Milwaukee Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

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Historical Information

Built in 1926, the Milwaukee Breakwater light was one of the last to be constructed on the Great Lakes. Unlike most pier and breakwater lights, which were serviced by a keeper who lived onshore and walked the pier to service the light, this structure was manned with a live-in crew.

Click to view enlarged imageThe fifty-three-foot tall structure is situated in the approximate center of the four mile long Milwaukee breakwater. Built to endure the wave-pounding that such structures endure during Lake Michigan's angriest moments, the building is constructed from quarter-inch steel plates over a steel skeletal frame, and is equipped with windows and portholes with glass a full half inch in thickness. Originally painted red, the structure has been given a coat of white paint at some point in time during the ensuing years.

The lower two story section of the structure has a footprint of twenty-nine feet by forty-four feet, and stands twenty-two feet tall. The tower centered above the living quarters is fourteen feet square and stands twenty feet tall at the gallery. Centered in the gallery, a round cast iron lantern room features helical astragals and contains the  Fourth Order Fresnel lens originally installed in the nearby Pierhead Light. With its' sixty one-foot focal plane, the red light flashed every ten seconds, and was visible for a distance of fourteen miles across the lake.

With the transfer of responsibility for navigational aids transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939, Coast Guard seamen were assigned to the Milwaukee Breakwater light. Four men manned the station, split into two man crews. Each crew working a rotating schedule consisting of three days "on" and three days "off." Each crew on the "on board" crew worked alternate twelve hour shifts to ensure that one seaman was awake at all times.

A large gray door located in the harbor side of the station's concrete base contained a winch crane on which the station's launch was raised and stored. While the door was located on the lee side of the breakwater, leaving the station for liberty or to re-supply could be a dangerous undertaking.

When a man was heading for shore leave, one of the keepers would come down from the station to operate the hoist. The crane would then lift the boat from the cradle, and then swing the boat away from the breakwater. The keeper going on liberty would get into the boat while it was alongside. As the boat was lowered, he would start the engine. The second the boat hit the water, he would step out of the cabin, unhook the ring from the heavy hook and sheave, and the man topside would get the hook out of the way as fast as possible.

The Breakwater light crews were also responsible for operating and maintaining all the harbor lights, which were acetylene powered. Thus, they made frequent runs in the station launch, carrying tanks of acetylene back and forth. Additionally, the crews were responsible for painting both the Breakwater Light and the North Point Lighthouse, which while automated in 1933, still required constant maintenance in order to keep it from deteriorating.

Finally automated in the 1960's, keepers were no longer needed, and today the Breakwater Light sits empty while its' original Fourth Order Fresnel continues to send its light across the surface of the lake, guiding mariners safely into the protection of Milwaukee Harbor.

Keepers of this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Milwaukee Breakwater 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 Breakwater light sitting offshore in the center of the harbor's protection. The Light is a large structure located at the end of a long breakwater. Since the breakwater is not attached to the shore, without a boat it is impossible to reach.

Thus, we were forced to take photographs using our 500mm lens. Unfortunately, the day's hazy atmospheric conditions made obtaining a clear shot impossible, and thus for the time being the fuzzy images above will have to suffice.

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. The Breakwater Light can be seen in the distance sitting at the southern end of the breakwater.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 

USCG Historians office, Photographic archives. 
Wisconsin Lighthouses, A photographic & Historical guide, Ken & Barb Wardius, 2000.
A Small Slice of Life, by Jack Eckert, Jacks Joint website
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

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This page last modified 12/07/2003