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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The beacon of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island has guided mariners through strong winds, intense lightning and torrential rains. © Tim Sweet
The beacon of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island has guided mariners through strong winds, intense lightning and torrential rains.

© Tim Sweet

April 2005

Keepers of the flame

At a state park on the very tip of Door County, volunteers shed light on the lives and times of Great Lakes sentinels who kept the night watch.

Tim Sweet


Life On a Small Island

A lighthouse has dutifully stood watch atop the rugged dolomite limestone bluffs of Rock Island's Pottawatomie Point since 1836. In December of 1837, the federal government hired David Corbin to serve as the light station's first keeper on this farthest point of Door County jutting out into Lake Michigan. Corbin, a veteran of the War of 1812, was a bachelor who spent 15 years at his post.

Many other keepers and their assistants followed. Those familiar with Door County history may recognize the names of Jesse Miner, Jens Jacobsen, Edward Cornell, Raymond Buttars and his assistant Ernie Lockart who manned the Pottawatomie Light until 1946 when the station was automated.

For the last 58 years, the keeper's house has been vacant except for a colony of bats in the attic and an assortment of snakes slithering about the cisterns beneath the summer kitchen. Several years ago the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Friends of Rock Island formed a partnership with the purpose of restoring the historic lighthouse and its surrounding outbuildings to their former glory. This past May, restoration contractors finished the job of restoring the station to what it looked like in the early 1900s.

Volunteer families have taken up the call to once again inhabit the lighthouse from June through mid-October, interpreting the history of the buildings and its keepers. This year the lighthouse will be open to the public from Mondays through Saturdays between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. starting Memorial Day.

In addition to welcoming visitors and leading tours, volunteers get a firsthand opportunity to experience what it was like to live at a relatively isolated island outpost. The Pottawatomie Lighthouse has never had electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing.

Keepers used to rely on rainwater collected in the two cisterns or they hiked down the bluff to Lake Michigan, bucket in hand. Back in 1909 a well was dug near the keeper's house, and a hand pump there is still in use. During the recent renovations a parlor stove with propane insert was installed but those are the only amenities. For visitors, Rock Island offers primitive tent camping in a small campground on the southwest corner of the island and five backpacking sites on the southeastern corner. Amenities include fire rings, picnic tables, composting toilets and water.

The first week of June proved to be a bit of an adjustment for me during my stint as the volunteer keeper. I was usually out of bed by daybreak watching the sunrise over nearby Poverty Island. Mornings were spent cleaning up and shaving with a bucket of water and some soap. The lighthouse was swept and the nearby composting toilet was cleaned. Then I did what many of my predecessors had done – I painted, and painted, and painted!

Visitors were welcomed whenever they arrived; being there alone, I was nearly starved for human contact. I struggled a little with the quiet and lack of companionship. I'm used to having others around with whom I can converse. And living in the 21st century has made me accustomed to modern houses with refrigerators running, televisions talking and CD players singing. I'm thankful that so many visitors now make the lighthouse a destination on their Door County trips and that historical interest is leading many to take the ferry out to Rock Island during the months that docent keepers are here to greet them and share a bit of history.

We record daily observations of wind direction, temperature and precipitation in the station's logbook, just as keepers of yesteryear were expected to do. The wind seems to blow almost all the time. It would roar up the side of the bluff, rustle the leaves, rattle the windows, and moan and groan through the vents of the lantern room (at least I think it was the wind).

Where the lighthouse keepers nap. © Tim Sweet
Where the lighthouse keepers nap.

© Tim Sweet

The lighthouse provides its own measure of unusual sights. I particularly recall a week at the lighthouse in August when a thunderstorm struck late one afternoon. A cold front swept through from the northwest with strong winds, intense lightning and torrential rains. Pea-sized hail banged against the tin roof and the old wavy glass of the windowpanes in the parlor. Fortunately, the hail was short-lived and neither the roof nor the glass was damaged.

On several days, spectacular cloud formations took shape over the lake unlike the ones I'm used to seeing further inland. Dramatic gray and white storm clouds drifted by the lighthouse in the unstable and cool air. Some were even reported to have produced waterspouts over the northern portion of Lake Michigan. Other clouds of unearthly beauty adorned the sky above the boathouse as if placed there in a painting by a heavenly artist with a masterful hand.

From the lantern room one afternoon, I noticed an unusual ship approaching from the west, just off Boyer's Bluff. A short time later, I heard an engine in the passage in front of the lighthouse. A dash to the opening in the trees revealed a Staten Island Ferry passing Rock Island on its way from Marinette to New York Harbor!

Even the pitch-blackness of a starry night is a gift to be cherished on a clear evening at the lighthouse. From one bedroom window, I watched the big dipper hang just above the horizon line over Escanaba, while Orion's belt lit up the eastern sky out the other bedroom window. Never have I noticed Venus as bright as in the spellbinding darkness that surrounds Rock Island in the pre-dawn sky.

Other "visitors" warranted mention in the log. I even recorded my encounter with a three-foot fox snake I found in the front hallway!

Several times a day I would go up into the lantern room to check out the view of the lake and bay. After the last visitors left later in the afternoon, I'd take a hike down to the boathouse to watch the last ferry go. Then a hike around the rest of the 900-acre island would help to ensure I had worked up a good appetite for supper. I have the feeling that many keepers were so involved in purposeful exercise, such as climbing the lighthouse tower or hiking down to the lake for water, that they never would have understood the need for Nordic Tracks, stair steppers, and treadmills.

Unlike keepers of the past who had to keep the light burning, I retired for the day shortly after watching the sun slip beneath the horizon.

If you have the time this summer, perhaps you'll want to lace up your hiking boots and pay a visit to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park. I know the volunteers would enjoy showing you the station, and they'd appreciate the company. If you see someone looking especially lonely, offer to sit down and play a game of cribbage with him/her before you head for home.

Tim Sweet writes from Clintonville. For more information on the Pottawatomie Lighthouse: Friends of Rock Island, 126 Country Club Drive, Clintonville, WI 54929. Email Tim Sweet or Friends of Rock Island.

Life On a Small Island
Entries from the light keepers' logbook last year
Memorial Day, May 31
6:15 a.m. – 46 degrees

The view from the northeast bedroom looks cool, windy and foggy – can't see St. Martin Island six miles across the passage. Unfortunately, the view from the kitchen window doesn't look much different. The rain and east wind make it the kind of nasty day that leaves me longing for indoor plumbing and central heating (actually any kind of heat). But at least we're not in a tent!

Ranger Randy picked us up at 9:30 a.m. Torrential rains soaked everyone and all their gear as we lined up on the dock waiting for The Karfi to ferry us back to Washington Island. So many people were in front of us that we missed the first run. Lots of cold, dreary faces peered out from drenched hats and hoods on the boat. The car's heater never felt better!

June 6
I counted 27 visitors who signed the guest book. It's very quiet this evening as I sit here at Inspiration Point near the edge of the lighthouse cliff on the northeast shore. Waters below are calm and placid - an ideal evening for sea kayaking or daydreaming.

June 7
6:19 a.m. – Partly cloudy, 58 degrees

The lilacs still haven't opened up this spring. Next to them, the century-old apple trees are just beginning to blossom.

Lots of birds frequent this blufftop opening in the woods. A flock of cedar waxwings is eating the petals of the apple blossoms. A ruby-throated hummingbird just buzzed past them. Robins and flycatchers are singing along with an assortment of other feathered friends. Earlier I spotted several bluebirds, an indigo bunting and a scarlet tanager!

June 8
It's already 76 degrees at 9 a.m. Mostly sunny, a breezy south wind is blowing, and it is very muggy. Scattered thundershowers are predicted for later in the day. Flies are after my ankles.

I painted the west side of the summer kitchen yesterday. This morning, I finished the south side and two vertical boards on the east side before running out of paint.

As I was walking through the house to head upstairs, I encountered a three-foot fox snake sprawled out at the base of the stairway. Needless to say, the unexpected sighting shocked me.

After composing myself, I backtracked to the summer kitchen to get my camera to document the incident. I then herded the snake out the door.

June 11
12:55 p.m. – Fresh east wind, 57 degrees

I took a hike after staining the new porch on the summer kitchen. It was very chilly in the wind. I decided to take a hike in order to warm up. My attire featured a turtleneck, wool sweater, down vest and rain jacket.

Heat and company were found in the ranger's residence near the boathouse. Kirby gave me a cup of hot coffee. The warmth did wonders for me. I even took off a layer while visiting.

We watched The Sea Diver from the bay window in the office. The crew was pulling up nets just a little off shore. Kirby explained that this is one of only two commercial fishing vessels remaining on Washington Island.

June 14
About 9:15 a huge liner went past. It was all lit up against the pink, purple, and blue night sky. Such a beautiful sight!

June 18
Sunny and warm

Expecting lots of company today. We have the house spic and span. Not only did we do the daily sweeping and spot cleaning, but we swept every corner, washed the floors, dusted, cleaned, put in screens – we are ready!

I have so many mosquito bites everyone thinks I either have the chickenpox or mumps!

June 24
The day started blustery and unsettled, but ended calm and almost cloudless. After tours ended, the whole family did the Thordarson Trail to the east side of the island. From the backpacking sites, we scampered along the shore to the south beach. The beach was ours alone. Then it was time to head back home, some fresh baked bread and finally up to the lantern room for the sunset – the best of the week: yellow into red to purple and finally, yellow-orange. Wow!

The lighthouse is a treasure and the opportunity to live in and keep it alive was a treasure too.

July 4
The fog cleared about 5:30 p.m., and we were fortunate to be able to see a big barge go by. It was mostly bright blue. A second barge was passing in the opposite direction at the same time – it was red and white. How fitting to have red, white, and blue ships going through the Rock Island Passage simultaneously on the Fourth of July! Who needs fireworks?

July 8
The night is clear with so many stars! The lights at Boyer's Bluff, Minneapolis Shoal, and Poverty Island, along with ours look like lightning bugs in the night. We cannot tell where the sky ends and the lake begins with no moon on the water.

July 13
The first storm front moved in around 2 p.m. The tour guests holed up until the rain diminished at 3 p.m. Twenty minutes later, Ranger Randy came flying into the yard in the park ATV checking to be sure everyone was all right. A family back in the campground area on the other side of the island was struck by lightning. The father was hit hard while everyone else in the family was knocked to the ground. They were all evacuated from the island. Our prayers are with those involved.

August 3
Yesterday a thunderstorm rolled through in the late afternoon. It was the delicious kind that allowed you to feel cozy and safe, but yet appreciate all of the power and majesty such a storm holds. Counting between lightning flash and thunder clap made the heart of the storm about two miles away at its closest.

August 21
A beautiful clear night last night – stars formed a blanket out here over Lake Michigan, different from the scattering of stars we see near home.

We woke this morning to clear skies, happy birds, and a new crop of flies.

September 16
Woke up at 3:30 a.m. High winds were banging things upstairs. Actually thought the furniture was being moved around. In the daylight, went up to see the rocking chair under the steps banging the wall from the wind (where the plasterer had put it yesterday). 50 mph winds were reported with three trees down on the lighthouse path.

September 28
Sunny – mid-60s

Late in the afternoon, we walked down to the stone beach below the lighthouse. We saw a peregrine falcon chasing after some smaller birds.

Four deer and a gray fox came to eat apples at sunset.

The moonrise later, was like a giant Japanese lantern, surreal.

October 6
When we arrived, a crew was installing the parlor stove. It works wonderfully! Now we can just about live here year-round. In the evening, we lit the stove and closed both doors to the parlor. The room heated up nicely, and we stayed cozy all night.

October 8
We had only one visitor today. By 2:30, the fog started to lift and the rain let up. We walked down to the dock for a couple of hours then came back to the lighthouse. We saw several deer and a fox out by the apple trees after dinner. Tonight we're going to sit by the stove in the parlor and read.

October 18-22
I closed the lighthouse for the winter. The weather was perfect even though rain had been forecast for the entire week – clear nights and many shooting stars!