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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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The Wisconsin Maritime Museum is home to the USS Cobia, a World War II submarine. © Robert Queen
The Wisconsin Maritime Museum is home to the USS Cobia, a World War II submarine.

© Robert Queen

February 2005

Lighthouses, museums, parks and more

Increasing accessibility to the state's maritime culture

Natasha Kassulke

Leaving the lights on | Museums
Fisheries, car ferries, parks and more

When the wind and waves roared, Great Lakes lightkeepers jumped to duty keeping beacons burning and fog horns sounding. At night, the revolving lights of these towering lantern rooms showed sailors entrances to harbors and warned of hazardous rocks.


But today, many of these beacons also are boosting tourism in Wisconsin reincarnated as museums, bed and breakfasts and the focal points of parks.

In fact, nearly 50 lighthouses line Wisconsin's Great Lakes coastline and Door County has more lighthouses – many over a century old – than any other county in the United States. Add to that museums, parks and interpretive signs to point out submerged artifacts and you have multiple gateways to the lakeshore's maritime history.

"Accessibility is an important goal of Wisconsin's Maritime Trails," says State Underwater Archaeologist Keith Meverden. "A lot of the shoreline signage provides resources for non-divers too."

Leaving the lights on

Although many lighthouses no longer have full-time keepers and there is no state lighthouse preservation society, several local lighthouse societies are at work in Wisconsin.

Many of the lighthouses located along Wisconsin's Great Lakes shoreline were built during the 19th century and were vital to the shipping, fishing, logging and mining industries. Beginning in the 1840s, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, today's U.S. Coast Guard, began building lighthouses to make travel on Lake Michigan safer. Today, tourism is a prime reason people climb the tightly spiraling stairs to many of these lantern rooms.

In 2003, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum presented its first annual Lakeshore Maritime Heritage Festival and Lighthouse Walk. The tour included five area lighthouses from Manitowoc to Algoma. The event was born after looking at the popularity of such tours offered in Door County and Michigan. The Cana Island Lighthouse in Door County annually attracts 40,000 visitors.


While exploring the Wisconsin Maritime Trails, escape the seagulls and step inside to discover maritime history at more than a dozen museums in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc was founded in 1970 as the Manitowoc Submarine Memorial Association and has grown into one of the largest maritime museums in the Midwest. It is devoted to the history of the ships of Lake Michigan and its collection includes permanent galleries and the USS Cobia, a World War II submarine that is moored along the Manitowoc River.

The Wisconsin Marine Historical Society and many other groups make extensive use of the Milwaukee Public Library's Great Lakes Marine Collection at 814 W. Wisconsin Ave. The cornerstone of the Great Lakes Ship Files is the Herman G. Runge Collection, acquired by the library in 1959. Runge devoted 70 years of his life to collecting and preserving information on Great Lakes marine activities. His collection contains about 17,000 photographs of Great Lakes ships.

Pier Wisconsin in Milwaukee houses the three-masted schooner Denis Sullivan, which offers hands-on learning dockside and aboard the Sullivan.

The Wisconsin Marine Historical Society, located in Milwaukee, is dedicated to discovering, collecting, recording and preserving Great Lakes maritime history. Visit where a new addition to the Society's website is a Great Lakes Genealogy section.

The Rogers Street Fishing Village and Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum in Manitowoc chronicles 167 years of commercial fishing in the area. Famous shipwrecks are recounted along with the stories of the heroes who fought to rescue the crews.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Manitou Island features tours of a historic fish camp. This is one of 45 archaeological sites found in the Apostle Islands and its website is a virtual visitor center.

The Bayfield Maritime Museum covers more than 150 years of maritime history including information about commercial fishing, boatbuilding traditions, lighthouses, sailor crafts, shipwrecks and more.

The Canal Park Museum of the Corps of Engineers overlooks the harbor entrance to the twin harbors at Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. Stand on the second floor overlook and watch the Great Lakes' largest ore carriers stream in.

The Door County Maritime Museum was founded in 1969 by a group of Gills Rock commercial fishermen.

The Ship's Wheel Gallery and Nautical Museum at Kewaunee, features local harbor history, World War II artifacts, a Potowatomi display, Great Lakes shipwrecks, a 100-year-old Great Lakes schooner model and works by maritime artists.

The SS Meteor Museum in Superior features the world's only remaining whaleback freighter, launched in Superior in 1896. It is permanently berthed on Barker's Island.

The Madeline Island Historical Museum at La Pointe features and Old Sailor's Home. This is the former site of the American Fur Company trading post.

The Port Washington Maritime Heritage Center features a nautical museum but also serves as a reception and community meeting space. The Historic Maritime Harborwalk guides visitors around Port Washington including the restored 1860s Light Station. Signage points to the final resting place of the Niagara side-wheel steamer that caught fire and sank off the shore of Port Washington in 1856.

Last year, the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Jim Dan Hill Library received the Governor's Award for Archival Achievement for its work in preserving and organizing thousands of documents, photographs and books chronicling the maritime history of Lake Superior. The Lake Superior Marine Museum Association began the collection in 1973. For more information visit Jim Dan Hill Library.

Fisheries, car ferries, parks and more

The Hokenson Brothers Fishery stands on the shore of Lake Superior at Little Sand Bay near Bayfield. Operated for more than 30 years by the families of Eskel, Leo and Roy Hokenson, it was an enterprise that started from scratch and prospered due to resourcefulness and hard work.

The mission of the Society for the Preservation of the SS Milwaukee is to preserve and maintain the railroad car ferry as an educational and historical artifact.

Rock Island State Park on Rock Island was visited by fur trader LaSalle on sailing ship Griffon in 1679.

The former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tug Ludington was built in 1943 in New York, but today is permanently docked in Kewaunee. The 114-foot tug towed ammunition barges across the English Channel during the invasion of Normandy.

"The goal of Wisconsin's Maritime Trails is to put shipwrecks within a larger context with lighthouses, harbors, museums and parks," Meverden says. "The Trails show how these ships fit into the broader state culture and economy."

Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.