Milwaukee Pierhead Light Seeing The Light

Milwaukee, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

Milwaukee traces it's history as a Great Lakes port to 1835, when the first commercial cargo vessel stopped at the new village growing at the confluence of Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers.

The first major improvement in converting the harbor from its natural configuration came in 1857, when the "Straight Cut" or new harbor entrance was completed. The major thrust of this project involved the construction of a new outlet a half mile to the north of the natural mouth of the Milwaukee River.

With the new channel, an open-framework pierhead tower was constructed at the end of the new pier that formed the harbor entrance. While to this point we have been unable to locate a photograph of this original structure, it was likely similar to other pierhead lights constructed throughout the Great Lakes during this time period, an example of which can be seen in the drawing to the right.

Because of numerous shipping disasters on Lake Michigan, in 1881, Congress made provision for the creation of a Harbor of Refuge in Milwaukee. This harbor was to be created through the construction of a breakwater across the Bay. With the construction of this Breakwall, and numerous improvements within the harbor, the old pierhead light was replaced with a conical steel tower in 1907.

Typical of such pier lights being installed around the Great Lakes at that time, the tower was built of 3/8" thick prefabricated steel plates. Eleven feet six inches in diameter at it's base, the tower stood forty-two feet tall and was topped with a circular lantern room with alternating helical astragals, and equipped with a Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured in 1877 by Henry-Lepaute of Paris.

At some later point in time, the round lantern room and Fourth Order lens were removed from the tower, and replaced by a decagonal lantern room equipped with a Fifth Order Fresnel. While we have thus far been able to determine the reason for this change, it is likely that the old lens and lantern room were removed for installation in the new Breakwater light which was constructed in 1926, and similarly outfitted.

With the construction of the manned Breakwater light, a cable was installed across the harbor bottom from the Breakwater light to the pierhead light, and the Breakwater keepers assumed responsibility for both structures.

The Fifth Order lens still sits proudly in the lantern room, and its flash every four seconds guides vessels into the river mouth from a distance of 12 miles out in the Lake.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

The sun was shining through the haze in downtown Milwaukee as we wound our way around Summerfest Park, along the docks lined with fishermen furtively trying to coerce the spawn-crazy salmon into taking their bait.

As we came around the point at the north side of the river entrance, we could see the Pierhead light sitting a short distance along the pier. We walked along the pier to the tower, but found that the lighting was not conducive for close-up photography, and thus walked back down the pier to take some shots from the shore.

Finding this light

Take I-794 East to Lincoln Memorial Drive. Take Lincoln Memorial Drive North to Michigan Street. Take Michigan right, and then turn right onto Harbor Drive. Follow Harbor Drive to Polk Street. Turn Right on Polk to its' end at Erie. Turn left on Erie, and continue approximately 1/4 mile to the parking lot at the foot of the South Pier. After parking the car, you can walk out to the end of the pier to get a close-up view of the pier light. The Breakwater light can also be seen in the distance from this same location.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Personal observation at Big Sable, 09/09/2000
Port of Milwaukee - Port history, website
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1995
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

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This page last modified 05/09/2003