Waukegan, Illinois “Lighthouse Pier” Renovation
From the boat launch all the way out to the lighthouse, Waukegan Harbor’s south pier — known bureaucratically as the “government pier,” but to locals as the “lighthouse pier” — extends more than a half-mile out into Lake Michigan.
Fortunately, as the above-mentioned “government pier” title might imply, the facility is under the umbrella of the federal government — and the good news is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to cover a renovation that will wipe away all that damaged concrete.
If you haven’t enjoyed that walk on a calm, sunny day almost any time of year, put it on your list. If you have, you know about the pier’s many characteristics, from the holes used to anchor fishing poles to the rocks that form works of art along the south side of the break wall.
The view from the eastern tip, in the shadow of the lighthouse, delivers a pocket of calm beyond the noise of the city. Walking back toward the harbor, the postcard sight of the boat slips stands against the towers on the bluff and the remaining industrial silos to illustrate the history of Waukegan.
The pier is one of the great public amenities in not just Waukegan, but Lake County as a whole. But, as with most man-made structures, there comes a time when nature starts to reclaim its territory to a point where something has to be done.
That point was reached a while ago. Along with the charming features mentioned above, the eastern half of the lighthouse pier is a minefield of fractured concrete and exposed rebar. In a city wrestling to balance its books and repair aging infrastructure, the casual visitor might think this is just another post-industrial reality that will stubbornly remain as-is.
According to a report before the Waukegan City Council last week by Waukegan Port District General Manager Joe Seidelmann, taxpayers can thank rising lake levels for the Corps having the available funds to do the job — which will cost about $1.6 million.
“Last year, there was a surplus of funding because of the lake level being up, and they did not have to dredge as much sand (out of the harbor entrance),” Seidelmann said. “They were able to redo the concrete on the north pier (in 2017) near the public beach.
“This year, due to a surplus of funding due to the lake level continuing to rise, the Corps of Engineers is going to finally take care of the concrete problem on the (south) pier of that channel.”
As Seidelmann pointed out, the west end of the pier was renovated in the early 2000s out to a dogleg where it runs due east. The new plan, he told the council on Feb. 4, is to “finish off that concrete all the way to the lighthouse, as well as install new safety ladders and make sure everything is safe and sound out there for the public to access.”
Of course, as with a road project, these improvements come with a temporary setback: The pier will be closed to the public for roughly five months, starting around March 1 and continuing until the end of July.
“It’s good information, but it might be a little disappointing to some of our fishermen,” Mayor Sam Cunningham told Seidelmann. “Fishing is going to be very limited (on) the lighthouse pier.”
Seidelmann said this week that all of the work will be weather-dependent, meaning that if we have a mild spring and summer, the window of construction could be lessened.
But it looks like anyone who makes a tradition of watching the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display from the lighthouse pier might want to have a backup plan.
“(It) is going to cause a lot of public concern,” Seidelmann told the council, “but I want to make sure that everybody is aware that this is a good thing that’s happening — we’re finally getting this pier rehabbed, and everything’s going to be brand new when they’re completed.”
He added that the Port District is looking at the project as “another step toward the lakefront really being brought to the new. It’s been great over the last several seasons to see how many strides we’ve made along the lakefront.”
According to Seidelmann, the district has partnered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Waukegan Park District on a Harbor Walk that runs from the north end of industrial channel past the Waukegan Yacht Club down to a break wall on the south end of the harbor.
He said way point signage has been set up with information about regional fish and migratory birds as well as the history of Waukegan Harbor, including Environmental Protection Agency cleanup efforts.
He also pointed out that improved public docks along the walk — including a break wall on the south end of the marina — will provide safe sites for anglers while the pier renovation is taking place.
Overall, he said, the overhaul of the lighthouse pier “could cause some access issues, but we still want people to enjoy the lakefront without any concern.