Like many other Great Lakes port communities, Racine, Wisconsin has a rich maritime history that included the United States Lighthouse Service, The United States Life Saving Service and the United States Coast Guard.
Today, if you ask about Racine’s lighthouses, most people will mention the nearby 108-foot tall Wind Point Lighthouse, a few might mention the Racine North Pierhead Lighthouse, or the unusual design of the no longer standing Racine North Breakwater Lighthouse. Fewer still might mention the still standing Racine Harbor Lighthouse that today looks more like it might have been a life saving station that preceded the actual old life saving station that still stands a few yards away. But only the old timers and the true lighthouse aficionados will know about the once opulent castle-like structure that once stood on a wave swept crib on Racine Reef.
Almost since the area was first settled in 1834 as Port Gilbert, named after its founder, Gilbert Knapp, early settlers realized this community would be an important port. However, the name of Port Gilbert was not widely accepted and in 1841 the name was changed to Racine.
By the late 1800s, early industries that depended on shipping, which depended on lighthouses, included the manufacture of fanning mills, machines that separated wheat grain from chaff. Malted milk was also invented here in 1887 by Walter Horlick.
Although officials wanted a lighthouse built to mark this dangerous two and one half mile long reef, which had claimed a number of vessels, it was decided instead to build the Wind Point Lighthouse, which was over three miles away, and in conjunction with the lighthouse, to place a buoy on the reef.
Eventually a crib was installed at the site and topped with a gas-powered light. It was later decided that the gas light, which was difficult to service and not fully adequate, would be replaced by a real lighthouse and approval was granted to build what would become one of America’s most architecturally beautiful light stations. It may never be known why government officials decided to build such a magnificent, ornate, octagonal and architecturally beautiful lighthouse, but they may have gotten the idea for the design from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Racine. Racine Reef Lighthouse was completed in 1906 and George Cornell became its first head lighthouse keeper. He had two assistant keepers assigned to him.
The lighthouse was planned for a staff of four, two of whom were supposed to be on duty at any given time. However, for much of the station’s history it seems there were only three men assigned to the station.
Because of its location between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois, the lighthouse was staffed year round, which was unusual for a lighthouse that was surrounded by water that often froze over in the winter months. Such was the case in the winter of 1911-12 when the men were able to walk the two miles over frozen Lake Michigan and Racine Harbor to the mainland. At one point ice had piled up 30 feet high around the lighthouse.
Following a series of below freezing days and blizzard conditions in March of 1912, two Lake Michigan steamers got stuck in the ice in view of the lighthouse. It was estimated that 500 people walked out onto the ice to view the stranded vessels. However, the ice was not as thick as they thought in some areas closer to shore and many of them fell through the ice into the freezing water. Amazingly, they were all rescued. On March 7 of that year, dynamite was used to break up the ice and free the steamers.
In a tremendously strong winter storm in February 1915 waves smashed against the lighthouse. This was the worst storm to hit the structure since it was built. The entire structure shook with such force that the keepers feared for their lives as the water rushed in; flooding some of the rooms. As the tower continued to vibrate in the high and bitterly cold winds and crashing waves, the furniture moved from one side of the lighthouse to the other side. Unlike on a ship, the keepers never thought they would have needed to secure their furniture to the floor.
As the waves continued to wash up and nearly over the tower, a thick coating of ice began to engulf the structure and its man-made island. The men guessed that the ice was eight inches thick on the east and northeast lantern room windows and they wondered if they would be able to open the doors of the ice-covered structure.
Although there were plenty of close calls, none of the keepers of the Racine Reef Lighthouse ever lost their lives in the line duty. This was not the case however for a lighthouse keeper from another lighthouse who came for a visit in 1918 and drowned on his way back to the harbor.
One of the close calls happened to Edward Skelling (or Skilling), who was the second assistant keeper at Racine Reef Lighthouse from April 1908 to February 1910. While on his way back to the lighthouse in December of 1908, the engine on the station’s naphtha launch stopped working. Two of the keepers on the lighthouse saw that he was in trouble and threw him a line, but it fell short. As darkness fell, the keepers at the lighthouse sent up distress signals, but Skelling and the boat drifted out of sight. The cold water washed over his boat and he tried in vain to restart the engine. His wet clothing eventually began to freeze stiff. As his body began to slip into unconsciousness, he spotted the light of a vessel and started screaming for help. Miraculously, nine hours after his ordeal had begun, he was discovered, quite by chance, by a steamer headed for Chicago. He spent the night at the Chicago Lighthouse recovering from his ordeal and amazingly returned to Racine the following day.
As with many other lighthouses, in 1954, automation eventually caused the demise of the Racine Reef Lighthouse. In July of 1961 the Coast Guard announced that the lighthouse had outlived its usefulness and they would be demolishing one of the most architecturally significant lighthouses ever built in America. Apparently the structure was never offered for sale or for adoption and no discussion was made to move it to the mainland. It could have served as a tourist attraction, bed and breakfast or even a museum. This never happened, most likely because there was no private money available for such a venture.
If there were any protests against the demolition of the lighthouse, they weren’t heard, even if they would have had time to organize. The pre-published obituary was brief in the Racine Sunday Bulletin, a local newspaper. Their headline read, “Old Age Catches Up with Reef Lighthouse,” with a sub-headline that stated, “Has Served Well.” It went on to state, “The Reef Lighthouse has performed its task well, for not once has a ship foundered on the limestone rock formation jutting within 7-16 feet of the water’s surface.” Reporter Bob Sheldon of the Journals-Times Newspaper wrote, “The beacon’s years of service are about to end, for what wind and sea couldn’t do, technology will.” And the lighthouse was torn down, lost to the dusty pages of time.
However, there are those who claim on some foggy days, or at dusk, when the weather conditions are just right, the Racine Reef Light can still be seen, standing guard, as one of the Ghost Lights of Wisconsin.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2010 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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