Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2021

Poisoned Water on the Peshtigo Reef Lightship?

By Neil E. Hurley


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According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Native American word “Pe-Shet-i-go” means “snapping turtle,” “wild goose river” or “rapids.” Today, the name “Peshtigo” is associated with a city, a deadly fire, a river, a reef, a lightship, and a lighthouse in Wisconsin. The Peshtigo fire was a huge forest fire that occurred in October 1871. It overran the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing between 1,500 and 2,500 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in American history.

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Captain Thomas Green started his lighthouse ...

The Peshtigo Reef Lightship was in operation from 1906 until 1935. It was stationed to mark a submerged rock reef near the middle of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, 10 miles northwest of the city of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

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Edward Christianson started his career in the ...

Despite its exposed location, the vessel was small by lightship standards, only 75 feet long, 22 feet wide and drawing 9 feet of water. Instead of the typical eight to ten-man crew, this lightship had a crew of only five.

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The Peshtigo Reef Lighthouse, shown here in ...
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The responsibilities of the crew were broken down as follows: captain, mate, machinist, cook, and seaman. Crew accommodations on the lightship consisted of four staterooms, a head (toilet) and a galley (kitchen). Because of their low ranks, the cook and seaman probably shared the same stateroom.

Winter ice on the Great Lakes can easily cause anchored ships to either drag their anchors or snap anchor chains, so the Peshtigo Reef Lightship, which had no engine, was towed into a shore-side winter berth at Sturgeon Bay each fall and then towed back to the reef in the spring. During the winter, the ship’s seaman was discharged as fewer crewmen were needed.

One of the lightship’s crewmen left a record of his duty in a compensation claim to Congress begun in 1928. The details provided in the claim give a fascinating insight into the lives of the captain and crew.

Seaman Edward Christianson (some­times spelled Christiansen) asked for compensation because of a skin-related condition that caused him to be “disfigured for life and suffer untold agony.” Christianson and his doctors blamed the malady on drinking impure water while serving on the Peshtigo Reef Lightship LV77. The drinking water for the ship was dipped from over the side of the boat, directly out of Green Bay.

Lighthouse Service documents supporting his claim give additional information about Christianson and his illness. Christianson first worked for the Lighthouse Service at age 15 as a cook on Lake Michigan’s North Manitou Lightship LV56 working from April 2, 1917 to July 2, 1917. Serving under Captain A. F. Pitman, he was discharged for bad conduct.

Only two weeks later, he found work on the Peshtigo Reef Lightship, serving again as a cook from July 15, 1917 to February 28, 1918 under Captain Thomas Green. His service there was terminated because he was “Not competent.”

The next spring, he returned to the Peshtigo Reef Lightship as a seaman, still serving under Captain Green. This time, he was successful and served the next two seasons, from April 1 until December 13, 1918 and April 1 to December 15, 1919, with the break in service due to the ship going into winter quarters.

It was sometime in 1919 when Christianson’s health began to deteriorate. Soon after the ship was laid up, the skin on his face became infected and began to swell up. The lightship’s cook, Edward Skilling, reported that Christianson’s face broke out into a heavy rash which doctors blamed on drinking water dipped from the bay. Soon, he was unable to talk and food had to be forced into his mouth. The swelling became so bad that his eyes closed and he was unable to see. For the next 13 months, he was bedridden at home, semiconscious and “not mentally alert” in the care of doctors and his mother.

Lighthouse Service records show that Edward Christianson returned to work as a seaman on the Peshtigo Lightship in 1921, working for the next two seasons from April to December. At the end of the December 1922 season, he resigned.

Throughout the time of Christianson’s service, the Peshtigo Reef Lightship was under the command of Thomas Green. A supporting document to Christianson’s claim was a statement by Green which began: “Capt. Thomas Green, being duly sworn, on oath, says that he was captain on the United States lightship on Peshtigo Reef for over 30 years.” Other records confirm that Green, born in Scotland, was paid $840 a year as Master of the lightship, but that he only served at Peshtigo Reef from 1917 until 1924. In 1915, Green was Captain of Lightship LV55, located at Lansing Shoal on the northern end of Lake Michigan off of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His first listing in Lighthouse Service records was as an assistant engineer on Lightship LV55 starting in 1897.

In 1923, doctors in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin operated to remove scar tissue on Christianson’s face and neck that restricted his ability to move. Although the surgery gave him some temporary relief, by 1928 his condition became inoperable and it was considered that no surgery or treatment would help him in any way, either physically or cosmetically.

The Congressional Committee on Claims found that no direct cause of his illness could be linked to the water, especially since no one else from the lightship became ill. It seems more likely that Christianson suffered from lead poisoning due to exposure from the lead-based paint and lead dust from sanding off lead paint, or from lead-based polishes. Life in the early 1900s was filled with other chemical hazards associated with shipboard work. If Christianson’s injuries had occurred before the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act of 1916 was passed, he might have simply been on his own. As it was, Christianson failed to file his claim within the time allotted under the Act, but fortunately his congressman intervened so the claim was allowed in March of 1928. At that time, Christianson was married and had a four-year-old daughter named Betty.

In 1932, Christianson’s claim finally made it through Congress’s Committee on Claims and he was granted compensation. While I’m curious about what happened next in Christianson’s life, my research led to a dead end. Hopefully, others can add to the story.

In 1936, the Peshtigo Reef Lightship was replaced by the newly constructed Peshtigo Reef Lighthouse. Built in the traditional lighthouse look, it was designed from the start to be an unstaffed station. Lighthouse keepers at nearby Sherwood Point Light on the opposite side of the bay monitored the new lighthouse and controlled its fog signal via a radio link. The Peshtigo Reef Lighthouse, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, continues in operation today.

About the author: Neil Hurley is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Commander who started his career on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sundew on Lake Superior in the early 1980s. He currently lives in Chesapeake, Virginia where, in addition to his day job for the Department of Defense, he writes books and magazine articles on lighthouse history.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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