board of directors of the Michigan City Historical Society went looking for a new curator, she agreed to fill in - for a year. “That was the beginning of 1995 and I’m still doing it,” said Jaques, a widow who proudly notes that she has 23 grandchildren.

Today, she watches over a museum that receives 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a year. She’s assisted by volunteer docents and helpers from an organization of collectors and lighthouse buffs called the Hoosier Lighthousing Club. A number of those volunteers will be at the 30th anniversary celebration of the opening of the museum, now set for 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 8. Among those scheduled to come is Bill Younger of Harbour Lights.

People at the open house who hear about Jaques’ experiences when she grew up may think she did something special. But that wasn’t in her mind at the time. “We just treated it like oh, that’s her house,” she said.

The Old Lighthouse Museum is open 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every day but Mondays and holidays. There is a small admission fee. Groups of 10 or more are by appointment.

The museum is located on Heisman Harbor Road in Washington Park in Michigan City. The Michigan City East Pierhed Light is nearby.

For more information, write to:

Old Lighthouse Museum

Heisman Harbor Road

Washington Park, P.O. Box 512

Michigan City, IN 46360

or call 219-872-6133.

This story appeared in the May 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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