Port Washington Main Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Port Washington, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

Wooster Harrison and a number of other white traders and land speculators arrived at the mouth of the Sauk River in 1835 and established the settlement of Washington City. The settlement grew quickly, and by 1845 churches, stores and a schoolhouse sprang up to support the fishing and lumber trade growing at the river mouth. With its commercial success tied to the burgeoning number of vessels entering the harbor, the city founders began lobbying their legislators for aids to navigation to serve the growing maritime commerce.

Taking up their call, Representative Henry Dodge presented a petition before the House of Representatives on February 25, 1845 on behalf of the residents of the Wisconsin Territory for the construction of a lighthouse at the harbor entrance. After the town's appointment as the county seat in 1847, Representatives Morgan L. Martin and John Hubbard Tweedy subsequently added their support to the cause, presenting similar memorials signed by prominent Wisconsin business interests before Congress. As a result of the mounting pressure, Congress deferred the matter to the Committee on Commerce on January 31, 1848 with instructions to "inquire into the expediency of making appropriations, at the present session, for the erection of a light-house at Sauk harbor, in the Territory of Wisconsin " After evaluation, the Commerce Committee concurred that the need for a lighthouse at the harbor was both valid and desirable, and Congress appropriated the sum of $3,500 for the building's construction on June 26, 1848, the same year in which the village was renamed Port Washington to better reflect its growing maritime significance.

The Treasury Department responded quickly, purchasing a reservation on the bluff to the north side of the harbor for $200 and awarding a contract for the station's construction that same year. Typical of lighthouse construction under the Pleasonton Administration, local building materials were used for as much of the station as possible in order to keep construction costs low. With large deposits of lacustrine clay in the area, which after firing created the yellow brick that would eventually become universally known as Cream City brick, it is no surprise that this material was used in the construction of both the tower and dwelling. While little is known of the exact specifications for these two structures, it is likely that the station appeared similar to the illustration to the left, which was the common building plan being used on the Great Lakes at that time. The tower stood around thirty feet in height, and was equipped with a birdcage-style lantern with housed an array of 5 Lewis lamps equipped with 14-inch reflectors. Cyrus Worth was appointed as the station's first keeper, and he climbed the stairs to light the lamps for the first time on the night of May 8, 1849.

Click to view enlarged imageIn his inspection of the station on July 5th of the following year, Henry B Miller, the Superintendent and Inspector of the Lights of the Northwest Lakes reported that the station had "thus far stood the effects of the weather" and was in good condition. However, he recommended that the sum of $75 be appropriated to allow the keeper to finish the two rooms on the second floor of the dwelling to provide additional living quarters. With the creation of the Lighthouse Board in 1853, a system-wide upgrading of the illuminating apparatus in the nation's lighthouses was undertaken. This upgrade involved the replacement of the Lewis lamps with the far superior Fresnel lenses manufactured in France. To this end, the original Port Washington lighting system was removed in 1855, and replaced with a fixed white Sixth Order Fresnel lens.

Click to view enlarged imageAs was the case with virtually all of the early stations built under the "least cost" tenets of the Pleasonton Administration, the structure at Port Washington began to deteriorate quickly, and by the end of the 1850's, the Lighthouse Board began planning for the replacement of both the tower and dwelling. Work on the new structure began in 1859, and continued into 1860. The new structure consisted of a two-story cream city brick structure with a white painted timber tower integrated into the southeast end of the roof ridge. A steep stairway through the attic provided access to the lantern, which was supported by four massive hand-hewn timbers which transferred the load of the tower and cast iron lantern all the way through the structure directly to the foundation. The Sixth Order Fresnel was transferred from the old tower, and with a distance of 40 feet from ground level to the center of the lens, the station boasted an impressive focal plane of 113 feet above the level of the lake, and was visible for a distance of nine miles in clear weather. A woodshed, privy and barn for the Keeper's horse rounded out the station's complement of structures.

Click to view enlarged imageIn order better serve the needs of mariners coasting the western lake shore, the Sixth Order lens was replaced by a fixed white Fourth Order lens in 1870, with a corresponding increase in its range of visibility to 18 miles in clear weather. Also during the 1870's, the Army Corps of Engineers began a series of upgrades and replacements to the private piers which served to form the harbor. While the old light on the bluff to the north of the harbor continued to serve as a guide to mariners off shore, it served virtually no assistance in guiding them through the 120-foot opening between the thousand-foot long protective piers which were being built. To this end, on the completion of the piers, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a wooden tower on the North pier in 1889. Consisting of a pyramidal skeletal structure, its upper portion was enclosed to serve as a room for working on the lamps and as refuge from foul weather while tending the light. The tower was capped by an octagonal cast iron lantern and housed a fixed red Fourth Order lens with a focal plane of 42 feet 6 inches. Charles H Lewis Jr., who had taken over as Keeper of the Port Washington Light in 1880 on his father's death, was now responsible for maintaining both lights. To provide much needed assistance with the new light, George Rathbun was assigned as the station's first Assistant Keeper on March 10. 1889.

Click to view enlarged image1894 saw the construction of a brick oil house at the main light along with a cement sidewalk connecting the dwelling and the woodshed. Five years later, a 255 foot steel fence with a new carriage gate was erected round the property and six loads of gravel were placed on the drive which lead to the station barn. By 1903, it was finally realized that the old light atop St. Mary's Hill was no longer serving any real purpose, since most vessels were using the equally bright North Pierhead light to gain their bearings. Thus the decision was made to eliminate the old lighthouse, and to continue use of the building solely as a dwelling for the keepers. Although the main light was discontinued, the lantern continued to sit empty atop the structure.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the electrification of the Pierhead Light in 1924, responsibility for its operation was transferred to the Port Washington City Electrical Utility. No longer needed to serve his light, Keeper Lewis resigned from Lighthouse service after 44 years at Port Washington, and Assistant Arthur S Almquist transferred to Racine Breakwater Light

Exactly what happened to the old Main Light building over the next ten years is unclear until 1934, when the new Breakwater Light and fog signal were constructed. With Keepers again needed to man the maintenance intensive fog signal, the old main light underwent a major renovation to convert it into a duplex dwelling to provide living accommodations for the new keeper and his assistant. As part of this renovation. the tower and lantern were removed from the roof along with the four massive tower support beams, attic stairs, and the oil storage shed. At this time, the building was also given a coat of white paint. Thus modified, the building no longer gave any hint of its original purpose or its historical significance beyond the chiseled "1860" which remained proudly displayed above the main entryway.

After the complete automation of the Breakwater Light n the mid 1970's, the old building continued to house a group of Station Milwaukee Coast Guardsmen assigned to Port Washington. When this post was eliminated in 1992, the Coast Guard leased the building to the Port Washington Historical Society, which used the structures as a museum, with the long term goal of restoring the station to its turn of the twentieth century appearance. In 1998, permanent ownership of the structure was transferred to the City of Port Washington with oversight by the National Park Service, and the way was set for restoration, and the planning process began in earnest.

Click to view enlarged imageIn a serendipitous stroke of luck, the Minster of Sites and Monuments for the Luxembourg Government was visiting the area in 2000 as a result of the area's large population of Luxembourg emigrants. While at the lighthouse museum, he was impressed with the old structure and the Historical Society's plans for restoration. As a result, The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg offered to build a replacement tower and lantern, and to have it shipped to Port Washington along with the craftsmen necessary to install the structure on the old building in the spring of 2002 as a memorial to US service men who fought for the freedom of the Grand Duchy in the Second World War.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of the added impetus of the generosity of the Luxembourg Government, the Historical Society went into overdrive, planning, fund raising and seeking additional grant money. Restoration work began in October 2000, and continued throughout the following year. As a result of its hard working determination, the Port Washington Historical Society managed to get all the exterior renovation complete in time, and the interior support columns replaced and the stairway in the attic rebuilt in time for the arrival of the Luxembourg craftsmen with their new tower in the spring of 2002. The tower and lantern were carefully hoisted atop the roof, which was refurbished with a historically accurate red metal shake style roof similar to those installed at Grand Traverse and Whitefish Point.

On June 16, 2001 dignitaries of the Luxembourg government arrived in Port Washington and in front of news cameras and the world, the new tower was officially dedicated, and the station returned to her original glory. The Historical Society has plans to continue restoring the interior of the station, and to make it into one of the Great Lakes first-class maritime museum

Seeing this Light

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

Finding this Light

From the lake front, take Lake Street north to the intersection with East Jackson Street. Turn west on East Jackson to the intersection with North Franklin. Turn right on North Franklin to Woodruff, and turn right on Woodruff. Turn right on North Catalpa Street to Van Buren Street. Turn right on Van Buren and continue to North Johnson Street. Continue on North Johnson as it makes a sweeping curve to the left, and you will find the lighthouse on your left toward the end of the curve.

Contact information

The Port Washington Historical Society can be reached at (262) 284-7240.

Reference Sources

Annual Report of the Fifth Auditor 1850
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1853 - 1909
Great Lakes Light Lists 1861, 1876 & 1901.
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
Personal observation at Port Washington, 09/09/2000.
Photographs courtesy of Jeff Shook and Russ Babington.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 02/28/2009

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