History of the Kewaunee Light Station

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.
As the little settlement grew, the river was dredged, the mouth rerouted and a large, protected harbor created. In 1850, the first North Pier was built in Kewaunee. It wouldn’t be until 1889 that Kewaunee would get its first lighthouse.

In 1891, the railroad link was completed between Green Bay and Kewaunee and ship traffic boomed as a result, beginning the following year with cross-lake rail ferry service between Kewaunee and Frankfort, Michigan. In later years, these ferries would also sail to Manitowoc and Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan. In 1895, a fog signal was placed into operation in the form of a 10″ diameter steam whistle. The lighthouse was moved along the pier as it was lengthened, and reconfigured several times into a range light system.
(As seen in the photo below. The tall tower in front of the fog signal building was the rear range light lit by a lens lantern.)

Fog signal building, rear range tower and pierhead lighthouse on the North Pier – KCHS

In 1912, the current South pier was built, along with the current fog signal building. On the lake side of the fog signal building, an open frame light tower was also built. This new pierhead lighthouse was paired with the 70′ tall skeleton tower which had been moved from the North Pier to the base of the new South pier to form a pair of range lights. (See below, right) The 10″ diameter fog whistle can be seen below the lantern room as well.

In 1919, the steam plant was replaced with compressed air, and the whistle replaced with a diaphone horn. A distinctive feature of the diaphone is a lower pitch “grunt” at the end of the horn blast as the air supply is cut. This grunt added character to the horn and made it instantly recognizable as a fog signal.

The lighthouse as seen after the fog signal conversion to compressed air diaphone. The resonator for the diaphone can be seen below the lantern room – USCG

In November of 1930, the railroad carferry Ann Arbor #3 collided with the South Pier badly damaging the pier and the light tower. During the following winter, the light tower was moved to a barge and taken to the Milwaukee Lighthouse Depot for repair and eventual reuse. (See photos below) The pier was then repaired and a new square tower added to the roof of the fog signal building. A new lantern was placed atop the tower, and two Type F Diaphones installed as the fog horn. Two diaphones would ensure that if one horn was being repaired, the other would always be ready to sound when fog rolled in. The “new” lighthouse and fog signal was ready for exhibition in the spring of 1931.

The new integrated tower left the lighthouse looking as it does today – Photo Army Corps of Engineers

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 our period of interpretation.

When the lighthouse was automated in 1981, the diaphone fog horns were dismantled and the interior gutted of all equipment. The Fresnel lens remained inside the tower, still being lit by electric bulb attached to a photocell to turn it on and off automatically every day. 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.

The automated Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse in the early 1980s – Photo Environmental Protection Agency

On November 26, 1990, the SS Badger sailed past the 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 maintains its status as an icon of the community.

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 to the city in September 2011.

Since the acquisition, the city’s Kewaunee 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 donations, restoration has begun!
Read more about our restoration