Point Lighthouse at dusk
built a seaside fire tower at the ancient city of Sigeum in 1300 B.C.
The Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor was
erected in 1716 as America’s first lighthouse. And in 1789, the
First U. S. Congress set up the United States Lighthouse Establishment
in its ninth official piece of legislation. Navigational aids have
always been a sailor’s salvation.
days before electricity lit up our cities like Christmas trees,
darkness reigned just offshore from even the largest urban
areas," says noted Milwaukee historian John Gurda. "Break
walls and harbor entrances added to the perils that all ship captains
encountered. At a time when everyone and everything traveled by water,
lighthouses were every bit as essential as masts and sails."
For more than a
century, Wisconsin lighthouses have guided ships into safe harbors
along Lake Michigan’s shores and on inland waterways. About 30 of
these historic structures remain — many are still serving their
intended purpose of lighting the home for mariners. Some of the
buildings have been spruced up and are open to the public, and several
offer tours. Others are used for community functions, wedding
backdrops and cozy places to overnight. Those in Kenosha, Fond du Lac,
Chambers Island and Kewaunee make for a photographer’s delight.
navigation systems and government cutbacks, many of these iconic
structures were sold or suffered through years of deferred maintenance
and neglect. Many needed — and still need — extensive repairs.
Working hard to keep lighthouse memories alive, the United States
Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit historical and educational
organization, is "dedicated to saving and sharing the rich
maritime legacy of American lighthouses and supporting lighthouse
preservation throughout the nation."
rescue efforts are underway locally, with hardworking volunteers
saving such iconic lighthouses as the North Point Lighthouse on
Milwaukee’s East Side near Lake Park Bistro. The restored 1888
lighthouse and keeper’s quarters are open to the public every
Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. year-round, says May Klisch,
operations manager of North Point Lighthouse Friends (NPLF). The
building and grounds can also be reserved for private parties,
fundraisers and weddings. Admission is charged at the facility,
located at 2650 N. Wahl Ave.
North Point started a decade ago, explains John Scripp, president and
director of NPLF. Renovations continued from 2005 to 2007 at a cost of
$1.6 million, and the lighthouse opened to the public in November
2007. But planning and fundraising began as early as 1993, and money
was raised through informal benefits and gifts from friends. From 2001
to 2002, NPLF partnered with Milwaukee County to apply for a
"transportation enhancement" grant through the state and
U.S. Department of Transportation. A grant was awarded to fund a $1.2
million project on an 80/20 basis. NPLF raised the $240,000 required
match, plus the approximately $400,000 in renovation costs in excess
of the $1.2 million grant funding.
opening, we began very slowly to build operating income from
admissions, tours and occasional events. This supplemented gifts from
the (NPLF) members and fundraising events," Scripp says.
"Gradually tours and events grew, and with a lifeline of
solicited individual and foundation gifts, (they) support our
approximate $85,000-$90,000 annual operating budget." Like the
numbers and mix
of events ebb and flow, he laughs.
The next stage
of North Point Lighthouse is to continue to grow its programing and
site maintenance. One immediate goal seeks about $20,000 to help
repaint the tower and quarters exterior, says Scripp. In addition,
NPLF will partner with Milwaukee County this summer in a green
infrastructure paving and ravine restoration project to manage and
clean stormwater that flows from the lighthouse site down to the north
end of Bradford Beach. With most funding in place, NPLF still needs to
raise the final $40,000 to complete the effort.
dedicated group is attempting to rescue the Milwaukee Breakwater
Lighthouse at the entrance to the city’s harbor. The lighthouse,
celebrating its 90th birthday this year, is a five-story tower atop a
60-by-54-foot concrete pier. A solar-powered rotating red light atop
the building turns on at dusk and goes off at dawn. The Coast Guard
still checks its operation each April and October.
withstand Lake Michigan’s fierce waves, the light’s riveted steel
skin is a quarter-inch thick. Dick Melzer, secretary for the Friends
of the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse, has dramatic photos of the
surf pounding the lighthouse up to its peak.
He says making
it through storms must have been quite an experience for the keepers
posted there. Since its decommissioning in 1986 when the Coast Guard
removed everything from its interior, the shell is empty — except
for bird droppings. But once the place is repaired and the asbestos
removed, the 72-year-old Melzer wants to weather out a storm there,
just as in the old days. He’d also like to bring a sleeping bag and
camp out on the top balcony to look at the stars and listen to the
wave action. Of course, he admits, that expedition should be done only
during a quiet night on a calm lake.
Since the light
is reached only by boat, a viewing site is accessed from the parking
lot at the end of East Erie Street, adjacent to the Milwaukee Pierhead
Lighthouse. Bring a telephoto lens for photos.
In 2011, the
U.S. Coast Guard indicated it no longer needed the lighthouse and
transferred ownership to Optima Enrichment in 2013. Dr. Randall
Melchert of Brookfield is heading the group, raising funds to open the
lighthouse to the public. The nonprofit organization has already
secured about $20,000. Although the outside is in relatively good
shape, renovation estimates range up to $2.3 million, according to
secretary Melzer. A docking pier is necessary, and a museum and
meeting space would be great additions, Melzer suggests.
light is important because of Milwaukee’s maritime history, Melzer
emphasizes. "Besides, school kids need to know about the working
of a lighthouse and the life of the keepers. Just think of taking
youngsters on tours there on a good day," he enthuses. M