Grosse Point Lighthouse was built by the United States Government in 1873 as the lead lighthouse marking the approach to Chicago after several shipwrecks demonstrated its need. The promontory on which it stands was named Grosse Point (Great Point) by early French explorers and traders in the 17th century. Over the years, the U.S. Government dropped the French "e" on Point.
This area was first charted in 1673 by the famous French explorer and cartographer, Louis Jolliet, and his companion, Father Jacques Marquette, Jesuit missionary. Marquette returned the following year and makes reference in his diary to camping on Grosse Pointe before reaching the Chicago River next day. Joliet had recognized the strategic importance of the Chicago River at Lake Michigan for trade and military purposes. And he was the first to envision an inland trade network through America's interior from the East Coast through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico. With construction of the Erie Canal in 1824 and the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848, his vision became a reality. The southern Lake Michigan region was at the axis of this inland waterborne transportation route and it was here that one of America's great cities would grow: Chicago.
Evanston who helped when it was possible, all the while frightfully watching as survivors battled the elements in their attempts to reach land. A definite accounting of all who died is not possible, but estimates range from about 300-400 people. The citizens of Evanston petitioned Congress for a lighthouse on Grosse Point but the Civil War and events afterward delayed the project. Then, in 1871, not long after the great Chicago Fire, Congress formally authorized construction of a lighthouse on Grosse Point.
The project actually began in 1872 under supervision of lighthouse engineer and Civil War hero, Orlando Metcalf Poe. By late summer of 1873, the lighthouse buildings had been completed but it would be several more months before the lantern at the top of the light tower was finished and the illuminating optic installed. On March 1, 1874, traditionally the start of the Great Lakes shipping season, Grosse Point Lighthouse sent its welcome beacon of light over the waters of Lake Michigan for the first time. As constructed the light station was comprised of a keepers' quarter's duplex building with an above ground passageway leading to a fuel supply facility and the light tower. The tower stands 113-feet tall and was originally constructed of brick, metal, and glass. However, the exterior brick began to deteriorate and in 1914 a 3 ½-inch facing of concrete was added. The illuminating optic at the top of the tower is a second order Fresnel lens, the largest type of optic used on the Great Lakes and one of only five ever installed in lighthouses there. The beam of light from this optic could be seen up to 21 miles over the lake in good atmospheric conditions, and it served both to warn ships of shallow waters around the point and to guide the way into the Port of Chicago. Two fog signal buildings were added to the site in 1880 and a separate fuel supply facility was built in 1900. At its height of operation Grosse Point Lighthouse required three keepers and a day laborer for maintenance and to keep the light and fog signals in top condition. In 1923, the lighthouse was electrified and staff was reduced to two keepers. Then, in 1934, with the installation of a photoelectric device—the first of its kind used to activate a lighthouse – the station was decommissioned (not staffed). In 1935, the lighthouse site became the responsibility of the Lighthouse Park District.