A NEW LAKE MICHIGAN HARBOR (1836 – 1888)
In 1836, rumors of gold in a muddy river east of Fort Howard – modern day Green Bay – spurred the creation of what would become the City of Kewaunee, Wisconsin by European settlers. Before this time, only small groups of Native Americans inhabited the land, enjoying an abundance of salmon that spawned upriver every year.
As the little settlement grew, the river was dredged, the mouth rerouted from present-day Fr. Marquette Park to its current location and a large, protected harbor subsequently created.
In 1850, the first pier, extending from the Northern mouth of the river, was built. With the construction of the first sawmill, the citizens of the area petitioned the government for a lighthouse in 1851, but the end of the pier remained unmarked and unlit for nearly 40 years.
THE RAILROAD COMES TO TOWN (1889 – 1912)
At the end of the 1880s, a rail line had been started in Green Bay, heading east towards Luxemburg. Knowing the line would eventually end at Kewaunee and that would likely mean an increase in ships to the port, a small wood-framed light was exhibited on the end of the North pier beginning in 1889. In 1891, the railroad link was completed to Kewaunee and ship traffic exploded.
The following year in 1892, the wooden hulled ANN ARBOR #1 began cross-lake rail ferry service between Kewaunee and Frankfort, Michigan. The new “carferries” continued to sail to Kewaunee as well as Manitowoc and Milwaukee on the Wisconsin shore and Menominee, Michigan to the Northwest of Green Bay. On the Michigan shore, ferries docked at Frankfort and Ludington.
In 1891, the North pier was also lengthened 300’ with the lighthouse being moved 200’ closer to the lake. At the end of the extended pier, a pole with a small lantern was placed to create a front range light to precisely guide ships into the harbor. Both lights burned fixed red, with the front light showing 23 ½ feet above the lake and the rear light located approximately 100 feet behind at a height of 42 ½ feet. The red color was accomplished by using a red glass chimney over the lamp, opposed to the normally clear glass.
In November 1893, a conduit or track system was installed to allow the keeper to service the front range light’s lamp, with the lamp mounted on a small car atop the conduit. The car ran on a loop of conduit track that carried the lamp to him in the light tower and back out to the post without him having to leave the rear tower. This system was in use less than a year until August of 1894, when the post lamp was discontinued and the 1889 frame tower moved another 300’ closer to the end of the pier.
Once the frame tower was securely bolted to its new spot on the pier, construction began on a steam fog signal house. This rectangular building was built immediately behind the light tower and was used to generate steam to power the 10” diameter Crosby automatic fog whistle, sounding for the first time January 31, 1895. The whistle was mounted above the lakeward end of the fog signal building, set inside a parabolic reflector to direct the sound lakeward. During construction of the fog signal building, 275 feet of elevated walkway were built to allow the keepers safe passage along the pier to and from the lighthouse in all types of weather.
In October 1895, conduit was reinstalled and a front range light again added to the station 200’ in front of the main tower. In 1897 the conduit was lengthened an additional 200’.
In 1905, the front range light and associated conduit to service the lamp were removed. The main tower was moved to the outer end of the pier, connected to the fog signal building with an elevated walkway that had previously been used in Sheboygan. The 1889 main lighthouse tower was then to be used as the front range light. 400’ towards shore, a metal skeleton tower was built to serve as the new rear range light. The tower was equipped with a lens lamp that was hoisted in and out of the lantern room from the pier via block and tackle.
In 1908, a brick duplex was built on the bluff on the south side of town to house the station’s keepers. As the light station was still located on the north pier, the keepers would have to row across the narrow harbor to the lifesaving station in order to tend the light or fog whistle. Prior to the construction of the duplex, keepers were required to rent a spare room in town.
THE SOUTH PIER AND NEW LIGHTHOUSE (1912 – 1931)
In 1912, a new concrete pier replaced an older wooden pier on the South side of the harbor. With all the extensions the north pier had received since its initial construction in 1850, its final length was the same as the new south pier. Rather than keeping the lighthouse complex on the wooden North pier, a new fog signal building and light tower were built on the concrete south pier, on the same side of the river as the Keepers’ Quarters.
The new fog signal building had a concrete foundation, brick main level framed and sheathed on the exterior by steel, and a wood framed second floor. A 45’ tall, open-frame light tower was built immediately in front of the fog signal building, connected to the 2nd level by a short passageway. An elevated walkway beginning ¼ of the way out on the pier led to a door on the 2nd floor of the fog signal building, allowing keepers to walk out of the grasp of the waves that often broke on the pier below. Boilers were installed in the fog signal building and the 10” diameter Crosby chime whistle and 5th Order Fresnel lens moved to the new tower. The skeleton tower was moved to the base South pier to maintain the same range that had been used on the North pier.
The fog signal building on the North Pier, the 1889 tower and the catwalk were demolished and a simple, flashing red light was established at the end of the north pier in 1913.
In 1915 the flashing red light on the north pier was became the front range light, with the 60’ skeleton tower at the base of the south pier still serving as the rear range light. The light in the 1912 lighthouse on the South pier was changed from fixed red to fixed white, and was renamed the “Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse.”
Using the North light as the front range light shifted the range line to better avoid a newly discovered shoal just over a mile from the end of the south pier. In 1935, a sheet steel piling crib was built atop this shoal and an acetylene light with electric fog siren built to mark it.
In 1919, the steam plant in the fog signal building was replaced with air compressors, and the whistle replaced with a Type F Diaphone fog horn. The feature that makes the diaphone unique from other horns and whistles is a lower pitch “grunt” at the end of the horn blast as the air supply is cut.
In November of 1930, the railroad carferry ANN ARBOR #3 collided with the end of the south pier, badly damaging the pier. During the winter, the light tower was moved onto a barge, then stored at the base of the pier, near present day Smith Lighthouse Park.
The damaged concrete and timber at the end of the pier was repaired, and a square tower built out of the lake ward gable of the fog signal building. When the work was completed, the lighthouse was left looking as it does today.
The slight damage to the former tower was repaired, and the tower was installed in Chicago in 1938 as the “Chicago Harbor Southeast Guidewall Lighthouse.” This tower still serves as an active Aid to Navigation, marking the entrance to the Chicago River Lock.
THE GLORY YEARS (1931 – 1981)
The lighthouse would remain vastly unchanged from 1931 until its automation in 1981. The period from 1931 until the US Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard in 1939 is the era we are focusing our restoration on – also known as the “period of interpretation.”
Between 1935 and 1937, the north pier was removed and the current 3,100’ breakwater enclosing the North end of the harbor was built. Today, a small riprap jetty sits on the north side of the river’s mouth.
The lighthouse would also be equipped with a marine radio direction finding transmitter. Using a directional antenna mounted on the roof of a ship’s pilothouse, the crew would listen for radio signals transmitted at specified intervals on a specified frequency. Kewaunee’s unique identifier was the Morse code letter “G.” ( – – ● )
By plotting the direction that the signal is coming from on their chart, and then repeating the process using a different transmitting station, the ship’s crew were able to accurately triangulate their position. The radio beacon at Kewaunee was also synchronized with the fog horn, allowing ship crews to determine their distance from the lighthouse by timing the delay between the radio signal and the sound of the horn reaching them. Today, we do the same thing by timing the delay between lightning and the thunder that follows.
The Kewaunee harbor buzzed throughout much of the 20th century. Sawmills, commercial fishing enterprises, a shipbuilder, and of course the carferries ensured a steady stream of goods and people in and out of the Kewaunee piers.
The Kewaunee Shipbuilding Corporation was established in 1941 and built 80 vessels for the US Military during WWII. One of these Kewaunee-built ships, the USS PUEBLO (Launched 4/16/44) and her crew were captured in the Sea of Japan by North Korean forces in January of 1968.
The ship was on a spy mission for the US Government, under the cover of oceanographic research. During the siege, one crewmember aboard the PUEBLO was killed. The remaining 82 crew members were imprisoned and tortured in North Korea, finally being released on December 23, 1968.
The USS PUEBLO is currently a museum ship in Pyongyang, North Korea and is the only commissioned US Naval vessel being held captive.
READ ABOUT THE SHIP, THE MISSION, & THE HOSTAGES (External Link)
USCG Keeper Terry Lychwick was stuck at the lighthouse for 20 hours during a November 1970 storm.
He visited our Preservation Committee in 2021 and told of a fierce storm with high waves coming into the harbor and driving wind making even the catwalk dangerous. A search through the logbook for that month shows the storm occurring the night of November 2, 1970.
When Lychwick came on watch at noon on the 2nd, the winds were NE 5-8kts.
At 8pm, the winds had increased to 25-30 kts.
By midnight, when his watch was supposed to be over, the winds were howling at 40-50 kts with waves estimated at 12 feet.
When Lychwick was finally relieved at 8am on the morning of the third, the winds had shifted and diminished to 10-15 kts out of the South.
AUTOMATION AND MOTHBALLING (1981 – 2011)
Many lighthouses maintained the need for keepers due to their remote locations and the difficulty to get reliable electricity to those locations. This left them burning lard, then kerosene in their lamps well into the 20th century. The Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse didn’t have that problem, having been electrified in the 1930s. Keepers were still needed, however to sound the fog horn. Technology did eventually catch up, and the lighthouse was destaffed.
In 1981, the diaphones were removed, the interior gutted of all equipment, and the lighthouse was shuttered. The Fresnel lens remained in the tower, still being lit by a 500-watt bulb. A photocell attached to the light turned it on and off automatically every day. A simple air horn attached to a fog detector replaced the thundering diaphones. In the 90s, the horn was replaced with an electronic fog horn that uses a spinning electromagnet to generate a tone. The fog detector has been replaced with a Coast Guard “Mariner Radio Activated Sound Signal” or MRASS. MRASS allows fog signals to be normally silent and sounded on-demand by mariners using VHF radios.
The air supply tanks at the base of the tower and the diesel fuel tanks at pier level were the only obsolete materials left behind – simply because they’re too large to remove. Shortly after automation, the elevated catwalk was also removed, leaving a door to nothing on the 2nd floor of the lighthouse.
On November 26, 1990, the SS Badger sailed past the Kewaunee Pierhead lighthouse for the final time, ending Kewaunee’s rail ferry service after almost 100 years.
Since then, the harbor has seen little commercial traffic, but the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse has maintained its status as an icon of the community.
A NEW LEASE ON LIFE (2011 – Present)
Pursuant to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA), the City of Kewaunee applied for and was granted ownership of the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse. The lighthouse officially passed from the National Park Service to the city in September 2011.
In 2022, the lighthouse and pier were added to the National and State Registers of Historic Places.
Since the acquisition, the city’s Lighthouse Preservation Committee has partnered with the non-profit group “Friends of the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse.” Through further assistance and partnership with the Kewaunee County Historical Society, other area organizations, and through the help of grant funding and substantial private donations, restoration has begun!
Information compiled by Jake Heffernan from the Kewaunee County Historical Society, Kraig Anderson, Terry Pepper, Kurt Fosburg, US Coast Guard, Logbooks for the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse