Fresnel Lens Decommissioning 2019

By Jake Heffernan
Removal Day (Kewaunee) Photos by Heather Heffernan
Algoma Photos by Jake Heffernan


On June 6th, 2019, a crew from the US Coast Guard Aids to Navigation team of Two Rivers, WI arrived at the pier in Kewaunee. Meeting them, was Kurt Fosburg – a lampist whose job it would be to ensure the fragile lens in the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse was removed properly and without any damage.

Fosburg is one of a small group of people in the US trained to handle these delicate historical artifacts. Whenever a lens is removed from a tower, the Coast Guard hires a lampist, like Fosburg, to remove it. Fosburg has safely handled lenses from the smallest of 6th order lenses, to massive 1st Order Lenses, which require complete disassembly and are packed in crates for transport.

There are approximately 5 or 6 lampists in the United States. There are people that do restoration work at private museums and that’s on their own, but if you want to touch a piece of property owned by the United States Coast Guard, you need to be on their list to have that done.

Kurt Fosburg – Superior Lighthouse Restoration

The reasoning behind the removal of the lenses is simple – they’re outdated. The Fresnel lens has been the primary source of lighthouse illumination for 150 years, but with many being lit by 200 watt or larger light bulbs, LED offers a far more cost-effective light source. Additionally, the valuable and fragile lenses continue to deteriorate without the daily maintenance keepers of years-past were required to provide.

The morning of June 6th, I actually met the Aids to Navigation Team and Kurt at the base of the Algoma pier. First, that lens was to be removed. The process is very much the same between Algoma and Kewaunee, both lenses being 5th Order Fixed lenses. The Algoma light’s characteristic is red. This was accomplished by fitting red plastic covers over the outside of the lens. In the days when oil lamps sat in place of light bulbs, the lamp’s chimney glass was colored red to give the light its red characteristic.

Check out the end for a gallery of photos from the Algoma removal. But let’s fast forward a few hours. After a successful morning in Algoma, we all stopped for lunch before meeting out at the Kewaunee Lighthouse. My wife, Heather met me there and she took over taking pictures. We covered the photocell to turn the light on one last time as the Aids to Navigation team walked down the pier. Two local news stations were even on hand to cover the occasion.

Once Kurt Fosburg was in the lantern room, the power was cut and he went to work. The bulb changer came out, a couple extra pairs of hands came up, and on Kurt’s word, they all lifted the lens off the pedestal and set it on the deck.

Next, Kurt wrapped the lens in plastic wrap. This would protect it slightly in case a prism bumped against a hard surface. If the lens bumped into anything with any kind of force, however the plastic wrap would do nothing to stop the prism from breaking.
He attached heavy duty straps to the base of the lens frame and ran them out the top. Then, with Kurt on the ladder to guide the lens down, two members of the ANT lifted the lens by the straps and slowly lowered it out of the lantern room.

The next ladder is much longer and presented an even bigger challenge to safely get the lens down. But once again, Kurt and the Aids to Navigation team worked flawlessly to safely get the lens down.

Once on the pier, the lens was placed into a crate and wheeled down the pier, back to shore. We stayed in the lighthouse to watch the ANT install the new LED light. After modifying the power from AC to DC, the new Vega VLB-44 LED light was placed on the pedestal and connected. The lighthouse maintains its characteristic of “Fixed White” and the visible range is approximately 10 miles.

The following morning, Kurt brought the lens to the Kewaunee History Center where he cleaned the lens and prepared it for display. He then placed it inside a display case that was built by Kewaunee resident Dan Vogel.
The lens can be viewed at the History Center, 217 Ellis St in Kewaunee. The History Center is usually open Thursdays and Fridays from 10-4.

Many have very strong feelings about lenses coming out of towers. I admit I have too, in the past. It’s tough to see the “heart and soul” removed from the lighthouse. These lenses are nothing short of art. But that’s why they need to be preserved. Now, instead of being subjected to the hottest of summer days and the coldest of winter storms, the lens is in a climate controlled case…protected from Lake Michigan’s fury and available for all to see.

I would like to thank the US Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team – Two Rivers, WI, especially their commander, Eric Olson, as well as Kurt Fosburg for allowing me to tag along and document this day!

Below are some photos from the Algoma removal, earlier that morning.
– Thanks for reading!
Jake Heffernan

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *