Pottawatomie Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Rock Island, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

French voyageurs experiencing violent seas in the passage between the peninsula and Washington, Island named the passage Porte des Mort" which translates as "Door of the Dead." When deciding on a name for a new county to include the entire peninsula in 1851, the Wisconsin Legislature decided to drop the latter part of the name, and settled on Door County.

With growing trade between Green Bay and the cities of the eastern Great Lakes in the early 1830's, vessel traffic through the Porte des Mort passage increased dramatically, and with no navigational aids in the Port Des Mort area, the need for a lighthouse marking the passage became increasingly important. In 1834, thirty Detroit merchants and ship owners petitioned Congress to build a lighthouse on Rock Island to guide their vessels through the Rock Island Passage.

Responding to the request, Congress appropriated the sum of $8000.00 for the project, and title was attained to a 134-acre parcel of land on the island, including a section of bluff 137 feet above the lake on which to build the structure.

Click to view enlarged imagePlans for the tower and detached keepers dwelling were drawn-up, and work began on the island in April of 1836. The keeper's native stone one and a half story keepers dwelling was only thirty-four feet by twenty feet in size. However, with only one keeper planned to man the station provided sufficient living space for living and the storage of the supplies needed to last between supply deliveries. The thirty-foot stone tall stone tower was eighteen feet in diameter at its base, tapering to nine feet in diameter at the top. The eleven foot diameter lantern gallery deck was capped with an octagonal iron lantern room, and housed an eleven lamp Winslow Lewis array with fourteen inch reflectors. Situated as it was on the bluff above the island, the light boasted a 159-foot focal plane.

David E. Corbin, a veteran of the 1812 War and a former employee of the American Fur Company was selected as the station's first keeper, and Corbin exhibited the light for the first time in October of 1837. With the illumination of the Pottawatomie light a number of "firsts" were established, as the lighthouse was the first in Wisconsin, the first on Lake Michigan, and Corbin was by definition the first keeper for both.

Click to view enlarged imageCorbin's had his work cut out for him, as he had to cut a mile-long trail from the light to the boat landing at the south end of the island. All supplies for the station, including fuel, food and drinking water had to be carried along this trail. During one of the infamous surprise lighthouse inspections in 1845 the District Inspector found that while Corbin stewardship of the light was efficient, he found Corbin extremely lonely and sullen. Instructing Corbin to find a wife, the Inspector gave him a twenty-day leave to find a marriage partner. While Corbin took the leave, he was unsuccessful in his quest, and continued to man the light in isolation, save for the companionship of his dog and horse. In December 1852, Corbin died alone on the island, and was buried in a small graveyard to the south of the light station that he faithfully manned for fifteen years.

Click to view enlarged imageOver the ensuing years, it was plain that the mortar used in the construction of the station was of an inferior constituency, and as a result continuing moisture damage was found to be compromising the structural integrity of the buildings. By the early 1850's, determining that the station was close to collapse, the Lighthouse Board decided that it would be more cost effective to demolish the structure and rebuild than to undergo repairs.

In 1858, a construction crew and supplies were once again dropped-off at Rock Island, and the original tower and dwelling were razed. In its place rose the existing two story 30' by 31' native limestone dwelling with a full walkout cellar. Designed as a duplex, the Head keeper had the use of the first floor, and his assistant the second floor. Featuring an integral light tower centrally located at the north end of its' roof, the tower was capped with a nonagonal iron lantern room, and outfitted with a new Fourth Order Fresnel lens. The tower's 137-foot focal plane allowed the stations new fixed white light to be seen from a distance of almost eighteen miles on clear nights.

Click to view enlargd imageThe grounds around the station were cleared by the keepers to provide firewood wood and an area in which to grow vegetables for food to augment the annual supply visit of the lighthouse tenders. Apple trees and lilac bushes were planted, and families used a hand pump in the kitchen to pump water from a cistern in the basement into which runoff from the roof was channeled and stored.

Click to view enlargd imageEmily Betts also served as an assistant keeper under her husband William Betts from 1872 to 1882. Two of the Betts's nine children were born in the lighthouse. Not only did Emily Betts have her daily lighthouse duties, she also taught school in the basement of the keeper's quarters, nursed the sick on the island, and brought several babies into the world, including a pair of twins.

The year after assuming responsibility for the Nation's lighthouses, the Coast Guard dispatched a crew to Rock Island to automate the light with a battery-powered flashing light within the Fresnel lens in 1946, and the station's last two keepers Butters and Ernest Lockhart left the island for the final time.

Click to view enlargd imageIn 1986, solar panels were installed, and the Fresnel was crated-up, removed from the tower, and stored in the station basement. Finally in 1988, with the assistance of a Coast Guard helicopter, a new steel tower was erected on the site, and Pottawatomie's light was permanently extinguished. At this time, it was also determined that condensation from poor ventilation within the lantern room was causing the lantern to decay from the inside out. Fearing that it may crumble and fall in some future storm, the lantern room was demolished, and the tower capped-off to prevent water seepage into the tower.

In 1994, the Friends of Rock Island was formed to aid the Department of Natural Resources in improve the beauty and historic significance of the island State Park. As part of this enhancement, the decision was made to restore the lighthouse and reconstruct the missing lantern room.

Click to view enlargd imageWith only the original cast iron windowsills remaining in the cellar to use in creating a pattern, other lighthouses with nonagonal lantern rooms contemporary with the station were visited, and plans for the new lantern room were drawn-up by Tony Hodges, of Sturgeon Bay. With approval of the plans, and the assistance of his son, Hodges began work on the new lantern room in his Sturgeon Bay shop. In June of 1999, the finished lantern room was disassembled, the components transported to Washington Island, and carried to Rock Island by boat. Carried to the lighthouse on the park pickup truck, the components were hoisted to the top of the tower through the use of a jerry-rigged crane fashioned from an aluminum extension ladder and a battery powered winch.

The Friends of Rock Island have plans to undertake a complete restoration of the station and grounds to their original historical condition by 2002. The plans include interior plasterwork woodwork and painting, and restoration of the outhouse, oil house and nearby smokehouse.

In all, as a result of the caring of the Friends of Rock Island and the Department of Natural Resources, the future looks bright for this historical structure.

Keepers of
this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Rock Island is about as difficult a place to visit as any location in Wisconsin, and a whole day is required to make the trip.

Take Highway 42 north through the Door Peninsula to its end at the Northport Ferry pier.  Book passage and drive your vehicle onto the Washington Island Ferry Line's car ferry "Robert Noble" for the thirty minute crossing to Washington Island. Note that distant views of Pilot, Plum and Detroit Islands can be seen while making the crossing.

On arrival et the ferry dock on Washington Island, drive north on Lobdell Point Road until the road becomes Main Road. Take Main Road north to the point at which Jackson Harbor Road Tees to the right. Turn onto Jackson Harbor Road, and follow the road east into Jackson Harbor. Keep heading straight until you reach the Rock Island Ferry dock, and park your vehicle.

The Ferry which makes the crossing to Rock Island is a passenger ferry only, as  no vehicles of any kind are allowed on Rock Island. Book passage, and board the 36 foot ferry boat "Karfi" for the 15 minute trip to Rock Island. Once arriving on Rock Island, walk north about a block to a stone building on the hill. Follow the trail behind this building to a timber arch. Follow the mile-long trail up the hill. When encountering any branches in the trail along the way, always take the left branch, staying atop the bluff to the lighthouse.

The Washington Island Ferry Line has a website featuring current schedule and fare information, and general information concerning Washington Island itself. They can also be contacted by telephone at (800) 223-2094.

While the Rock Island "KARFI" Ferry is also operated by the Washington Island Ferry Line, there is currently no information about the ferry's schedule on the website. We would suggest that you contact them directly for information.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1853 - 1909
Rock Island's Lighthouse, Voyageur Magazine, Tim Sweet, Summer/Fall 2000, 
Email from Tom Tag on spelling of station name, 8/10/2000.
Door County Maritime Museum, Pottawatomie page, website
Lighthouse Digest, May & October 1999 issues
Wisconsin Natural Resources, February, 2000
Wisconsin Handbook, Thomas Huhti, 1997
Personal observation at Rock Island, 09/12/2000.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/07/2003

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