Grosse Point Light House an beach in 1937. Photo courtesy of D. J. Terras

by Libby Hill July 9th, 2018

Driving through Canada on our return from our annual visit to the grandparents in New Hampshire, we looked forward to our usual stopover at Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan. Our daughters would stretch those restless carbound legs by climbing Tower Hill, the park’s 240-foot centerpiece dune. High dunes are common along the eastern and southern Lake Michigan shore. The dunes are there because the southerly currents and prevailing westerly winds mound up the available sand from their wide natural beaches.

The same westerlies that drive the sand to create high dunes on the Michigan and Indiana shores drive the sand right into the lake from the comparatively narrow, flat beaches on its western shore. But fierce northeast winds and waves can build up dunes on our coast. In the early 1900s, there were even dunes at Rogers Park and the beach near Calvary Cemetery.

Because the Illinois coast is the most densely populated in the Great Lakes region, it is the most highly engineered. Numerous piers and groins were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to hold sand and protect properties along the shoreline from erosion. These extensions into the lake interrupt the natural littoral drift of the sand down the shoreline, catching the sand on their north sides and sand-starving the beach to the south. Little is left of the native landscape.  Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, with its low dunes and its ridge and swale, or depression, topography, is our best example of western Lake Michigan’s original shore.

The dunes surfaced in discussions of the future of the Harley Clarke mansion, so it seems appropriate to indulge in some history. The beach at the lighthouse did not always belong to Evanston and historically there were no dunes. When the Lighthouse Service decommissioned the lighthouse in 1935, the North East Park District of Evanston, now the Lighthouse Park District, noticed that the federal government was no longer using the lighthouse grounds or the beach.

In that year, Congress conveyed more than 35 “Lighthouse Reservations” to their respective jurisdictions, keeping only the lighthouses plus enough land for access and maintenance. The grounds including the beach were given to Evanston for public park purposes.

The lighthouse itself was conveyed to the City by Act of Congress in 1941. Responsibility for the park went to the North East Park District and then to the City. The accompanying photo, taken in 1937, shows the impeccably manicured beach and bluff two years after the lighthouse was decommissioned.

The Lake Michigan water level seems to rise and fall in cycles. In 1950, the lake was low but rose quickly to flood level in 1954. Congresswoman Marguerite Stitt Church introduced legislation for federal funding of beach improvements and erosion control. The 18-member City Council approved a vote for local funds, which were half of the total cost. The federal government would pay the other half. A pamphlet urging a yes vote for the “Proposition To Issue $1,200,000 Beach Improvement And Shore Protection Bonds” included this quote: “North Evanston will be served by creation of a 16,300-cubic-yard sand beach at Central Street, flanked by 600 feet of jetty.”

On Nov. 6, 1956, Evanstonians voted Yes by 25,063 to 10,030. The work would take place in two phases: Lee, Dempster and Clark beaches would be first, with the work completed in 1961, to be followed by Lighthouse and South Boulevard beaches.

Two significant events in the 1960s affected Lighthouse Beach. Between 1962 and 1964, Northwestern University constructed its lakefill, except for the south end, which was completed in 1968. The estimate for improving the beach doubled, due to concerns that the lakefill would affect lake currents and the beach. And in 1965, Evanston purchased the Sigma Chi house (Harley-Clarke mansion) just to the north, including its beach. On Aug. 18, 1966, The Evanston Review reported that the nearly finished Lighthouse Beach quadrupled in size when a section of fence dividing the beaches was removed. It would have the longest groin on the North Shore.

Not too long afterwards, in 1974, the Evanston Environmental Association’s Ecology Center opened, with Donn Werling as director. He and his wife Diane lived in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters. The opportunity for connecting programming at the two areas was obvious. In 1977, as the product of grant from Coastal Zone Management, consultants prepared a report, “Land Use, Restoration, and Activity Management Plan for Lighthouse Landing,” dividing the 10.4-acre area into four zones: the nature center, The art center, the park and the beach. The report noted, “The central issue regarding the use of this property is how the potential of a key Evanston recreation area and the coastal zone of Lake Michigan ought to be allocated among competing and equally desirable uses.”

About the beach, the report observed, “Entirely different than the other zones, the beach provides a dramatic, almost suddenly explosive, exposure to the views over the lake from the bluff. This zone, more than the others, is in a constant process of change by the natural forces of wind and wave action, and by changes in weather.”

The report contains a detailed section titled Dune Reconstruction. The word “Reconstruction” is a misnomer; no dunes had ever been reported there. It envisioned a dune where, Mr. Werling said, children could study and observe natural processes at work rather than seeing a “flat antiseptic sandscape.”

The consultants recommended discontinuing beach-grooming in a small portion of the southwest corner, shaping a dune into successive ridges of primary and secondary dunes, and stabilizing the dunes with native dune plants. The existing sharp slope from the bluff would be planted with rose and hawthorn thickets, the secondary dune planted with juniper, sand cherry, and tall poplars, and the primary dune with American beachgrass (marram grass), prairie sandreed and juniper, allowing the dunes to evolve and mature as self-perpetuating, interpretive features. The dune proposal was approved on Sept. 17, 1978.

Construction began in 1980 and caught the attention of Chicago newspapers. A Sept 17, 1980 Suburban Trib article by Bruce Dold proclaimed, “Lighthouse project breathes new life into dunes.” It explained, “Some dune grasses [marram grass] were transplanted from nearby beach fronts, some imported from the Michigan Dunes.” Mr. Werling added, “We are just giving nature a boost.” The Chicago Sun Times, on Oct. 21, 1980, remarked that two dunes had been raised by bulldozers and “planted with trees and grasses unseen there for many years. This summer, Youth Conservation Corps [YCC] members put in more than 1,000 plants, including switchgrass, horsetails, woodbine, wild grapes, silverweed and pine.”  Mr. Werling remembers, however, that except for marram grass, the other species were probably not planted, probably because they were not available.  The facts remain unclear.

That brings us to today. After nearly 40 years, the dunes have developed into a naturalized setting. A recent visit reveals that the marram grass covers the foredunes, holding them as anticipated. Some native low-growing juniper appears here and there. But, nothing is to be seen of the thousand plants reportedly put in by the YCC kids or the plantings proposed in the 1977 report. Invasive species such as white sweet clover and crown vetch are present. 

In the natural evolution of a dune system, the secondary dune becomes covered with vegetation. Vegetation on the lighthouse secondary dune is now dominated almost completely by native willows and wild grape. On the primary dune, wild grape appears to suffocate the marram grass, though the grass is holding its own.  Box elder and green ash saplings sprout among the marram grass, threatening unwelcome shade.  A few volunteer workdays have been held to control the foredune grapes and saplings.

More plant diversity would be beneficial. In fact, with a more diverse landscape, the entire dune system could attract bird, butterfly and bee pollinators. The tantalizing questions going forward are “What will it take to care for these human-created dunes? Who is responsible, and what needs to be done?”  Perhaps a volunteer corps like those at the Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary and the North Shore Channel at Ladd Arboretum and Harbert-Payne Park could be established to clear problem growth and plant those species mentioned in the 1977 plan.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, natural outdoor spaces began to see many visitors.  Lighthouse dunes was no exception.  Many new free-roaming paths sweep through the dunes, evidence of the importance of natural areas such as the dunes as more people seek connections and resilience in the natural world.

The author updated this story with additional and corrected material on Jan. 17, 2022.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.