Green Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Off Marinette, Green Bay, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

Green Island's 90-acres sit five miles southeast of the mouth of Menominee River, and while pleasure boaters skirting the island's shoals likely notice the crumbling walls which protrude above the lush vegetation covering the island, it is likely that precious few are aware of the rich maritime heritage, family history, heroism and tragedy that these crumbling walls long ago witnessed.

Green Island first gained prominence in the late 1850's, as a result of increasing maritime commerce in Green Bay. At that time, lumbering activities were increasing at the mouth of the Menominee River, and Lumbermen, and the captains of vessels serving them began to raise their voices seeking the construction of a coastal light on Bertraw Bay to the north of the river to guide vessels into the growing harbor. Taking up the call, but on a slightly different tack, Wisconsin State Representative Billinghurst presented a number of petitions before Congress in 1858 praying that a light be constructed on Green Island, which stood at the western edge of the primary north/south shipping channel down Green Bay, and about five miles off the entrance to the Menominee.

Realizing that there was undoubtedly a need for increased navigational aids in the areas, but with both factions proclaiming the unique benefits of their proposals, the Lighthouse Board dispatched Captain George Gordon Meade of the Corps of Topographical Engineers to Green Bay in August, 1861 to evaluate the situation and offer a recommended course of action. Meade reported that Bertraw Bay was "merely an indentation in the land on the west shore of Green bay, about four and a half miles from Menominee river," and recommended that through the establishment of a Light on Green Island both purposes would be well served. Moving in Meade's recommendation, the Eleventh District Engineer at the Detroit depot began work on plans for the construction of a light station on Green Island in 1862. The lighthouse reservation was purchased from a Samuel Drew, and work began at Green Island that year with the clearing of the 17-acre reservation on the tapering southeast corner of the island, and after a break for the winter, continued on the opening of the 1863 season of navigation.

Click to view enlarged imageThe lighthouse building itself consisted of two-story Cream City Brick keepers dwelling with a short square wooden tower with white painted clapboard siding integrally mounted on the ridge at the east end of the roof. Both floors contained four rooms, with a centrally located entryway with stairs connecting the two floors. A narrower second set of stairs on the second floor led through the attic into the tower. The building featured first-class construction, with hardwood floors throughout and bright white painted wooden trim and wainscoting. A brick addition at the rear of the building contained the kitchen and wood storage area. Atop the tower, a cast iron lantern contained a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens illuminated with a sperm oil fueled lamp. The ventilator ball atop the lantern stood 48 feet above the base of the structure, with the structure's location atop a ridge down the center of the island providing a focal plane of 55 feet, and a range of visibility of 14 miles in clear weather.

Samuel Drew was appointed as the first keeper of the Green Island Light at the princely annual pay rate of $560, and he officially exhibited the light for the first time on the night of October 1, 1863. While there are a number of interesting local stories concerning Drew's appointment to this position, it is interesting to note that at the time the lighthouse reservation was purchased by the Federal Government, Samuel was the owner of all seventeen acres. He also owned a considerable amount of the remaining 90 acres, and by 1867, when his wife Mary was named assistant keeper, he personally owned half of the island. Samuel and Mary established a relatively large farming operation on the island, keeping a cow, planting wheat, corn, oats and strawberries, of which it is reported that they sold 87 bushels in Menekaunee one summer. Frank, the first of their five children, was born in the lighthouse on March 11, 1864.

Click to view enlarged imageA crew arrived at the island in the summer of 1869, and painted the entire station. Samuel was known for keeping a well organized station, and it is easy to imagine that he was proud to see his buildings in tip-top condition again. Unfortunately, while such memories would be something to carry into the future, 1869 was likely indelibly etched into Samuel and Mary's minds for an entirely different reason. At only three months of age, their youngest daughter Anna took sick in that fall, and with the weather particularly violent, it was impossible for Frank to get her to the nearest doctor in Menominee. Sadly, the child died before the weather broke, and Sam and Mary buried her in the shade of a lilac tree on the island, where her grave marker can still be seen to this day.

1871 was forever remembered as the Year from Hell in Green Bay, as it was the year that the Great Peshtigo Fire ravaged everything in its path. While Green Island was far enough from the shore to escape the devastation of the fire itself, the area was completely enveloped in thick choking smoke, and Samuel kept the light burning 24 hours a day in an attempt to keep vessels clear of the island. However, the smoke was so thick that the light was virtually invisible on the water, and without a fog signal on the island, at 9 p.m. on October 8, the three-masted schooner GEORGE L NEWMAN stranded on one of the reefs off the island. Samuel helped save the crew, which stayed at the lighthouse for a week, while they salvaged everything of value that they could remove from the wreck. While Frank Drew was only seven years old, the rescue of the crew of the Newman remained one of his earliest memories of life on Green Island.

In its annual report for 1876, the Lighthouse Board reported that the lay of the water off the lighthouse reservation made landing difficult, and an appropriation of $200 was requested to purchase additional land adjacent to the reservation where deeper water came closer to the shore. Congress appropriated the requested funds, and Samuel signed over another parcel of his land to the Federal Government for what equated to four years pay, and a new crib and landing pier were constructed.

Click to view enlarged imagePerhaps tiring of the rigors of offshore lighthouse keeping and looking forward to retirement in a more "civilized" setting, or as a result of failing health, Samuel and Mary requested and received a transfer to the Menominee Pierhead Light on May 27, 1881. Samuel passed away on August 31, 1882, and Mary died soon thereafter. With the death of his parents, Frank left Menominee and set off to seek a life on the water, taking a position as a cook on the three-masted schooner VETO. Upon reaching Chicago, the Veto's captain hired a young woman as his cook, and Frank found himself looking for another job. For the next seventeen years, Frank work on various tugs, fishing boats and lumber hookers

Back at Green Island The boathouse was moved as a result of receding lake levels in 1883, 700 feet of concrete sidewalk was laid, the wooden cistern was replaced by a brick structure, and the boathouse was lengthened by 20 feet in 1890.

Frank Drew's upbringing on Green Island obviously prepared him well for the seafaring lifestyle, since at the tender age of 25 he found himself the captain of a packet steamer. On one trip into St. Ignace, he met Mary Louisa Mayville, and after a few visits the two were married in 1891.

Retreating lake levels caused the Green Island well to run dry in 1893, and the lighthouse tender Amaranth delivered a working party to deepen the well to a total depth of 20 feet, construct two additional wooden landing cribs 30 feet long by nine feet wide, filled with crushed stone, and the old boat ways were removed and replaced. 1897 saw the construction of a brick oil storage building, and the kitchen and woodshed at the rear of the dwelling were rebuilt. Obviously lake levels continued to recede, since this year also saw the elongation of the boat piers by 50 feet, and the sinking of a completely new drive well.

The seagoing life was not the best life for married couples, since it required that the entire shipping season be spent away from home, and following in the footsteps of his father, Frank applied for a lighthouse keeping position in 1899. Doubtless, his being raised at an offshore light station and almost twenty years of successful maritime experience were attractive to the Lighthouse Board, and Frank received an appointment as acting assistant keeper at Pilot Island Light Station on January 10, 1999, and was quickly promoted to the First Assistant position after only three months on April 1. While we have been unable to specifically determine Mary's whereabouts at this time, it was likely that she took up residence on Washington Island where she raised their three children, and Frank could make frequent visits, since this was the common practice of most of the keepers at Plum and Pilot Islands over the years.

Click to view enlarged imageOn Green Island, the 1902 winter ice wreaked havoc with all shoreline structures, and the boathouse was completely rebuilt and a boat winch was installed on a wooden turntable. Eighty seven feet of boat track was laid and a 22 foot long boat car was installed on the track. The cribs and piers were reinforced and extended and 545 linear feet of sidewalks were replaced. Four hundred feet of fencing was renewed and the shoreline cribs were reinforced. That same year, tragedy struck when Mary died unexpectedly. After laying her body to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in Marinette, Frank made the decision that he needed to move closer to the remainder of his family in Marinette, where he could continue to raise his children alone. To this end, Frank arranged a transfer to Green Island, and received an appointment as the First Assistant Keeper of the Green Island Light under Head Keeper James Wachter on October 31.

1905 again saw the winter ice destruction of the Green Island boathouse and landing, and after temporary repairs they were completely renewed on the western side of the island the following year the boat ways being upgraded to iron, in the hope that they would better withstand the ravages of the winter ice pack on the less exposed shore. Frank was promoted to the position of head keeper on July 15, 1909, and with his younger brother George appointed to the position of assistant at some time thereafter, his life had come full circle, as the second generation of Drews now tended the Green Island Light.

Over the following twenty years, Frank became well known throughout the system for his acts of heroism. In 1913, he and his brother were lauded for rescuing two men and two women and assisting 24 passengers on the NEPTUNE which was in serious danger off the island. Two years later, he assisted a gasoline launch which had grounded on one of the shoals off the island, and the following year he assisted in removing a steamer which had become stranded on the same shoal.

On May 5, 1917, the district Lampist arrived from the depot in Milwaukee, and installed an incandescent oil vapor lamp in the lens which increased its output to 1,700 candlepower and its range of visibility to fifteen miles. On two separate occasions in 1920, Frank towed the disabled launch HELENA and the disabled yacht VANITY to the safety of Menominee harbor., and the following year he made temporary repairs to the fish tug LOYD which was foundering off the island, before towing that vessel too into Menominee.

By 1928, huge car ferries were operating between the eastern and western shores of the lake, and into Green Bay, and being designed to be able to break through thick ice, were frequently able to operate on a year-round basis. To better serve this year round traffic, the district Lampist returned to Green Island that year and installed a 70 candlepower flashing white winter light in the lantern. With a ten second flash cycle, this new lens was visible for a distance of 8 miles. While nowhere near as bright as the regular Fourth Order Fresnel, it served adequately during the clearer winter nights.

Click to view enlarged imageWhether it was a result of the year-round operation of the light, the knowledge of impending health problems, or just being 65 years old, Frank Drew retired from Lighthouse Service on March 31 1929, and moved to Marinette. Frank Drew died unexpectedly of heart failure on February 2, 1931, and it is a measure of the respect in which he was held by the lighthouse service that the First Assistant Keeper of the Menominee Light, the retired keeper of the Grand Marais Light, the Keeper of the Poverty Island Light, and Edward Comell, who replaced Frank at the Green Island Light served as pallbearers as Franks earthly remains were laid to rest next to his wife Mary in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Marinette beneath a red granite marker with a lighthouse carved upon its surface. 

In 1933, both the Fourth Order Fresnel lens was equipped with a 1,000 candlepower acetylene lamp and sun valve, which automatically turned the light on at dusk and off at dawn. Thus automated, keepers were no longer needed at the Green Island Light Station, and the building was stripped of valuables, boarded-up and abandoned.

Click to view enlarged image1955 saw the purchase of the entire island with the exception of the lighthouse reservation by the Roen Steamship Company, (the Company which removed the steel hulk of the steamer Bartelme from Cana Island in 1933.) The following year the Coast Guard erected a 65-foot tall steel skeleton light to the east of the old light station. Equipped with a solar-powered 250 mm acrylic lens flashing white every six seconds, the new light is visible for a distance of ten miles. With the old lighthouse reservation no longer serving any purpose, the Roen Steamship Company purchased the remainder of the island in 1957, with the understanding that the Coast Guard would maintain the right to service the new tower and its light.

Click to view enlarged imageWithout supervision and maintenance, over the ensuing years vandals wreaked their mindless havoc on the majestic 1863 light structure, until the station received the final insult of being set on fire, burning the roof and all wooden interior structures. Without the protection offered by the roof, the walls crumbled to the deteriorated condition visible today. While the Green Island Light Station is fast disappearing from the face of the earth, the memory of Frank Drew, its most famous keeper, lives on.

During the late 1980's, the Cost Guard introduced a new class of buoy tenders. Called the "Keeper Class," the contract for their construction was awarded to the Marinette Marine Corporation. Named after famous lighthouse keepers, the old keeper of the Green Island Light was honored through the naming of one of these 845 ton vessels WLM 557 as the "Frank Drew. Launched in Marinette on December 5, 1998, the vessel was  assigned to duty out of Norfolk, Virginia. On her maiden voyage out of Marinette, the vessel made a close pass by Green Island, and even if for a short time, Frank Drew had come home Green Island. With the commissioning of the vessel, her crew adopted a badge featuring a replica of the lighthouse found on Frank Drew's grave marker.

Keepers of this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Green Island Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light station, and wish to take this opportunity to thank Larry Bell for kindly offering to share his photographs of the 1863 station ruins and the 1956 steel tower taken during his jet ski visit to the island in September of 2001.

Finding this Light

At this point in time we are unaware of any specific boat trips heading out to Green Island, and thus the best chance would be to use your own vessel, or set up a trip to the island with a charter service out of Marinette, Wisconsin or Menominee, Michigan.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1860-1909
Annual reports of the Commissioner of Lighthouses,
Coast Guard Historians office,
photo archives.
Great Lakes Light Lists,
1876 ,1924, 1928, 1939
Lighthouse Keepers & Coast Guard Cutters,
Frederick Stonehouse, 2000
Coast Guard News Release,
April 3, 2000
Photographs taken in September 2001, courtesy of Larry Bell.
Navy League of the United States
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/02/2007

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