Root River Lights Seeing The Light

Racine, Wisconsin Home Back

Historical Information

Soon after Gilbert Knapp constructed a trading post and warehouse at the mouth of the Root River in 1834, it became clear that the settlement which would become known as Racine was destined for growth.

After the Committee on Commerce responded favorably to an investigation into the need for constructing an aid to navigation at Root River in 1836, Congress appropriated the sum of $5,000 for the construction of a lighthouse at the rivers mouth on March 3, 1837. Work began following year, with both the stubby thirty-four foot tower and the keepers dwelling constructed of local brick, whitewashed for daytime visibility. The light was displayed for the first time the following year, and as with most US lighthouses constructed at that time, was almost certainly fitted with a birdcage-style lantern containing an array of Lewis lamps.

While no illustrations of this original station have surfaced, and we have thus far been unable to locate original specifications, it is highly likely that it was designed and constructed along the same plan as the New Buffalo Light which was under constructed at the same time, and likely appeared similar to the illustration appearing to the left.

As part of the system-wide upgrading by the newly formed Lighthouse Board, the station's illumination was upgraded to a fixed white Fifth Order Fresnel lens in 1858. By virtue of the light's location close to the city, the lamp was subsequently illuminated with city gas, as an early experiment at some time before 1861.

Click to view enlarged imageRacine's maritime commerce continued to grow, and after a series of memorials from the citizens of Wisconsin were presented by Wisconsin Congressman Henry Dodge , the United States Army Corps of Engineers was charged with improving the harbor through the construction of wooden protective piers on each side of the river's mouth. A contract for their construction was subsequently awarded in 1861, however the contract was forfeited after the contractor claimed to deliver a sufficient quantity of lumber for the project, claiming that there was a shortage of the commodity. The project was placed under the direct supervision of the Engineer in charge, who evidently soon found that there was some truth in the contractor's claims, as he too found himself unable to obtain the necessary lumber on the open market. Deeming that completion of the project was of a higher priority , he was forced to suspend the construction of similar piers in Milwaukee, transferring the timber to Racine for the project's eventual completion in 1864.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the completion of these new piers, the new entrance to the Root River had effectively been moved further from the shoreline, and the old coast light was no longer able to serve as an effective guide into the harbor. To remedy this situation, work began on a new schoolhouse-style lighthouse constructed on a crib built into the north pier. Over the summer of 1865, the new Cream City brick structure began to take shape. Similar in design to the structures subsequently built at Peninsula Point and Sand Point in Escanaba Harbor, the new station's tower attached to the east end of the keepers dwelling stood 36 feet from the foundation to the lantern, and provided the fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens a focal plane of 48 feet, and a visibility range of 13 miles in clear weather. Construction would to a close at the end of the summer, and the light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of September 10, 1865. No longer needed, the old Root River light was simultaneously discontinued.

Click to view enlarged imagePerhaps as a result of damage incurred when a vessel crashed into the east side of the structure the previous year, the station's lens was upgraded from a Fifth Order Fresnel with a 180 arc of illumination to a Fourth Order Fresnel with a 270 arc of illumination in 1870.

Click to view enlarged imageMaritime commerce in and out of Racine experience continued growth, and the piers continued to be lengthened commensurately to contain an ever expanding area of protection. With such lengthening, It was inevitable that a pier head light would be needed to mark the ends of the lengthened piers, and to that end a Lighthouse Board work party arrived in Racine in July, 1872 to construct a standard wooden beacon light with elevated walk at the outer end of the north pier. Work progressed quickly, with the new light exhibited for the first time on the night of September 5 of that year.

The old 1838 coast light was demolished in 1876, its timbers and bricks reportedly used in the construction of a private dwelling.

Click to view enlarged imageWith continued lengthening of the harbor piers, it was decided to replace the 1865 Root River Light with a larger steel light at the pierhead, and with the construction of this new steel light, the 1865 Light was simultaneously discontinued, and work began on converting the old station into a dwelling large enough for the head keeper and his assistant. The lens, lantern, and spiral iron tower stairs were removed, and the tower capped with a hipped roof. The first floor was converted to quarters for the head keeper, and dormers were added to the second floor to create quarters for the assistant keeper. Construction of a wooden staircase connecting the two floors completed the conversion, and the keepers moved back into the renovated building.

After its assumption of responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation in 1939, the Coast Guard converted the old 1865 station and the adjacent life-saving station into a Coast Guard complex, and after considerable additional modifications they appeared very mush as they do to this day.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Racine Harbor has obviously seen a great deal of renovation in recent years, with landscaping and observation points spread between the breakwaters, around the marina and the harbor entrance.

We made our way out to the harbor entrance and climbed the observation tower that sits directly across the channel from the 1910 Breakwater light. The Coast Guard station incorporating the 1865 could be seen across the harbor on the opposite side of the channel. While many dormers and additions have been made, its heritage is still clear. Unfortunately, we were short on time and had to settle for the photograph included here which was taken from a considerable distance. Next time we are in Racine we will attempt to get closer photographs of the old building.

We wish to thank Jerry Schober for his wonderful photographs of the 1865 station and lifesaving station that were taken when he was stationed at the Racine Reef Light in 1960 and 1961.

Finding this Light

From I-94, take Hwy 20 east. Hwy 20 eventually becomes Washington Ave. Follow Washington Ave. to Hwy 32, and head north on Hwy 32. Turn right on Christopher Columbus Causeway, and follow around the marina until the road ends in a parking area. Walk the short distance to the marina entrance.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
Report on Expenditures, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, 1838
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1859 through 1909
1961 photographs of the Racine Coast Guard station by Jerry Schober.
Photograph from the Racine Historical Society collection.
Personal observation at Racine Harbor, 09/08/2000 & 09/09/2000.
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Click to view Racine weather conditions

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This page last modified 12/02/2007