In the case of the 1860 Port Washington, Wisconsin Light Station, the expression “light at the end of the tunnel” has taken on a literal meaning. After extensive renovation, which began in October 2000, the final item needed to complete the process is the light itself, a 4th Order beehive Fresnel Lens.
It is expected that more than $30,000 will be needed to purchase an acrylic replica of this light that was in active use as a navigational beacon from 1860 to 1903. Presently a 300-watt bulb from a World War I era German ship serves as its lantern light.
“It will be like the icing on the cake when we get the 4th Order,” said Linda Nenn, historian and co-director of the Port Washington Historical Society, who along with co-director, Richard Smith, has put in countless hours in research, planning, and hands-on work. The Historical Society leases the property and has been 100% responsible for the restoration project, while the City of Port Washington maintains ownership of the site, and the National Park Service has overseen the project. It is a Wisconsin and National Register Historic Site.
Located atop Harbor Hill in the picturesque and historical town of Port Washington, about twenty miles north of Milwaukee, the 1860 Light Station was a replacement to the first coastal lighthouse built in 1849, which had a freestanding light and nearby keeper’s dwelling. Deemed structurally unsound after only a decade, it was demolished, but its “cream city brick” was re-used to build the new Light Station.
The new structure incorporated the lighthouse with the
“The walls themselves built the tower,” explained Nenn, “as it was built like a pyramid, making for a very stable structure.”
Tragically, in 1934, the Light Station was painted white, and remodeled into a two-family dwelling. The tower and lantern were removed, and the oil house torn down so its bricks could be used to build a chimney. The Coast Guard maintained ownership and use of the station, and its personnel occupied the site until 1991.
Intriguingly, and fortuitously, the government of Luxembourg was instrumental in the Light Station restoration. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg had visited the area, and promised to provide a new tower and lantern, a gift to Port Washington in honor of its many immigrants who settled in the town, and to the American servicemen who helped to liberate Luxembourg from Germany in World War II.
The Luxembourgers constructed, delivered, and configured the new tower and lantern upon the Light Station, with a dedication ceremony held in June 2002.
After the tower dedication, the Light Station was reopened for public touring, but access was limited to the lower floors. The first full open house with regular touring began in June 2003, and since that time thousands of visitors from over thirty countries have experienced the restored Light Station.
Among the other major structural revisions are the installation of new interior support columns, gutting of most of the interior and redoing according to the 1860 floor plan, rebuilding of the attic and stairway, exterior repair and removal of white paint, rebuilding of the chimney, and adding a new red metal shaker style roof. Of course, acquiring period furniture, kitchen items, and other décor, has also been a significant part of the project, an ongoing effort to constantly enhance the historical accuracy of the restoration.
The Port Washington Historical Society has chosen to reflect the lifestyle of the family of the longest-running Light Station keeper, Charles Lewis, Jr., who had tenure of forty-two years. His wife, Linda Teed Lewis, was a Port Washington native. The downstairs parlor has a Victrola style phonograph and a Mason & Hamlin pump organ. A black candlestick telephone is carefully placed in the dining room exactly where descendant Jeannette Lewis Dallman remembers it when
she lived at the Light Station in the early 1920’s with her grandmother
and grandfather Lewis.
“The keeper and his wife had neighbors and could entertain and have friends over,” noted Nenn, “that’s one of the things that sets this lighthouse apart from others, it’s in the midst of a community.”
A new 300-gallon oil house has recently been completed on the grounds, an exact replica of the one torn down in 1934.
“We knew exactly what it looked like from photos and had access to the original blueprints in the National Archives,” said Nenn, noting that co-director Smith meticulously located the new oil house over the exact original spot.
“The oil house was small, consistent with a Great Lakes lighthouse,” said Nenn.
To enable visitors a look inside the building, while maintaining its security, a double-Plexiglass door was installed.
The grounds of the Light Station are also home to a small maritime museum, an interesting collection of shipwreck artifacts, vintage photos, a commercial fishing exhibit reflecting Port Washington’s local history, and other Great Lakes items such as anchors, a lifeboat, and a small tree found by Smith from a “Christmas ship.”
The current featured exhibit pays tribute to three ships that went down in the harbor 150 years ago, in a two-month period in the
fall of 1856. The Toledo, the Bohemia, and the Niagra, all suffered significant loss of life, with many of its dead buried in a common grave in Port Washington. The remains of the wooden hull of the Niagra are still in the harbor, and pieces of wreck from all three ships still wash up on the shore.
“When the wind rolls the bottom, we will get pieces of pewter, china, and clay pipes,” said Nenn.
In fact, Nenn used bits of china to discern a pattern, and then located an intact plate of the pattern in a search on-line, now on display in the museum as an example of the china from the Toledo.
“We try to combine local history while still preserving the integrity of the lighthouse,” said Nenn.
Needless to say, the Restoration Project has been a huge one, entailing intricate examination of old pictures, records, and plans, and doing research tantamount to “detective work” to fill in the blanks where hard data was nonexistent. Pages of detailed, interesting diary entries on the restoration history serve to memorialize and flesh out the extent of this process, and can be found at www.portwashingtonhistoricalsociety.org.
The Light Station is at 311 Johnson Street in Port Washington, WI. For information, please call (262) 284-7240. Direct donations are needed. Contributions can be sent to: Port Washington Historical Society, P.O. Box 491, Port Washington, WI, 53074. Commemorative bricks can be purchased for $75.
This story appeared in the
October 2006 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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