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Let there be light
An exploration of two noted Milwaukee Lighthouses

Photos by  Matt Haas

June 2016

The North Point Lighthouse at dusk

The Trojans 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.

"In the 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.

With improved 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."

The Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse

Lighthouse 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.

Restoration of 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.

"After 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 tide, 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.

Another 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.

Built to 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.

Preserving the 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



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