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December 11, 2018

7/9/2018 7:30:00 PM
The Lighthouse Dunes: History and Future
Grosse Point Light House an beach in 1937. Photo by D. J. Terras
Grosse Point Light House an beach in 1937. Photo by D. J. Terras
By Libby Hill

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 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 have surfaced in recent discussions 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, 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 report 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 dune to evolve and mature as a self-perpetuating, interpretive feature. 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 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.”

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 appropriate. Some juniper remains. But, nothing is to be seen of the thousand plants 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. More plant diversity would be expected. 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 does it mean to “restore” these human-created dunes? Who is responsible, and what needs to be done?”

The Lighthouse dunes, along with the Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary and the Evanston North Shore Habitat Project would all benefit by the establishment of a new City land-use category, Natural Areas. Maintenance of these areas would be planned and performed by City staff working with experts and citizen volunteers. With careful stewardship, the lighthouse dunes can become an even more valuable asset to Evanston.


Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2018
Comment by: Frances Gasbarra

Stop the Madness! On Monday, July 23rd - At 6:00 pm in the Civic Center-The City Council will vote once again to proceed with the demolition of Harley Clarke Public Lakehouse.
Once more, wouldn't be nice if the Evanston Lighthouse Dunes folks would put down their demolition of the Harley Clarke opportunity. They should combine forces with the Evanston Lakehouse Garden group to renew the Jens garden in the space it was intended to be enjoyed. An inspirational space filled with stories of Evanston past and protected throughout the year, plus improve the existing Lighthouse Beach and man made dunes including the jetty. We have a park, we have a beach, we have a lighthouse and we have a public lakehouse!
Yes to Public Lakehouse! Please Dunes folks, give peace a chance to bloom into a beautiful public lakefront house that can be used all year long by people of all ages and abilities.

We can always demo it later.
We can never replace the hand honed stone, mill work and beautiful movement or aura of this house.

Harley Clarke is a 37,000 square foot, already built facility needing maybe 2-5 million in staged repairs and ADA amendments to reach full functioning power. It can pay for itself.

And not to be confused -there is already a ADA compliant park Lawerence Lawson Park, another Northeast park, and Lighthouse Beach and the Grosse Point Lighthouse.

The vision for small groups to do experiential learning can include hearing and vision impaired, small musical venues, art and year long gardening.
The hardest part? Choosing programming and schedule all of the important reach out of small group events. Children and parent can come for intentional learning experiences by the lake!

I heard someone from the Dunes group complain of the traffic. I am sure bigger events can be limited, to appease the dunes/park neighbors. The shelter is currently available to reserve for parties, seems not a current issue, correct?!

Robert Crown (RC) is 55,000 sq ft? At 55 million? $1,000 a square foot!! Maybe my facts are wrong. I would hope 25 million of RC funding would go to Foster school modernization so those children historically scoring lowest on standardized tests and bare the brunt of Dist 65 bussing mandate providing schools with diversity. The Water district should be helping, too. 5th Water Park and Pump anyone?

Come on Evanston. We are better than this! Let your alderman know your position.
Mayor Hagerty, you addresses in March at the Evanston Chamber hosted event a fun optimistic speech, “State of the City”, the video is attached on bottom tab in the online Evanston RoundTable. However, you forgot to mention the ongoing efforts of the city and Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens initiative which might have lead to more financial and much needed public exposure about the works in progress. Please join us in promoting a public lakehouse.

Readers, I kindly request you to please let your alderman know. And visit or Evanston to help support these efforts to bring Harley Clarke back to a rewarding function, or if you want to get involved, or would like more information.

On Monday, July 23rd - At 6:00 pm in the Civic Center-The City Council will vote once again to proceed with the demolition of Harley Clarke Public Lakehouse. Council members please vote down demolition. And Lake Dunes folks, please join in and make this an outstanding community place to inspire more generations!

Thank you in advance of your kind consideration and thank you to Adlerman Suffredin, who publically supported NO Demolition, in the 2nd Sunday Chicago Tribune article, by Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic, Blair Kamin, see it online here: "Evanston Plan to Demolish Harley Clarke: Public Vision or Hidden Agendas?"

Be well Evanston, Be inspirationally great! Let’s work together-Save HarleyClarke!

Frances Gasbarra

Please excuse typos-Sent from my iPhone

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Comment by: Emily Guthrie

The lighthouse was in danger of being demolished after it was given to the City. In its wisdom, the Council elected to preserve it and it now graces our City seal and was on our city stickers. It attracts visitors from all over the country.

One wishes the Council had the same perspective as regards Harley Clarke and its potential.

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Comment by: Allison Harned

What a lovely article! So interesting to learn about the history of the dunes at Lighthouse beach! Lots of history and science here. This would align perfectly with the plan of the Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens ( to have an environmental education center focused on the Great Lakes housed inside the Harley Clarke house! Thank you for sharing your expertise, Ms. Hill!

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