A lighthouse isn’t the first thing that comes to mind as the symbol for a city in Indiana. After all, the Hoosier state is nearly a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.
You’d be more apt to think of a farmhouse with a field of corn or a sleek racecar (like the back side of the Indiana state quarter) as symbol for an Indiana community, but a lighthouse?
Yet that’s precisely the image that has been crafted for Michigan City, one of about a dozen Hoosier communities that hug the Lake Michigan shoreline.
“The lighthouse has played an important role in our economic development efforts,” said Mayor Chuck Oberlie, who hands out lapel pins with an image of the city’s pierhead light when he travels to out-of-town events.
“It’s very photogenic and it’s a positive image for the city,” said Oberlie, the leader of this community of 35,000 people who call this Great Lake city home.
Back in the 1830s, when a settlement known as Michigan City was vying with Chicago to become Lake Michigan’s premier deepwater port, an effort began to build a lighthouse at the mouth of Trail Creek, which emptied into Lake Michigan.
It took two years, and on July 4, 1836, the date the town was officially incorporated, the federal government approved spending $20,000 to begin harbor improvements. On March 5, 1837, another $5,000 was appropriated to build a lighthouse to guide ships into the harbor.
At that time, lumber was one of the primary products shipped through Michigan City.
By September of 1837, the city’s lighthouse had been constructed. The 34-foot-tall tower also included a separate one and a half story building. But by 1858, that original structure was in disrepair, and was replaced by a more sturdy brick residence that had seven rooms and a cellar. At the north end of the building was a six-foot iron lantern that had a new Fresnel lens that was visible 15 miles out into Lake Michigan on a clear night.
In 1904, the Army Corps of Engineers built a concrete breakwater on the east side of Trail Creek’s mouth and with it, built a pierhead light and fog tower. In October 1904, the lighthouse was closed, and the pierhead light took over its duties.
Today, it’s the pierhead light that the city uses as its symbol. As for the 1858 lighthouse, it was purchased by the city in 1963, was restored, and since 1973, it has been operated as a museum by the Michigan City Historical Society.
Even though there has been a lighthouse in Michigan City for 170 years, most people in Indiana don’t realize there is a lighthouse in the state. For that reason, Oberlie passes out his lapel pins.
“When I give them to mayors from cities in southern Indiana, they invariably ask, ‘A lighthouse?’ And then I explain to them the history and its importance to Michigan City.
“Most people who haven’t seen a Great Lake don’t know the size. The lighthouse helps give it some scope,” said Oberlie. “After all, if you need a lighthouse, it must be pretty big.”
Oberlie calls Lake Michigan the city’s crown jewel. When he was city planner in the 1970s, Michigan City crafted a new master plan and that was when the lighthouse became part of the city’s identity.
Today, the lighthouse is on all city signs, from the parks to the housing authority to the fire department. It’s on the city’s fleet of police cars and on the water tower.
Tim Bietry, president of the Michigan City Area Chamber of Commerce, uses the lighthouse in its logo.
“It’s extremely important. It’s a brand we’re associated with,” said Bietry.
The chamber had made and sells (and presents as gifts) ceramic replicas of the Michigan City lighthouse. Bietry said it’s a unique gift that symbolizes the city.
Todd Holloway, president of Lighthouse Industries, and his partner, Paul Fithian, the company’s executive vice president, use the lighthouse in their corporate logo.
“It’s the only lighthouse in Indiana,” said Holloway. “I grew up on the east coast, and you don’t think of a shore area in Indiana.”
Holloway explained that Lighthouse Industries is an injection molding company that makes plastic parts.
“When we were looking for a name, we were sitting in our attorney’s office and we saw all these photos of the lighthouse on his wall,” said Holloway. “There are a lot of injection molding companies with ‘precision’ or ‘custom’ in their name, and we wanted a name that didn’t say just injection molding. We aspire to other things. We thought, ‘Why not lighthouse?’“
Not far from Lake Michigan is Lighthouse Place Outlet Mall, one of the city’s primary tourist attractions. Hundreds of thousands of people from the Chicago area and Indiana visit the mall each year.
Its main entrance on Sixth Street has a replica lighthouse that serves as a visitor center.
“The city has long valued the image of the lighthouse,” said Maureen Mellen, assistant general manager of the mall. “When the outlet mall opened in 1987, it used the lighthouse as its identity.”
A few years later, the owners changed the name to Prime Outlets, but residents continued to call it Lighthouse Place. In 2000, when Chelsea Properties purchased the mall, they immediately changed the name back to Lighthouse Place, said Mellen.
“It is a source of pride for the center and the city,” she said.
John Regetz, executive director of the Michigan City Economic Development Corp., called the lighthouse “the iconic symbol for Michigan City.”
“When I arrived here, I realized immediately it was the branding image we needed. It is a quality of life symbol,” said Regetz. “We try to promote ourselves as Indiana’s beach and the lighthouse is a boon to that image and the visitor industry. We build on that. After all, the lake is our inland ocean.”
This story appeared in the
July 2009 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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