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"It's a symbol of the Racine area," explains John Schmit: a big, tall beacon and the pride of this little village of 1,900. Schmit, village deputy clerk, is talking about the Wind Point Lighthouse, 108 feet high and one of the oldest lighthouses still open for visits on the Lake Michigan coast. As co-founder of the Friends of Wind Point Lighthouse, Schmit says, "This is our big contribution to the community."
The lighthouse was built in 1880 and is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The tower is attached to a keepers dwelling. Since 1964, the village used one of the keepers dwellings for meetings. Designated as a National Historic Site in 1984, the property was turned over to the village 15 years later providing they maintain it as a park open to the public. The shoreline at that time was very ragged and high water levels in the 1980s left the property badly eroded. A $20,000 grant from WCMP helped shore it up.
"We put in very heavy boulders along the shore to bolster it and make sure that we didn't lose land or a building and we built a garden," Schmit says. A second grant financed building, a public restroom.
The tower and lantern room were off limits until three years ago. Now the friends group offers tours three times a year when visitors can climb the 144 cast iron steps that spiral to the top lantern room.
"We've made the property much more accessible and even rent out the grounds for weddings," Schmit says. "We wanted to improve public access to the lakefront and lighthouse, but also preserve it and make it beautiful and safe."
WCMP also throws a lifeline to those who didn't heed the beacon's warning.
"We are celebrating our first year of projects with WCMP funding," explains Russ Green, underwater archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society. Its Wisconsin Maritime Trails program fosters appreciation for the days when schooners and steamers plied the Great Lakes. The trails mark and preserve shipwreck sites for divers and non-divers alike. More than 700 ships sank in and around Wisconsin's Great Lakes waters.
Mooring buoys on shipwrecks encourage safe diving by delineating where divers can safely anchor and start exploring without damaging the wreck site. WHS also surveys and documents the sunken ships. At Wisconsin Maritime Trails visitors can learn about wrecks, plan a tour, scan photos and read journal entries posted by underwater archaeologists.
Archaeologists recently surveyed the schooner Lumberman, the massive wooden steamer Appomattox located off Atwater Beach at Shorewood north of Milwaukee and the schooner Kate Kelly, which ran aground on Racine Reef during a severe gale in 1895.
"We are using WCMP funding to do public interpretation work on the Appomattox because it is so close to shore," Green says. "Signage will go on the bluff at Atwater Beach so that visitors there can learn more."
Funding for informational kiosks at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc and at the Society's headquarters in Madison will also share details of the state's briny maritime history.
Natasha Kassulke is Associate Editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources.