Grassy Island Range Lights Seeing The Light

Green Bay, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

Situated in a heavily forested area far to the north of the burgeoning development in the mid continent, the settlement at the mouth of the Fox River which would eventually become known as Green Bay, grew more slowly than rival lumber ports due to its location at the southern end of the bay, and the hazardous trip vessels were forced to take through the infamous Porte Des Morts passage before heading south toward the Fox River. Further complicating entry into the river itself was a thin sliver of land known as Grassy Island, which spread a mile offshore at the foot of the bay, forcing mariners to circumnavigate the island to gain entry into the river.

The areas bounty and commercial potential was evident as early as July 7, 1838, when at the urging of local maritime interests, Congress appropriated $4,000 for the establishment of a lighthouse on Grassy Island, to warn mariners of the island during while seeking river entry.

In 1838, Lieutenant James T Homans, to whom responsibility for the lighthouses of the Northern Great Lakes fell at the time, sailed up the lakes to locate appropriate sites for a number of new lighthouses for which appropriations had been authorized the previous year. Arriving at Grassy Island, Homans was dismayed with what he found, reporting the island to be "unsuitable for construction of buildings upon it of any durability, and totally uninhabitable by a keeper, being nearly under water, from the great rise of the lake, since the recommendation for a light upon it was made." Searching for an alternate location for the Light, Homans recommended that the light instead be established on Tail Point, a peninsula lying a short distance north of Grassy Island, with both higher and ground and blessed by the local mariners with whom he spoke during his visit.

Fox River business interests were not easily dissuaded, and continued to apply pressure for the establishment of a lighthouse on Grassy Island. After the Legislature of the Territory of Wisconsin passed a resolution in favor of establishing a light on Grassy Island, the Governor of the Wisconsin Territory even convinced Vice President Mifflin Douglas and Speaker John Wesley Davis to go before the Senate and House respectively on February 1, 1846 to plead their case. While the matter was referred to the Commerce Committee, and a bill subsequently passed approving the establishment of the station on July 2, 1846, no appropriation was made. Thus the Lighthouse Board moved ahead with construction of the Tail Point light station, and it appeared that the matter of a light on Grassy Island was dead.

Click to view enlarged imageGaining in creasing importance as both a lumber port and as an immigrant-outfitting center for northeast Wisconsin, by the mid 1850's the Fox River area boasted thirty-five sawmills. While the panic of 1857 slowed development considerably, good times returned in the early 1860's, with the sawmills once again operating at full steam. With increasingly large vessels seeking entry into the river, the Army Corps of Engineers was dispatched to Green Bay to formulate a plan to open the harbor to vessels of greater draft, and with the passage of the River and Harbor Act of June 23, 1866, $30,000 was appropriated to cut and dredge an improved channel into the river. Work began in 1867 under the direction of Major Junius B Wheeler, and a channel 200 feet wide by 13 feet deep was dredged from the mouth of the Fox River straight through the middle of Grassy Island and out into the Bay to the natural 13-foot depth.

As work progressed, the Lighthouse Board recommended the establishment of a lighthouse to guide vessels to the new cut through Grassy Island, and Congress responded with an appropriation of $11,000 for the new station on April 7, 1866. However, with the harbor improvements still far from completion, the decision was made to postpone the establishment of the new light until the completion of the harbor improvements. With work close to completion in 1871, Eleventh District Engineer Brevet Brigadier General O. M. Poe approved plans and specifications for the erection of a pair of range lights on the island, and materials for their construction were ordered that winter.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter the delivery of a work crew and supplies on the island, work began in the spring of 1872, and progressed through the remainder of the year. Standing on a timber pier on the east side of the cut, a pair of timber framed shingled beacon lights were erected 676 feet apart. Thee 25-fot tall lower light at the northern end of the pier was topped with an octagonal cast iron lantern, and equipped with fixed white Sixth Order Fresnel lens. With a focal plane of 30 feet, its light was visible for a distance 11 miles in clear weather. The Upper Light stood ten feet taller, and outfitted with a lens of similar order and characteristic, was visible for a distance of 13 miles. A two story keepers dwelling was erected approximately 100 feet to the north of the Upper Light, and with the construction of a boathouse, privy and woodshed, construction of the station was completed in October, and Joseph B. Wing appointed as the stationís first keeper. While Wing is first listed at the station on October 12, he did not officially exhibited the lights until the night of November 15, 1872.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of their exposed location, by 1880 the roofs of the dwelling and woodshed had deteriorated to a point that they needed complete replacement, and with a crew on the island, the dwelling was also completely repainted inside and out. 1889 saw the erection of a breakwater to stem erosion on the east side of the island, and a 10 foot by 16 foot landing dock was erected beside the boathouse.

Keeper Wing passed away on October 24, 1895 after 23 years of faithfully keeping the Grassy Island Range. To replace Wing, Ole Hansen accepted a transfer from Ahnapee, where he had been serving as keeper of the past two years. The year after Hansen arrived, a work crew arrived at the island, and demolished and rebuilt both the kitchen addition and the boathouse, which were showing signs of damage as a result of frequent standing water around the station.

Click to view enlarged imageThe steamer ALICE M GILL, which was under lease to the Ninth District while two new tenders were being built, arrived on the island in 1901 with a work party and materials for major repairs at Grassy Island. After both Upper and Lower lights were re-shingled and painted, a brick oil storage building was erected between the dwelling and the Upper light. 40 yards of stone were also placed to the east of the station to serve as a protection against rising water levels. 1901 also saw the addition of a First Assistant Keeper at the station, with Guy E Leach appointed to the position on September 5, 1901. With lake levels continuing to rise, in 1902 the boathouse was raised and placed atop 17 posts driven into the ground, and a 44-foot long trestle walk was laid from the boathouse to the landing crib. The 65-foot long walkway from the revetment at the south side of the dwelling leading to the boathouse was also raised on posts.

After seven years at Grassy Island, Ole Hansen arranged a "station swap" with Louis Hutzler, the keeper at Tail Point, and on December 31 the two keepers traded positions. We have come across a number of examples of such "station swaps" in our research, and thus it would appear that the Lighthouse Board showed a willingness to accommodate the needs of keepers when such solutions were mutually beneficial to all parties.

Click to view enlarged imageOn May 15, 1907, a pile driver was towed out to the island to drive 250 feet of pile and corrugated sheet metal revetments to the east of the dwelling to further stave rising lake levels, and with its foundation still frequently in standing water, the dwelling was also resided and painted.

As a result of positive experiences with acetylene lighting systems throughout the Great Lakes, acetylene lights with automatic sun valves were installed in both ranges in 1834. With this change, the characteristic of both lights were also changed, with the Upper light changed to fixed green with a visibility range of 10 miles, and the Lower light to a single green flash every 5 seconds. With the sun valve automatically turning the lights on at dusk and off at sunrise, the full time attention of a keeper was no longer necessary, and at 66 years of age, Louis Hutzler retired from lighthouse service, thus serving as the last keeper of the Grassy Island Range.

Click to view enlarged imageDredging in the harbor continued on an almost annual basis throughout the years, and the original channel through the island was successively widened on numerous occasions, with each widening operation being performed on the west of the channel opposite the range lights. With the universal adoption of radar and LORAN, the range lights had long since outlived their purpose as navigational aids, and in 1966 the decision was made to destroy the lights in place, and to widen the channel through what was left of the east side of Grassy Island.

Click to view enlarged imageHearing of the Coast Guardís plans for the historic beacons, Green Bay Yacht Club member "Admiral" Merlin J Baenen and a number of associates managed to arrange for the lights to be relocated to the Yacht Club property on the east side of the Fox River. With the Coast Guard's assistance, the lights were carefully removed from the island and placed in the yacht club parking lot until their final home cold be decided.

In 1999, the two towers were relocated onto piers at either side of the yacht club entrance, and Baenen and his team began the task of restoring the lights. Restoration work continued throughout the following six years, with the completely restored lights dedicated at a public ceremony on November 5, 2005.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing these lights

In Green Bay, take I-43 west to Webster Avenue. Turn right at the first stop sign, and then left on Bay Beach Road. Follow Bay Beach Road to it's end at the Fox River, and turn left into the Municipal boat launch parking lot. The lights will be seen a few hundred feet upriver, immediately north of the Coast Guard Station.

Reference Sources

Congressional records, various, 1836 - 1866
Annual reports of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury
, 1838
Lighthouse Board annual reports
, 1868 - 1906
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1876 - 1909
Those Army Engineers, Chicago District, John W. Larson, 1979
Personal observation and photography in Green Bay, 09/13/2000.
Undated Green Bay News Chronicle article in Green Bay Public Library vertical file.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 10/23/2005

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