Let the Lower Lights be Burning – Spring 2011


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The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

by Matt Foss

Pilot Island Light. Image from the United States Coast Guard

Since 1858, the lighthouse on Pilot Island, a small island off the Door County Peninsula in northeast Wisconsin, provided navigational aid for mariners. The light guides vessels through the Porte des Morts Passage, a sometimes treacherous connection between the waters of Lake Michigan and the bay of Green Bay. There are strong and unpredictable winds in the area and dangerous shoals border the passage.

While the Porte des Morts Passage carried a reputation for being dangerous, ships transited the passage because, for a long time, it was the quickest route for travelling between the bay of Green Bay and southern Lake Michigan.1 So while merchants conserved time, they took a calculated risk by shipping via the Porte des Morts Passage. The gamble for many did not pay off. An undeterminable amount of shipwrecks occurred in and around the passage and many more vessels ran aground or became stranded along the shores of the peninsula and nearby islands.

While some vessels made it safely and others did not, one thing remained constant. The light from the Pilot Island lighthouse and the sound from the fog signal on the island provided guidance through this passage. Whether or not they saved vessels from disaster, the civilian keepers and assistant keepers that kept the light and later U.S. Coast Guardsmen who oversaw the automated light, made sure that every day of the year it was there for all who traveled these waters.

In 1858, the Porte des Morts Passage, also known as “Death’s Door,” had already become a busy waterway for merchant vessels. On nearby Plum Island, the lighthouse there since 1848 was not properly marking the passage and keeping ships away from the rocky shoals which surround it. Determining the light on Plum Island was too far west to be effective, the U.S. Lighthouse Board, the government agency responsible for all matters concerning lighthouses in America, decided to build a lighthouse on Porte des Morts Island, also near the passage.2

The 3.7-acre island, known today as Pilot Island, was a superior place to build a lighthouse with its location relative to the passage and its lack of tall trees to obstruct a light. Shortly after its reservation from public domain by President James Buchanan in 1858,3 construction began on a two-and-one-half story combined keeper’s dwelling and lighthouse. Whether it was realized at the time or not, this lighthouse, its keepers, keepers’ families, and crew would provide an immeasurable service to merchant vessels, personal watercraft and many others as they braved the waters of Death’s Door. Since the middle of the 19th Century, this light on Pilot Island has shone without interruption, a beacon that has transcended generations.

A view of Pilot Island from the north. Image from Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands

The reason why the Pilot Island light provided such a great benefit for ships in the region was the work of those who kept the lights. While the job description was simple — making sure the lamps were lit by sunset and extinguished in the morning; and sounding the station’s fog signal during inclement weather — it took a special type of person to be a keeper or a keeper’s assistant, especially on tiny Pilot Island. The person needed to be comfortable with a daily routine that could seem monotonous over the course of months, and content with only the company at night of waves and dreams of distant lands.

The daily routine for the keeper included cleaning and polishing the lens, checking and filling the oil lamp, and trimming the wick. The assistant keeper, if there was one, needed to clean the brass and copper fixtures of the apparatus, and clean the tools in the lantern room. The assistant was also responsible for the daily cleanliness of the walls, floors and balconies of the lantern room, and the area from the lantern to the oil room.4 Of course, if there was no assistant, the keeper was responsible for all of these tasks.

The first to keep the Pilot Island light was a man named William Shurtteffy and an assistant named Royal Riggins. The U.S. Lighthouse Board transferred Shurtteffy and Riggins from the recently abandoned lighthouse on nearby Plum Island to the Pilot Island light in 1858.5 While Shurtteffy and Riggins were the first to keep the Pilot Island light, their time on the island was brief.

Just one year later, the Lighthouse Board removed Shurtteffy and Riggins and appointed a 50-year-old apparent widower named William Garey. Rather than appointing a formal assistant for Garey, the Lighthouse Board allowed Garey’s 15-year-old son to serve as the assistant and Garey’s 18-year-old daughter to perform housekeeping duties inside the keeper’s dwelling, work typically done by the keeper’s wife.6

Less than two years later, Garey, too, left Pilot Island along with his son and daughter and the Lighthouse Board sought a replacement. This trend of short durations for keepers continued. In fact, from 1857–1866 there were seven different keepers of the Pilot Island light, resulting in a situation which scholar Steve Karges likened to a “revolving door.”7 Even more interesting, this was unlike the situation at other lighthouses on the Door County Peninsula where long periods of service for keepers were usual. The exact reasons for frequent turnover during this time on Pilot Island are unknown.

The revolving door ended in 1866, when the Lighthouse Board appointed 35-year-old Civil War veteran Victor Rohn as keeper.8 Immediately, a family takeover of Pilot Island occurred. Rohn’s wife Jannette received an appointment as her husband’s assistant, and with their seven children under the age of thirteen, they turned the island into their personal play place during the summertime. A portion of their time included commuting to and from nearby Washington Island, where the Rohn’s owned a farm and lived in the off-season, when navigation through Death’s Door subsided.9

The Rohns’ tenure provided stability that had been lacking at the light station. Recognizing this, the Lighthouse Board made improvements to the station in the late 1860s and 1870s. In 1868, a government crew plastered the inside of the tower, fog signal and dwelling, and repainted the buildings. Six years later, a congressional appropriation of $1,200 allowed the Board to construct a boathouse and marine railways for the station’s boats and replace the roof on the dwelling.10

Although Victor Rohn oversaw improvements to the station during his tenure, by the mid-1870s, his attitude appeared to sour, as evidenced in his writings in the station’s daily logs:

July 4th 1874: Independence Day came in fine, after a heavy gale, this Island affords about as much independence and liberty as Libby prison, with the difference of guards in favor of this place, and chance for outside communication in the other.”11

September 30th 1874: Had a circular from the Inspectors office in regard to Keepers duties. The officers of the Lighthouse Dept. seem to think that Light Keepers have very little or nothing to do. It may be the case at some stations, for my part I cannot find it the case here, and would like to see some of these gentlemen trying it here for a short time, then they would find, that the Keeper of this station is a worse slave than a plantation negro.”12

For unknown reasons, the Lighthouse Board replaced Victor Rohn in 1876; however it is noted that right before his removal he voiced his displeasure in a way that could be noticed by his superiors. Even more interesting, the Lighthouse Board replaced the seasoned keeper Rohn with Emmanuel Davidson, a 56-year-old native Norwegian with no prior lighthouse experience.13 The intriguing part regarding this appointment was the job of keeper on Pilot Island had recently become more difficult.

A year earlier, in 1875, the Lighthouse Board replaced the fog signal on the island with a first-class steam powered fog siren that could be heard 20 miles away. Operating this fog siren consumed a considerable portion of the keeper’s time. A strong fire needed to be built and maintained in order to provide steam for the siren which sounded continuously during inclement weather. Additionally, the operating parts of the fog siren needed to be cleaned and polished after use and the wood needed for the fire had to be cut from logs, then split and carried to the fog signal building. So either operating the fog siren or preparing for its operation became a daily task on the island.14

A reason why the Lighthouse Board was comfortable appointing a keeper with no lighthouse experience was the directions given to a keeper like Davidson. Over time, the written instructions the Lighthouse Board provided to keepers at light stations became more detailed, and very little at the lighthouse was left to the keeper’s discretion. With the Lighthouse Board’s major pre-requisite for lighthouse keeping being the ability to read, this was their goal.

An example of the detailed instructions included the following directives for extinguishing the light each morning:

“125. When the light is extinguished in the morning the keeper must hang the lantern curtains and immediately begin to put the apparatus in order for relighting. While doing this the linen aprons provided for the keeper’s use must be worn, that the lens may not suffer from contact with the wearing apparel. The illuminating apparatus must be carefully covered before the cleaning is begun.”

“126. The lens and the glass of the lantern must be cleaned daily and always kept in the best possible condition. Before beginning to clean the lens it must be brushed with the feather brush to remove all dust. It must then be wiped with a soft linen cloth, and finally polished with buff-skin. If there is oil or grease on any part it must be taken off with a linen cloth, moistened with spirits of wine, and then polished with a buff-skin. Under no circumstances must a skin which has been wet or damp be used, as this will scratch the lens.”15

While the Lighthouse Board felt comfortable enough with their instructions to appoint a keeper with no experience, they were cognizant of the amount of work needed to keep the Pilot Island station functioning. To help Davidson, the Lighthouse Board made sure there were two assistants on the island. While this aided Davidson’s efforts as keeper, it also added the responsibility of supervising workers which impacted a portion of Davidson’s working day of his tenure on the island.

One such assistant, who undoubtedly made Davidson’s job difficult, was first assistant John Boyce. Noted as an eccentric, John Boyce killed himself on Pilot Island on June 20, 1880.16 The daily log provides a chilling account of the suicide:

June 19 1880. 1st Assistant John Boyce does not feel well.

June 20 1880. 1st Assistant Mr. John Boyce went into the bushes and committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor at about 1 p.m. Some of Mr. Miller’s work men who were doing some building near our fog signal happened to walk around the beach, discovered Mr. Boyce lying down on his face, and called to him, but there was no answer. Then they walked up and seen blood on his hands, they called me and we turned him over but he was dead, we seen that he had two deep gashes, one on each side of his throat. Mr. Miller the foreman had his men build a coffin and took the body to Washington Island and held a funeral. This was a sad day out here and also in Detroit Harbor. The men returned to this station the next day.”17

While some attributed the taking of his own life to a love affair gone wrong, others believed it was the isolation of Pilot Island which led him to suicide.18 While Pilot Island seems like it would have been a lonely and isolated location due to its size and distance to other communities in the area, Door County lighthouse historian Steve Karges, feels life on Pilot Island was not solitary. His research found that almost every day, either the keeper or his assistants made trips to Newport or Hedgehog Harbor on the Door County Peninsula or to Washington Island for mail, supplies, or to visit friends and family.19

Additionally, many visitors came to Pilot Island throughout the years to call on the crew and families. Names of visitors included those familiar to nearby Washington Island such as Richter, Jessen, Cornell, and Anderson.20 One such event found its way into the pages of the nearby newspaper, the Door County Advocate:

June 26, 1889: A party of young people went to Pilot Island for a picnic on Sunday. They left Washington Island at 8 a.m. and arrived at dinner time. When they got to the table it was spread with goodies to which ample justice was done, after which ice cream was served by the ladies in a most liberal way. They covered seeing the station and island until around 4 p.m. Among them were Misses Clara Higgins, Carrie Decker, and Eva Cornell and Messrs. Elsie Cornell, Carl Richter, August Koyen, George Tong and Charley Young.”21

Another article found in the Door County Advocate around the same time paints Pilot Island and life there as rather appealing:

“Pilot Island consists of three and a quarter acres of rocks and boulders of which there is an imported croquet ground, a few ornamental trees, a strawberry patch, two fog sirens, a lighthouse, a frame barn, a boat house, and some blue, bell-shaped flowers and golden rods that grow out of niches in the rocks. This is truly an isolated spot and some people might call it a very dreary place, but I have now spent five days on Pilot Island and they are among the happiest days of my eventuality.

“At sunrise every morning the first assistant, Chas E. Young, would wake us up with an invitation to go bathing. Then the keeper and second assistant and myself would leave our cozy beds, run down with him to the landing and plunge into the almost ice-cold water. We would swim to the leeward of the island where the breakers meet as they come from both sides.”

“On moonlight nights it is like being in a dream of ideality to walk alone over the moss-covered rocks and listen to the swish of the breakers that break over the breakwater at the boat landing, hear them roaring on all sides of the little island, and to see huge vessels under full sail crossing the moon glade on their way through the Door. One seems to be completely separate from all that is worldly and bad. There is no field for gossip out here. The land is not suitable for general farming purposes, but is a splendid place to raise an ample crop of good pure thoughts.”22

Pilot Island light crew with family and friends. Image from Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands

While those who worked on the island nearly year-round might not have shared the same sentiments as the writer of the commentary above, Pilot Island in the late 19th Century was a destination for local visitors, and a frequent beneficiary of improvements to the station from the federal government. In September 1890, a lighthouse district lamp technician by the last name of Crump came to Pilot Island and changed the light from a white flashing light to a fixed red light.23 Just ten months later, the lighthouse tender Warrington delivered an iron oil house along with bricks and cement for the construction of a cistern to be built in the basement of the lighthouse/keeper’s dwelling to collect rain water.24

The early 1890s saw constant repairs and improvements to the station. In 1893, a large, new landing crib was built on the west side of the island, using logs cut from nearby Plum Island and lumber salvaged from local wrecked vessels.25 In 1894, the Lighthouse Board changed the light again and replaced it with a 4th Order Fresnel lens, and also switched the fixed red light to a fixed white. Additionally, the steam fog siren was taken out and steam powered fog whistles were put in.26

It is only fitting the keeper during this period was Martin Knudsen, a man who suggested and assisted many of these repairs. Knudsen was essentially raised to work and live at a lighthouse. Not only did his two brothers Peter and Nelson also become lighthouse keepers, but they would all serve on Pilot Island at one time or another. Even a year of Martin’s education as a child occurred in a lighthouse. While the Knudsen family lived on Rock Island, Wisconsin, in 1866, Martin and his two brothers walked across the island to receive schooling in the basement of the Pottawatomie lighthouse on Rock Island from the assistant keeper’s wife.27

Knudsen became keeper of the Pilot Island light in 1889, and he created a legacy unmatched by any other in the light’s history. The reason Knudsen is regarded so highly came in the fall of 1892, when he went above and beyond his duties as keeper to help the crew of a wrecked vessel on Pilot Island. There was actually a small collection of wrecked vessels on the island by October 1892. The first was the schooner Forest which went aground on the southwest side of the island in October 1891. Part of the Forest was caught in the rocks of the reef, and efforts to refloat the schooner were futile.28 A year later, the Forest remained in the same spot, but it soon had company.

On October 17, 1892, the J. E. Gilmore, a 138-foot-long schooner, stranded on the same reef when the wind shifted and the crew did not raise the sails high enough in time.29 The Gilmore’s keel was destroyed and it, like the Forest, became a fixture on the Pilot Island landscape. For a week, the crew of the Gilmore remained on board while Martin Knudsen repeatedly took the Gilmore’s captain to Newport on the Door County Peninsula to call for assistance. Eventually, the captain and crew left their ship after hailing a steamer, but the Gilmore remained on Pilot Island.30

Just 11 days after the wreck of the Gilmore, another storm developed in Death’s Door. The gale-like conditions — including sleet and snow — caused several vessels to anchor in the lee of nearby Plum Island. One vessel’s anchor, that of the 147-foot-long A. P. Nichols, did not hold and the vessel dragged toward Pilot Island.31 Around 8 p.m. on October 28, the A. P. Nichols crashed on Pilot Island’s rocky shore in the proximity of the Gilmore and the Forest.

Hulks of the A.P. Nichols and J.E. Gilmore at Pilot Island. Image from Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library

Knudsen and crew responded immediately. Taking the lead, Martin Knudsen walked out 40 feet into the water over slippery rocks, in darkness, to assist the crew of the A. P. Nichols.32 Knudsen convinced the six crewmembers, including the captain, to jump overboard into the surf, where he promised to grab them before they drifted out. After initial reluctance, they agreed, and Knudsen caught them all and guided each one over the slick rocks toward the lighthouse.33

Considering the time of day, weather, and environmental conditions, Knudsen’s efforts were heroic. However, Knudsen remained modest. The only entry in his log the following day noted that he put a concrete floor in the cellar and he saw that the captain of the A. P. Nichols was put aboard a passing steamer for Escanaba, Michigan, to alert his family and insurance underwriters of the wreck.34 It took the captain of the A. P. Nichols, David Clow, Jr., to bring attention to the efforts of Martin Knudsen:

“It is a wonder to me how Martin Knudsen found his way out along that ledge of rocks in the darkness to the Nichols. He is about the bravest man I have ever seen. How he managed to keep his bearing after rescuing the crew has been a wonder to me ever since. A single misstep and we would have all fallen off the rocks into deep water and undoubtedly been drowned. He seemed to know the reef as well under water and in the darkness as if it had been above water and in the daytime.”35

Clow’s comments caught the attention of regional newspapers, and in March 1893, the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York awarded Martin Knudsen a gold medal, their highest award, for his efforts in rescuing the crew of the A. P. Nichols.36 Eventually, Martin Knudsen also received a silver medal for his actions from the federal government delivered by a Lighthouse Board inspector in July 1893.37 While Knudsen garnered praise and recognition for what he did that night in 1892, the event also brought attention to the idea of bringing a U.S. Life-Saving station to the area, so lighthouse keepers would no longer be responsible for assisting with shipwrecks.

It took almost four years before that came to fruition. In October 1895, Knudsen and assistants helped the crew of the 112-foot schooner Mystic get ashore after they ran aground on the south side of Pilot Island.38 While Knudsen and assistants definitely proved their worth in rescue situations, it was not what the Lighthouse Board wanted to see. By March 1896, a U.S. Life-Saving station was built on nearby Plum Island. Following the construction, if there was an impending shipwreck visible from Pilot Island, the keeper would signal the Plum Island Life-Saving Station and the Plum Island crew would attend to the wreck.

Plum Island Rear Range Light. Image from United States Coast Guard

There were other adjustments on Pilot Island. First, the government transferred Martin Knudsen from Pilot Island to the new range light station on nearby Plum Island in 1897, and promoted Gottfried Hansen from first assistant to keeper on Pilot.39 Then, after the district engineer inspected the station in the summer of 1898, he suggested to the Lighthouse Board that a well be drilled on the island, the keeper’s dwelling re-shingled, and the length of the dock extended. The Lighthouse Board agreed.40

While improvements were made to the station, tragedy again struck the crew. On December 11, 1898, first assistant Charles Boshka and second assistant Peder Pedersen were travelling with the station’s official mail to Detroit Harbor, Washington Island, when the station’s sailboat capsized. While Boshka made it ashore, Pedersen could not swim and was taken under the icy waters. Making matters worse, attempts to recover Pedersen’s body were futile due to ice forming in the area of the drowning.41 It was not until April of the next year, that Pedersen’s body washed ashore on Detroit Island (between Pilot Island and Washington Island).42

Frank Drew, an assistant at the Green Island Light in Green Bay, received a transfer to Pilot Island in early 1899. The only problem with the transfer was that his family wished to accompany him. To accommodate his family’s needs, he built a small structure for himself and family on the north end of Pilot Island, using wood salvaged from around the island. While not commonplace at lighthouse stations, the district inspector approved the construction and even authorized Drew to use the station’s paint supply for the building.43

After the entire crew returned to full complement, routine activities returned to the Pilot Island light. One task that was new and troublesome for the crew was to keep the lights burning and the fog signal sounding throughout the winter. For the first time, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Lighthouse Board required the Pilot Island light to be lit for the benefit of the Ann Arbor car ferries, which traveled to and from Menominee, Michigan.44

Since the keeper and crew had traditionally moved to nearby Washington Island for the winter, getting to Pilot Island now became a difficult operation in itself. First, they had to get from Washington Island to Detroit Island, a 3.5 mile long island essentially between Detroit Harbor on Washington Island and Pilot Island. Once on Detroit Island, either via boat or on foot over ice, they travelled the 3.5 miles to the southern end of Detroit Island. From there, they either walked (if the ice was thick enough) or took a small boat to Pilot Island, just over a mile away.

Even though no Ann Arbor car ferry passed through the Porte des Morts passage during the winter, deciding to travel through the more time efficient Sturgeon Bay ship canal instead, keeper Gottfried Hansen and crew exhibited the light and fog signal during this time.45 Although the Lighthouse Board failed to communicate regularly with Hansen, the Pilot Island crew continued to do as ordered. As time progressed, it would become commonplace for the light to remain burning during the winter. Eventually, vessels navigated a much longer shipping season, relying on Pilot Island’s light throughout the year.

While some could interpret this lack of communication as a sign the Lighthouse Board was not overly concerned with Pilot Island, continual improvements made to the station’s exterior and interior proved otherwise. In 1901, a government crew came and made repairs to the chimneys and brick exterior and then built an addition to the southeast side of the dwelling, creating seven total rooms for the keeper, first assistant, and their families.46 The crew also refurbished the unused fog signal house as a new dwelling for the second assistant and his family, abandoning the cabin built by Frank Drew.47

Inside the Pilot Island fog signal building, 1909. Image from Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands.

The Lighthouse Board also needed to replace the Pilot Island fog signal on the island after it became damaged by fire. Gone were the days of building strong fires to produce steam for the boilers when the Lighthouse Board had automatic fog sirens installed in 1904.48 The Door County Advocate reported the improvement:

“The Lighthouse Board also has other additions and improvements underway, it being the purpose to make that otherwise solitary spot as pleasant and home-like as possible. A great man is your Uncle Sam, who regards nothing as being too good for his cousins that are doing his work everywhere.”49

With these changes, the Lighthouse Board brought the Pilot Island station into the 20th Century. However, lighthouses in America would soon be under the watch of a different government agency. In 1910, Congress dissolved the Lighthouse Board and designated the U.S. Lighthouse Service, also known as the Bureau of Lighthouses, to oversee the American aids to navigation.50 The Lighthouse Service, like its predecessor, continually pushed for technological advances and improvements in light station equipment. However, not many improvements were made to the Pilot Island station following the transfer to the Lighthouse Service.

Although physical improvements to the station were infrequent, maybe there was no need for alterations. In an article from the Door County Advocate dated June 23, 1911, the writer expounds that:

“A visit to Pilot Island is one of the enjoyable past times of tourists and pleasure seekers. Here the visitors are made welcome by Lightkeeper Henry Bavry and his two assistants, who with their families make it their home during the eight or nine months that the lights are in operation. Everything about the island is as neat and clean as it is possible to make it.”51

Just over a year later, the Door County Advocate reported a news story about the Pilot Island crew:

“Pilot Island keeper Henry Bavry and assistants Alfred Cornell and Roy Peterson recently won the pennant for the best kept lighthouse out of over ninety in this district. The fog station boilers, in constant use over fourteen years, were pronounced best in the district.”52

A personnel change did occur, however. Gone were the days where a keeper and assistants served for short periods, eventually being transferred to other stations in the region or removed for lack of experience. From 1913 to 1939, the Pilot Island station only had three keepers, Walter Otteson, Robert Young and C. I. Haas.53 With long-tenured keepers and very few alterations to the daily routine and the station itself, the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s represented a time of consistency for Pilot Island and light keepers during this time.

By 1939, major change did come to Pilot Island when President Franklin Roosevelt disbanded the 29-year-old Lighthouse Service and transferred responsibilities to the United States Coast Guard.54 Following this decision, keepers were given the choice to either remain as civilians under government contracts or officially join the Coast Guard. After one year as the keeper on Pilot, Clarence Anderson decided to join the Coast Guard in 1940, taking advantage of steady employment and retirement benefits.55 This decision officially made him the last civilian keeper of the Pilot Island light.

Keepers at Door County lighthouses were split on their individual decisions to either retire or join the Coast Guard. While Clarence Anderson at Pilot Island and the keeper of the Sherwood Point light decided to continue their careers in the Coast Guard, the keepers of the Cana Island light and Chambers Island light decided to retire soon after the 1939 change over. One thing was common at all operational Door County lights: by the end of World War Two, all lights, including Pilot Island, were operated by members of local Coast Guard stations. No more keepers, assistants, or families living and working day after day to keep the lights burning.

Following Clarence Anderson’s retirement in 1945, Pilot Island fell under care of the Coast Guard station on nearby Plum Island.56 Unlike many stations in Door County, such as Cana Island light in Bailey’s Harbor, and Eagle Bluff light overlooking Ephraim, the Pilot Island light was not yet automated. After keepers and assistants left Door County, but prior to automation, the Coast Guard employed a different system to keep the lights burning.

For those lights not yet automated, the Coast Guard sent three men to each station during the shipping season where they would remain for 23 days on, followed by 7 days of vacation, rotating so there were at least two Coast Guardsmen at each light at any given time.57 Each person served a 12-hour watch, preparing to sound the fog signal whenever necessary. Besides sounding the fog signal and making sure the Kohler-generator powered battery bank kept the light burning, their tasks on the island were not that different than their predecessors’.58

The crew mowed the station’s two-acre lawn at least once per week, kept fresh coats of paint in the interior of the dwelling, maintained the light tower and machinery including cleaning, and occasionally waxed the floors in the machinery room.59 No longer with their families accompanying them, the men ordered groceries from a store in Sister Bay on the Door County Peninsula and prepared it themselves. In later years, a $35 television was brought to the island for entertainment (powered by an AC power converter). Receiving stations from Milwaukee and lower Michigan alleviated some of the isolation the three men could face alone on Pilot Island.60 While their direct responsibilities and methods might have been different, and the equipment differed from the station’s earlier days, the Coast Guardsmen who oversaw the Pilot Island light during the period following World War Two seemed just as effective in keeping the light as those who did before.

In June 1962, when the Coast Guard decided to decommission the Pilot Island station, people were at last removed from daily work and life on the island. The Coast Guard also removed the 4th Order Fresnel lens and replaced it with a plastic lens and took all of the machinery from the fog signal building.61 In order to discourage future vandalism on the island, the Coast Guard intentionally ruined the landing cribs on the east side of the island and removed the marine railways from both landings.62

In the years following decommission, many of Pilot Island’s buildings were removed. The wooden fog signal house, assistant’s frame dwelling, frame carpenter shop, wood shed, boathouse on the east landing, privy, summer kitchen, and metal oil house were all torn down.63 Only the keeper’s dwelling with tower and lantern and remnants of the brick fog signal dwelling still stand today.

While destroying elements singular to Pilot Island seems unusual, this was common for Door County lights. At the Cana Island light, the Coast Guard removed the barn, boathouse, pier, oil tank, and summer kitchen following World War Two when the Coast Guard leased the station to a family from Milwaukee for $19 per year.64 By 1955, the Coast Guard also made changes to the Chambers Island light station near Fish Creek. They removed the landing pier, shuttered the buildings, and removed the Fresnel lens from the tower, eventually selling it at a surplus property auction in Chicago.65 Even closer to Pilot Island, the Plum Island range lights were also not immune. Following Coast Guard takeover of the station and eventual automation, the oil house, privy, barn, boathouse, docks, lamp and lens were all removed from the station site.66

After more than 50 years, tracing human life and service on Pilot Island is difficult. The tall trees which once occupied the island have been destroyed from the overabundance of nesting birds, mainly cormorants and seagulls. The portions of buildings that remain on the island are in desperate need of repair, and with each year that passes, the physical remains and the memories of human involvement fade as generations that remember those times are getting older. The one constant reminder of the proud work and time spent by many numbers of keepers, assistants, their families, government crews, summer visitors, and Coast Guardsmen is the light that continues to shine every night, guiding mariners through the Porte des Morts Passage.


1 When the Sturgeon Bay ship canal opened in 1882, there was competition for what was the most expedient water route between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Regardless of the shorter or more efficient route, vessels continued to use the Porte des Morts Passage as frequently as before the construction of the canal.
2 Steve Karges, Keepers of the Lights: Lighthouse Keepers & Their Families, Door County, Wisconsin— 18371939 (Ellison Bay, Wisconsin: Wm. Caxton, Ltd., 2000), 52–57. This book is a competent and informative social history, detailing many aspects of life at a lighthouse in Door County. Besides examining the lives of those who kept the lights, there is quality information regarding the construction of each lighthouse, the politics involved in the lighthouse service, and the significance of the lights in the region.
3 Records of the Washington Island Archives, Box 5, Folder 5. The scope of this collection includes newspaper clippings and photographs relating to Pilot Island and it also includes transcripts of the daily logs for the lighthouse station.
4 Frederick Stonehouse, Great Lakes Lighthouse Tales (Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc., 1998), 32. Frederick Stonehouse’s Great Lakes Lighthouse Tales is anecdotal in nature, providing interesting tales of some of the most well known lights on the Great Lakes. The extended introduction provides ample information and historical context regarding lighthouses in the United States.
5 Karges, 92.
6 Ibid.
7 Karges, 92–93.
8 Karges, 93–94.
9 Karges, 94.
10 Ibid.
11 Records of the Washington Island Archives, Box 5, Folder 5. 12 Records of the Washington Island Archives, Box 5, Folder 5. 13 Karges, 96.
14 Karges, 95–96.
15 Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, Instructions to Light-Keepers, a photo reproduction of the 1902 edition of Instructions to Light-Keepers and Masters of Light-House Vessels (Allen Park, Michigan: Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, 1989), 20.
16 Records of the Washington Island Archives, Box 5, Folder 5. 17 Records of the Washington Island Archives, Box 5, Folder 5. 18 Karges, 100.
19 Karges, 107.
20 Karges, 127.
21 Hannes M. Andersen, Washington Island: A Maritime History Through the Years, Volume II (Washington Island, Wisconsin: published by the author, 2009), 47. This book is a compilation of news articles from a regional newspaper, the Door County Advocate. The book is compiled chronologically and provides tremendous insight into the weekly maritime news concerning Washington Island and its surrounding waters.
22 Andersen, 59–60.
23 Karges, 110.
24 Ibid.
25 Karges, 119.
26 Karges, 120.
27 Karges, 97.
28 Karges, 110.
29 Karges, 113.
30 Karges, 113–114.
31 Karges, 114–115.
32 Karges, 115.
33 Karges, 115–116.
34 Karges, 116.
35 Door County Advocate (Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin) 12 November 1892. Also, Karges, 116.
36 Karges, 116.
37 Karges, 116–118.
38 Karges, 124.
39 Karges, 126.
40 Karges, 130.
41 Karges, 131.
42 Karges, 132.
43 Karges, 132.
44 Karges, 133.
45 Karges, 133.
46 Karges, 134.
47 Karges, 135.
48 Ibid.
49 Andersen, 103. Also, Door County Advocate (Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin) 27 August 1904.
50 Stonehouse, 12.
51 Andersen, 148.
52 Andersen, 155. Also, Door County Advocate (Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin) 19 September 1912.
53 Karges, 138–139.
54 Stonehouse, 13–14.
55 Karges, 139.
56 Karges, 139.
57 Jack A. Eckert, “Life on Pilot Island in 1955,” Lighthouse Digest (August 2003): 28–30. This article, while not scholarly in nature, provides a firsthand account of living and working on Pilot Island during the time when the light was not manned by keepers and assistants and before automation. The author was a Coast Guardsmen who recorded his memories of the island during the season of 1955.
58 Ibid.
59 Ibid.
60 Ibid.
61 Karges, 139.
62 Ibid.
63 Karges, 140.
64 Karges, 220.
65 Karges, 275.
66 Karges, 89.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Unpublished Papers
Records of the Washington Island Archives. Washington Island, Wisconsin.

Newspapers
Door County Advocate (Wisconsin).

Secondary Sources:

Articles
Eckert, Jack A. “Life on Pilot Island in 1955.” Lighthouse Digest (August, 2003): 28–30.

Books
Andersen, Hannes M. Washington Island: A Maritime History Through the Years, Volume II. Washington Island, Wisconsin: published by the author, 2009.
Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. Instructions to Light-Keepers, a photo reproduction of the 1902 edition of Instructions to Light-Keepers and Masters of Light-House Vessels. Allen Park, Michigan: Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, 1989.
Karges, Steve. Keepers of the Lights: Lighthouse Keepers & Their Families, Door County, Wisconsin — 1837–1939. Ellison Bay, Wisconsin: Wm. Caxton Ltd., 2000.
Stonehouse, Frederick. Great Lakes Lighthouse Tales. Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc., 1998.
Thomas, Stacy and Virginia Thomas. Images of America: Guarding Door County, Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

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About the Author: Matt Foss is a historian and a young museum professional whose research includes Great Lakes lighthouses, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and maritime labor relations on the Great Lakes. He received a Master’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2009 and lives with his wife Mallory in Wausau, Wisconsin.


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2 replies
  1. Carrie Sowden
    Carrie Sowden says:

    Dear John,
    Interesting question. I went back a re-read the article and I imagine the author was possibly referencing the light of the keeper’s house – indicating how important keeper’s were to the safety of ships passing through dangerous Death’s Door.
    Thanks,
    Carrie Sowden
    NMGL Archaeological Director

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