North Point Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

The first lighthouse at Milwaukee was established in 1838, and consisted of a small brick dwelling and squat 30-foot tower outfitted with eleven Lewis lamps with 14-inch reflectors. A short time after the station’s activation, Navy Lieutenant James T Homans arrived in Milwaukee on his annual inspection of aids to navigation in the district, and was dismayed to find that the new station had been built almost a mile north of the river, as opposed to being built on the site on the north bank of the river selected two years previously by his predecessor Lieutenant Pendergrast.

Map showing location of Milwaukee lightsIn his report to Stephen Pleasonton, who as Fifth Auditor of the Treasury was responsible the nation’s aids to navigation at the time, Homans reported tersely that "serious objections exist to the site upon which the Milwaukee light has been placed. It must have been chosen by some one little acquainted with navigation, or the wishes and interest of those connected with it, and has been apparently located to gratify some of the townspeople, at the termination of one of the streets, near the bank of the lake, where it forms an object of interest, from its neat appearance when viewed from other parts of the village." Homans went on to state "the points of land at either extremity of Milwaukee bay, into which the river discharges, would appear to any seafaring person the second choice for the location of a light, which could thence be seen at a great distance by vessels approaching the bay."

With the transfer of responsibility for the nation’s aids to navigation to the nine-man Lighthouse Board in 1852, the new Board was motivated to undo as many of the Pleasonton Administrations mistakes as possible. With Milwaukee’s growing importance as a shipping point, the Board made the replacement of the poorly located Milwaukee lighthouse one of its first priorities. Concurring with Homan’s prior observations, the Board determined that the best location for the light would be atop the bluff at the north point of the bay three miles to the north of the river mouth, where the elevated location would provide it with a commanding view of the entire bay. After receiving a Congressional appropriation of $5,000 for relocating the light on August 31, 1852, a site at the edge of the bluff between two deep ravines was selected in 1853, and the process of obtaining clear title to the reservation was initiated..

Click to view enlarged imagePlans for the new station were approved, and a contract for construction awarded in 1854, with construction beginning the following year. While exact specifications for the Light have yet to be determined, we do know that the station buildings consisted of a 28-foot tall Cream City brick tower and attached dwelling. The lantern atop the tower was outfitted with a Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier, Benard & Turenne of Paris, and exhibited a fixed white light varied by a bright white flash every 2 minutes. As a result of being located at the top of the high bluff overlooking the lake, the light featured an impressive 102-foot focal plane, and was visible for 14 miles at sea in clear weather conditions. Keeper Andrew Sullivan, who had been serving at the old light since 1853 took over as keeper of the new station, but was evidently not pleased with his new assignment, as he resigned from lighthouse service on April 7th of the following year, to be replaced by Michael Burke. Soon after the new station’s establishment it was noticed that the face of the bluff in front of the lighthouse was eroding, with a relatively large portion of ground at the top of the bluff falling away.

Burke only served for five years until he was removed from the position on April 10, 1861. William Bruin was appointed to succeed Burke, and tended the light for ten years until March 15, 1871, when he too was removed from the position. Two keepers were appointed and subsequently removed over the next six months until D. K. Green took over as Keeper on September 23, 1871. Two years after his appointment, Green’ s daughter Mrs. Georgia Stebbins, was diagnosed as having consumption. As she was living alone in New York City after the death of her husband, and her life expectancy was short, her physician suggested that she should move to Milwaukee to live with her father. Heeding her physician’s suggestion, Georgia arrived at North Point in 1874, only to find that her father was also in ill health, and she immediately assisting him with his light keeping duties. Evidently, the fresh lake air agreed with Georgia, as she took over all station duties as her father’s health deteriorated. No longer able to perform his duties as Keeper, Green was removed from his position at the opening of the 1881 Navigation Season. Aware of the fact that Georgia had been unofficially tending the light for seven years, Eleventh District Inspector Commander Joseph N. Miller appointed Georgia to the position of Acting Keeper of the North Point Light on April 2, 1881, and after a short three month probationary period she was promoted to full Keeper status on July 22.

By this time, erosion of the bluff had advanced to the point that there was concern that if something was not done quickly to slow the process, the foundation of the tower itself would be undermined. Determining that there was no effective way to stem the erosion, Eleventh District Engineer Captain Charles E. L. B. Davis recommended that a complete replacement of the station at the western end of the reservation was the only economically viable solution. Supporting Davis’ recommendation, the Lighthouse Board recommended an appropriation of $15,000 be made to purchase the necessary land and build a new station in its 1885 annual report to Congress.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress responded with the requested appropriation on August 4, 1886, and contracts were awarded from the Detroit Depot for furnishing the necessary building materials and ironwork. Construction began at the new site at North Point in July 1887 with the excavation of the foundation for the dwelling and the drilling of a 125-foot deep well. On completion of the foundations, a thirty-foot tall tapered octagonal cast iron tower, 14 feet in diameter at the base and 9 feet in diameter below the gallery was erected, and lined with a layer of brick to prevent condensation on the inner iron surface. A set of cast iron stairs within the tower lead to a watch room with four porthole-style windows below the gallery. Centered on the gallery, an octagonal iron lantern was installed, and prepared to receive the Fourth Order lens from the old tower. A two-story Queen Anne style keeper’s dwelling was attached to the tower by a covered way, to allow the keeper to service the light without having to brave the elements. A brick oil storage building rounded out the station’s complement of buildings, and with the erection of a fence around the property and the laying of concrete walkways connecting the structures and grading of the grounds, work was completed on December 20, 1887. After the District Lampist arrived and removed the lens from the old lantern, and reassembled it in the new tower, Georgia moved her belongings into the new dwelling, and exhibited the light for from the new tower for the first time on the night of January 10, 1888.

Click to view enlarged imageOver the years, the North Point area had changed considerably. What had been virtual wilderness when the lighthouse was established, had become an upscale bedroom community for Milwaukee’s elite, and property values in the area skyrocketed. To serve this growing moneyed community, the city contracted with noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead in 1892 to design a 140-acre park along the crest of the bluff, with the lighthouse reservation landlocked within the confines of what would become Lake Park. In order to ensure continued access to the station, the Lighthouse Board traded a portion of reservation between the station and the bluff for a smaller section of city property to the west of the station to allow connection to a road which was under construction at the rear of the station. Olmstead’s design for the park included a wide boulevard passing in front of the lighthouse, with a pair of ornate iron bridges spanning the twin ravines. With sculptured sandstone lions guarding each end of the bridges and a large circular overlook atop the bluff directly in front of the station, the lighthouse became a focal point within the new park.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter gas lights were installed throughout the park, and housing development spread to the west, mariners complained that the North Point light’s long flash period made it difficult to differentiate between the lighthouse and the growing number of city lights. In an attempt to eliminate this confusion, an additional bull’s eye flash panel was installed in the lens in 1892, with a corresponding reduction in the period between flashes from two minutes to forty-five seconds. This interval was further reduced to 30-seconds on May 12, 1897 by increasing the lens’s speed of rotation.

As work on the park neared completion in 1897, the Lighthouse Board undertook a number of changes at the station to better befit its new surroundings. The dwelling was substantially remodeled and the oil house moved closer to the tower so as to be less visible from the boulevard which passed across the bridges. The station grounds were landscaped and re-sodded, 560 feet of cast iron fencing installed adjacent to the lion bridge, and a concrete walkway laid from the front gate to the porch of the dwelling. However, not all of the changes undertaken were of a purely cosmetic nature, as a boiler was installed in the cellar of the dwelling to provide central heating, an enhancement which was almost certainly welcomed by Mrs. Stebbins.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the establishment of improved pierhead and breakwater lights in Milwaukee Harbor, and with the North Point Light now partially obscured by trees and surrounded by an ever increasing number of city lights, Ninth District Engineer Major William V Judson decided that the light was no longer serving as an effective aid to mariners, and requested Congressional approval to decommission the station. With the passage of an Act by Congress ordering the decommissioning of the station, the North Point light was extinguished on June 30, 1907, and Georgia Stebbins resigned from lighthouse service after thirty-three years of faithful service.

Reaction in the maritime community to the closure of the North Point Light was both immediate and universally negative. Insisting that the light served the vital interest of mariners entering Milwaukee from the North, Milwaukee’s commercial and maritime interests began applying every possible pressure to convince Judson and the Board to reactivate the light. However, with the Board’s purse strings controlled by the Congressional appropriation system, Judson claimed it was impossible to reactivate the light without Congressional authorization and funding. With the likelihood of fast Congressional response remote, the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and the Milwaukee Merchants and Manufacturers Associations banded together to work out an arrangement whereby the two organizations would cover the costs of manning and operating the station until the Board could obtain the necessary Congressional funding. Thus, the light was reactivated as a private aid to navigation, and the Board immediately requested an appropriation of $10,000 to elevate the North Point tower above the tree line, and officially reactivate the station.

Congress responded with the requested appropriation on March 4, 1909. and bids for the work were advertised soon thereafter. However, with the lowest bid for furnishing the steel work coming in at $6,398, Judson felt it would be impossible to complete the work within the $10,000 appropriation, and so turned his attention to the possibility of moving the station to a treeless area 3,000 feet to the northeast of the existing reservation.

With no progress on construction, mariners turned to the Lake Carriers Association for assistance. After review by its Aids to Navigation committee, the Association drafted a resolution which was sent to both the Officers of the Ninth District and to the Lighthouse Board, in which it stated "It is of the greatest importance that the lighthouse on Milwaukee North Point be rebuilt and raised 35 feet, as projected. It is understood, an appropriation has been made, and that the work should be completed at the earliest date possible, but that if the district officers of the Lighthouse Department feel in their judgment that the best results will be obtained by building a new lighthouse about three thousand feet northeasterly from the present structure, that will be satisfactory; provided, however, that the present tower be not removed nor the present light be discontinued until the new lighthouse is completed and the light in operation."

Click to view enlarged imageThe Lighthouse Board was disbanded in 1910, and responsibility for the nation’s aids to navigation transferred to the Bureau of Lighthouses under the stewardship of George R. Putnam. With construction of a lightship to be anchored off Milwaukee planned for completion in late summer of 1911, Putnam decided to further postpone the question of the North Point Light until the efficacy of the new lightship could be determined over the coming fall and winter. However, with delays in construction, the new lightship was not completed that year, and attention again turned to elevating the tower in the spring of 1912.

The plan for elevating the light called for lifting the existing tower onto a new 30-foot tall base. Built of steel, the base was designed to be of the same octagonal plan and taper as the lower end of the existing tower, so that when stacked together the new lower section would appear as a natural extension of the upper. To further match the two sections, the new base was to be outfitted with cast iron windows exactly duplicating those in the existing tower. Bids for the ironwork and construction labor were again advertised in the spring of 1912, and contracts awarded soon thereafter. After delivery of materials at the site, reconstruction began on July 12, 1912 with the erection of a temporary frame tower 25 feet from the existing tower, to which the lens was moved on September 25. The old tower was completely disassembled, and a new concrete foundation 21 feet 6 inches in diameter poured concentric to the old foundation. Atop this foundation the new steel base was erected, and the old tower reassembled at its upper level.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Fourth Order lens was removed from the temporary tower and reinstalled in the lantern atop the new tower, where it was exhibited for the first time on the evening of December 15, 1912. Now standing 32 feet higher than the old light, the lens boasted a focal plane of 154 feet above lake level, making it the sixth highest on all the western Great Lakes. Illuminated by a gas mantle , the Fourth Order lens emitted an 8,700 candlepower flash, and was visible for 21 miles at sea. The temporary frame tower was removed, and work continued through the winter until April 1913, when the work was completed with the tower and dwelling receiving a fresh coat of buff-colored paint. All told, the entire reconstruction had been completed at a cost of $9,516.10.

Click to view enlarged imageThe indomitable 63-year old Martin Knudsen accepted a transfer to North Point from the Racine North Breakwater Light on May 28, 1917. Doubtless life at North Point was a relaxing change for Knudsen after his prior assignments at Pilot, Plum and South Manitou islands. After seven years at North Point, Knudsen retired from lighthouse service on June 1, 1924 at the age of 70, with a remarkable 44 years of faithful lighthouse service under his belt. Knudsen was replaced by Reynold W Johnson, who transferred-in from the Milwaukee Pierhead Light, three miles to the south.

The North Point light was electrified in 1929, and with the only light-related duties being the polishing of the lens brass and glass, Johnson’s duties became more akin to those of a groundskeeper and caretaker than light keeper. With the transfer of responsibility for the nation’s aids to navigation transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939, the old civilian keepers were given the choice of maintaining their civilian status, or transferring into the Coast Guard. Johnson elected not to transfer into the Coast Guard, and continued to serve as keeper of the North Point Light with a number of Coast Guard seamen rotating in as his assistants until the light was automated in 1943. The station continued to serve as housing for Coast guardsmen and their families for a number of years, until RADAR and LORAN eliminated the need for the station, and the venerable Fourth Order lens was removed from the lantern on March 15, 1994, and the station permanently closed.

A neighborhood preservation group, North Point Lighthouse Friends was formed in 2002 with plans to restore the site. The group was awarded a $984,000 Federal grant in 2002, and estimates the total costs of restoration to around $1,500,000. The project’s start date will depend on when the Federal funding becomes available, in either July 2003 or July 2004. Restoration plans not only include the tower and dwelling, but will also a complete re-grading of the lighthouse grounds to seamlessly integrate the station property into historic Lake Park.

Keepers of
this Light

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

Seeing this Light

In Lake Park, located near the East end of North Avenue, North on Wahl Avenue.
North Point Lighthouse Friends, a 501(c)3 non profit organization was formed in 2002 with their charter being the restoration of the historic lighthouse, and plan on opening the structure to the public in 2005. Visit their website at for information on the group's progress.   

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, 1838 - 1852
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1856 – 1909
Annual reports of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, 1910 - 1929
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various, 1906 – 1934
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1861 – 1953
Lighthouse Luminaries on the Great Lakes, Inland Seas, Vol. 42, Fall 1986
HABS HAER survey of the site conducted in 1987
The Northern Lights, Charles K Hyde, 1986
Personal observation at North Point, 09/08/2000.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2/10/99, 10/13/02
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 06/10/2004

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