A Lighthouse Fights Bureaucracy at the Chicago World's Fair
Updated: Mar 18
Driving down the highway, I'm always intrigued when a moving house rolls by me. Propped on the back of a trailer-truck, with a sign proclaiming "oversized load," the home being transported looks large and somehow vulnerable at the same time.
As I travel along behind the house, watching for a safe opening to pass, I wonder—
What special meaning does the house have to the person moving it? Why couldn't they bear to leave it behind?
I've never found out the answers to those questions, but I did have the opportunity to discover answers about another traveling structure.
I also discovered the Viking had a companion while on exhibit at the Fair. At first, I missed it in the background since I had focused on the ship. Then, when I took another look at this picture...
...I noticed something interesting—there is a lighthouse behind the ship.
The lighthouse became a mystery in history I wanted to find out more about—where had this lighthouse come from? What happened to it after the Fair closed in October 1893?
A search for its origins revealed a lighthouse with a unique place in history. The first part of the lighthouse's story begins with an amazing Fair filled with treasures, waterways, technological marvels and beautiful buildings.
The story also includes fighting government agencies, a place called Waackaack and a tremendously popular exhibit at the Fair.
President Cleveland opened the World's Columbian Exposition on May 1, 1893, pressing a button that brought a dazzling display of electric light over a scene that might have come from ancient tales. And yet, the Fair was also about modern-day innovations.
The Lighthouse Board had taken over administration of the beacons from the previous overseers, the U. S. Treasury's Lighthouse Establishment. The Board, with a powerful jump into modernization, brought a new, much-needed era to United States lighthouses.
Their actions saved many lives and made the work at least a little easier for Lighthouse Keepers. They were justifiably proud of these efforts, and to show visitors from all over the world the progress they'd made, the Board wanted an elaborate showcase for lighthouses at the Fair.
The Acting Secretary of the Treasury balked at spending the money. Finally, a compromise was made and the indoor exhibit displayed Fresnel lenses, a light ship and models of lighthouses. As these things go, lining the walls of the scaled-down exhibit were imposing portraits of the Secretaries of the U. S. Treasury Department.
A real lighthouse came into the picture to help compensate for those portraits.
Unlike the Viking ship, the lighthouse didn't have to journey across the ocean to get to the Fair, but it had an interesting travel experience of its own.
The metal tower had been put together in a Detroit foundry, but the place for the new beacon had not completed preparations for it yet. The lighthouse made an unexpected detour—straight to the most amazing place on the planet at that moment: the World's Columbian Exposition, otherwise known as the Chicago World's Fair.
The lighthouse found a spot near another wonder, one modeled from the discovery of an ancient Viking ship uncovered in a burial mound in 1880.
People flocked to view the replica of a Viking ship, the likes of which had not been seen for centuries. They also enjoyed climbing the lighthouse's spiral staircase to the top. There, they would have a bird's-eye outlook over the buildings and lagoons spread over 600 acres. Turning, they could view the seemingly endless waters of Lake Michigan.
The lighthouse became a heroic rule breaker itself, using its celebrity to counterbalance those bureaucratic portraits at the indoor exhibit. As visitors climbed to the top, they experienced the importance and work of a real lighthouse.
According to an interesting article in Lighthouse Digest, the Fair's lighthouse became one of its most popular exhibits.
After the end of the Fair, the lighthouse went from showtime to work time, fulfilling its original purpose: saving lives. Settling in Keansburg, New Jersey, the lighthouse took on an unusual name: the Waackaack Rear Range Light. According to a Keansburg website, the word waackaack "derives from the original Leni-Lenape name for the area of Keansburg, meaning "Land of Plenty."
Sadly, efforts to designate the lighthouse as a historical landmark failed, and its rich history was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1955.
When the lighthouse was new and traveling to the World's Columbian Exposition, I wonder if someone drove behind it in a horse and wagon. Waiting to pass, she might have wondered where in the world this lighthouse had come from and where it was going. She would have found the story an intriguing one about a rule-breaking lighthouse—and a Viking ship—at the Fair.
More to Explore
Find out how a Viking ship invaded Chicago: visit my time travel article about the Viking, her captain and a crew of eleven intrepid men here.
Lighthouse author Elinor DeWire tells about moving lighthouses in her interesting and fun blog here.
Credit: National Park Service photo of Cape Hatteras being transported to a new location