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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 2000

A new lantern housing for Potawatomie Lighthouse at Rock Island. © Tim Sweet.
A new lantern housing for Potawatomie Lighthouse at Rock Island.

© Tim Sweet

Lighting the outer limits

Parks Friends kindled interest to restore Wisconsin's oldest public lighthouse on Lake Michigan.

Tim Sweet

Saving other Great Lakes Lights

On a rugged 137-foot bluff off the tip of Door County, a bright beacon has warned mariners from the east to steer clear of the Rock Island's crags and shoals on their way into Green Bay since 1836. Credited as the first federal lighthouse built in Wisconsin on Lake Michigan, the Pottawatomie (or Potawatomi) Lighthouse only lasted 22 years; it was razed before wind and rain toppled the gray, square 30-foot tower constructed with faulty mortar.

The present lighthouse replaced the original structure in 1858. The building was a solid, sturdy duplex that housed the keeper on the first floor and an assistant who occupied the second story. Crafted of island limestone, the 33x31-foot structure featured an 8x8-foot square wooden tower rising out of the ridgeline of a red, tin-covered roof. A nine-sided lantern room housed a 4th order Fresnel lens. This optical beauty produced a light that was visible in clear weather from a distance of 14 nautical miles.

In the early years, lighthouse families tended their post year-round. A succession of keepers' families enhanced the grounds with an outhouse, chicken coop, barn, gardens, apple trees and lilac bushes. Cisterns in the basement collected water from the roof to provide drinking water. Wild foods and the gardens' bounty were supplemented with annual shipments of supplies.

When I first visited the lighthouse in 1989, I was disappointed to find that the lantern room and the lens had both been removed from the keepers' quarters. Piecing together several versions of the story, the lantern was taken down sometime between the 1960s and 1980. Condensation from poor ventilation caused the lantern to rot from the inside out. The Fresnel lens was crated up and placed in the station's basement. Unfortunately, it was stolen and its whereabouts still remain a mystery.

Saving other
Great Lakes Lights

Lighthouses still dot the shorelines of the Great Lakes. Door County boasts more lighthouses protecting its coast than any other county in the United States.

Sherwood Point Light near Sturgeon Bay was the last manned lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It was automated in 1983.

When lighthouses were first built in the region 100 to 150 years ago, whale oil and later kerosene lamps made having a live-in keeper necessary. Now automatic lights (complete with self-changing bulbs), satellites, and other high tech navigational aids have all but eliminated the need for lighthouses and their keepers.

Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, Penninsula State Park. © Robert Queen
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse.
© Robert Queen

The Coast Guard is relinquishing responsibility for many of the stations that were once under its jurisdiction. Some of the properties, including four Door County lighthouses at Cana Island, Eagle Bluff (in Peninsula State Park and operated by the Door County Historical Society), Pilot Island and Plum Island, have been temporarily returned to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Historical, environmental, and financial plan for each of the properties have started. DNR's Dan Rogers, at the Green Bay office, is beginning to form plans for the Plum and Pilot island properties.

The Department of Natural Resources and the federal BLM are interested in forming partnerships with non-profit historical preservation groups to spearhead a drive to restore the historic buildings on Plum and Pilot islands. Such a group called Death's Door Watchstanders, Inc. is just forming now. It's name honors those who stood watch over the dangerous passage between the tip of Door County and Washington Island. Contact the group through the Friends of Rock Island.

The Coast Guard erected a steel tower immediately west of the old light station in the late 1980s to hold an automated, solar-charged, battery-powered beacon that requires very little maintenance.

In 1989, the Department of Natural Resources, which manages Rock Island as state parkland, rebuilt the 1858 tower, added a red tin roof on the lighthouse, and constructed a new chimney. A few years later, a contractor tuck-pointed the mortar joints between the native dolomite. These improvements sealed the structure from the elements and set the stage for some organization to take over the next phase of restoration.

In 1994, the Friends of Rock Island (FORI) formed to aid the DNR in enhancing the natural beauty and historic significance of this unique state park. FORI decided to direct part of its energy to restoring the Pottawatomie Lighthouse and reconstructing the missing lantern room.

Tony Hodges of Sturgeon Bay came to Rock Island on a camping trip during September of 1997. On a tour of the lighthouse, a park naturalist mentioned that the FORI was trying to find someone who could design, build, and install a new lantern housing. Hodges offered his services and was hired to begin design work during the winter of 1998. This project was funded by a state Stewardship Fund grant matched by donations from individuals and corporations.

DNR Landscape Architect Dan Rogers and the late Tom Jessen were instrumental in working to preserve the exterior of the 1858 structure. Rogers also researched the building's history at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He located blueprints of the keepers' dwelling and elevations that included the house, tower, and lantern, but there were no separate detailed plans Hodges could follow to reconstruct the lantern itself.

Hodges' drawings for the project were done from scratch and included none of the original lantern components, since he did not know they existed. One day in conversation with Rogers, Hodges learned that the original cast iron windowsills from the lantern room were still on site at the lighthouse. Rogers wondered if there would be any way to use these in the reconstruction. The sills, when pieced together, formed the base of the roof and the nine-sided top of the parapet (waist-high wall of the lantern).

The restored lantern housing. The Friends plan to restore the interior of the lighthouse, rebuild outbuildings and find the stolen fresnel lens. © Tim Sweet
The restored lantern housing. The Friends plan to restore the interior of the lighthouse, rebuild outbuildings and find the stolen fresnel lens.

© Tim Sweet

To "do it right", Hodges decided to scrap his first set of plans and use the original pieces as models to make the project more historically accurate. He explained, that after finding and inspecting two existing 1858 nine-sided lanterns, he had a good idea of how they had been built. "I also learned where the (original designs) were having problems." Since many of the missing cast iron pieces would have to be joined into one steel weldment, Hodges improved the design to better exclude water. "I upgraded the wood from yellow pine to northern white ash, which is rot resistant, and I modified the copper roof structure to prevent condensation."

The new lantern room was built in Hodges' Sturgeon Bay shop with hours of help from his son, Ben. In June of 1999, Hodges numbered each part of the lantern, dismantled it, loaded it onto a trailer, and hauled it to the tip of the Door Peninsula where he drove onto a car ferry bound for Washington Island. The pieces were then taken to Jackson Harbor where Rock Island property manager Mark Eggleson and his crew brought them across the last mile of open water in the park boat, then moved them up logging roads in a pickup truck to the lighthouse.

Assisted by project volunteer Marshall Paulsen, Hodges hoisted the components 41 feet up to the gallery deck using a homemade crane fashioned from an aluminum extension ladder and a battery-powered winch. The installation took nine days. The copper-clad parapet and roof, along with the ventilation ball and flashing details were skillfully crafted and put in place on the lantern by coppersmith Frank Luckenbach.

The restoration was so well done that the Friends received an award from the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation. But their work isn't done. FORI areinterested in bringing the interior of the keepers' quarters and the lighthouse grounds back to their original beauty. Cost estimates to restore the interior of the structure including plastering and painting walls and ceilings, sanding floors, repairing doors and other millwork total $65,000. We're looking for partners who can help us seek grants and conduct an archaeological study of the site to restore the privy, the oil house, and a nearby smokehouse.

The DNR is planning to construct bathroom facilities adjacent to the lighthouse as soon as this summer. FORI has set an ambitious goal of finishing all interior work on the building by 2002 so public tours by a resident interpreter can be regularly scheduled each June through August. Tours of the building and tower, featuring a climb to the new lantern room, are currently offered by a FORI volunteer every Friday (weather permitting) during the summer from 11 to 3 p.m.

For more information, to offer financial support or to join the restoration effort, contact Friends of Rock Island State Park, 126 Country Club Drive, Clintonville, WI 54929, (715) 823-6873.

Tim Sweet is president of the Friends of Rock Island and lives in Clintonville, Wis.