Keepers of the light Local organization works to preserve historic structure
Keepers of the light
Local organization works to preserve historic structure
By Kris Leonhardt
KEWAUNEE – As the settlement that was to become Kewaunee began to develop, a large harbor was created to welcome the shipping industry that was sure to arrive in the area.
In 1850, the first pier was constructed and local residents petitioned the government for a lighthouse the following year, but the pier sat unmarked for decades.
“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,” a Friends of the Kewaunee Lighthouse history reads.
“The following year, in 1892, the wooden-hulled ANN ARBOR No. 1 began cross-lake rail ferry service between Kewaunee and Frankfort, Mich.”
“In 1891, the north pier was also lengthened 300 feet with the lighthouse being moved 200 feet 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.”
In 1912, a new concrete pier was constructed to replace an old wooden pier on the south side of the harbor, creating north and south piers equal in length.
The south pier was built with an open frame tower, with a fog signal building located behind it.
In November 1930, the ANN ARBOR No. 3 collided with the south pier, and the light tower was removed from the badly wrecked pier.
“The damaged concrete and timber at the end of the pier [were] repaired, and a square tower built out of the lakeward gable of the fog signal building. When the work was completed, the lighthouse was left looking as it does today,” the history adds.
“The lighthouse would remain vastly unchanged from 1931 until its automation in 1981.
“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.”
Today, a local organization works to preserve the Kewaunee Lighthouse, working alongside the city, who received ownership of the historic structure in 2011.
“The period from 1931 until the U.S. 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,’” their website states.
Jake Heffernan, lighthouse historian, said that the friends group was formed to provide financial support.
“Most of the work that’s been done has been done by the city’s restoration committee which is a subcommittee of the main city council,” he explained.
“Through fundraising and requests for donations and various grants, we were able to do an exterior restoration in 2017, where the top end of the lighthouse was pretty much completely taken down to bare wood, and then siding was put back on, a metal roof was put back on and flashings and stuff that go around the roofline; those were replaced as well.
“There were a couple of windows on the upper level that were covered. Those covers were removed and then storm windows were installed throughout the entire upper level leaving the existing windows in place so that we could restore or replicate them later.
“Early on, there was some lead paint and asbestos remediation that was done. That was very, very early right when the lighthouse was first transferred. So we haven’t really had to worry about any of that stuff. Luckily.
“The next big step came in 2019 when the fresnel lens was removed from the lantern, and it was replaced by an LED light.”
The lens was put on display at the Kewaunee County Historical Society History Center at 217 Ellis Street.
Once that piece of history was removed, the friends group opened the lighthouse for tours.
“Since then, it’s been kind of little projects here and there. The front main entry door was replaced. In 2021, the landing right outside that main entry door was enlarged. And then that kind of brings us up to where we are now,” Heffernan added.
“This summer, we’ve got the first part of a foundation repair and what that’s going to be is there’s the main foundation of the lighthouse is concrete block. And then on the first level that transitions to steel and brick.
“The gap between those two is going to be covered by a metal band that’s going to be welded to the lighthouse where it’s weather sealed, because we’re having issues with water incursion between those two surfaces between the brick and the steel and the concrete block foundation below that’s all for this summer.
“The second thing is six metal plates that are welded to the first-floor windows, the main level. Those were welded on there to keep the weather out when the lighthouse was automated in 1981.
“Those metal plates are going to be removed and 10 new windows are going to be installed in the openings both. There are a couple of openings that aren’t covered right now. But all the windows are going to be replaced on that level. They’ve all been hand replicated by a local woodworker; his name is Barry Nelson.”
The lighthouse project will soon look at adding electricity to the structure.
“When the station was decommissioned in 1981, they disconnected all the electricity from the upper levels. All they did was run an electric line from the bottom of the lighthouse all the way up to the top to power the light. That’s it,” Heffernan added.
“So the main level, the second level, none of that stuff has power. So, we’re going to be adding in lighting on the main level, the second level, and then that’s going to be attached to a dusk to dawn timer so that the lighthouse will actually be lit up with LEDs inside at night and all the windows will be open then because the windows on the first level will be done. So, you’ll be able to see not only the light from the lighthouse but also light shining out to the windows.”
The lighthouse is only open a couple of dates throughout the year, with six dates scheduled for this summer.
“The lighthouse is a part of our history and Kewaunee. It’s a part of the Great Lakes’ history as a whole and it’s a really important symbol. It’s on the sign when you come into town. It is absolutely a symbol of this community and keeping it in good condition pays respect to the people that kept it in that condition in the past.
“Keeping it in that condition will ensure that that history and that effort that was given by those people all those years ago that’s not lost. You look keepers that were stationed here and their families and if we let the lighthouse go and be ruined, then there’s a good chance that the history of those people also goes with it.”
For more information, visit https://kewauneepierheadlighthouse.org.
Lighthouse 2023 open dates
June 10-11, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
July 8, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
July 15, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Oct. 7-8, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.