Early Kenosha Harbor History
Kenosha Harbor formed at the mouth of Pike Creek, about 50 miles north of Chicago Harbor and 35 miles south of Milwaukee. The village of Pike Creek was established in 1835. In 1837 the name of the settlement was changed to Southport, as this was the southernmost port in Wisconsin. The final name change to Kenosha occurred in 1850.
The mouth of Pike Creek was barely navigable and often closed off completely by sand bars before the implementation of harbor improvements in the 1840s. Arriving schooners would anchor off-shore and transport cargo and passengers ashore via scows, small boats, and barges called “lighters.” The process, called “lightering,” was a tedious and often dangerous undertaking even in calm weather. The first crude beacon located on shore south of the creek’s mouth was a large oak tree cut down, leaving a stump ten feet high. The top of the stump was fireproofed and volunteers took turns keeping a fire kindled nightly during the navigation season. Supposedly, this beacon lasted until 1840. Another early beacon, established around 1846, consisted of an open timber framework 24 feet high. On top of this sat a three foot square sash lantern, which was a box with a window on one side. Its $60 cost was funded by a private individual and it also was tended by volunteers.
Kenosha (Southport) Light Station
Simmons Island, originally called Washington Island, lies on the north side of the mouth of Pike Creek. In August 1848, the first lighthouse at Southport was established on a site 22 feet above lake level at the southern edge of the island. At this location, it marked the northern side of the harbor entrance. The lighthouse consisted of a rubble-stone tower with an overall height of 80 feet and a detached keeper’s house. Five Lewis patent lamps and 14” reflectors comprised the light source, replaced in 1857 by a fifth order Fresnel lens. Failure of the foundation and other material defects led to the demolition of the tower in 1858. It was completely rebuilt the same year. The second tower only lasted eight years before it too had to be razed due to structural problems. No photographs of these two towers are known to exist.
The third and surviving Southport Light was built in 1866. Constructed of cream-colored Milwaukee brick, the conical tower stands 55 feet tall with a detached two-story keeper’s dwelling constructed of the same brick completed in 1867. First lit at the start of navigation in 1867, the original optic was a larger fourth order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse remained in service until May 23, 1906, at which time the lens and lighting apparatus were transferred to a new cast-iron tower at the end of the north pier. As the keeper and his assistant were still responsible for the harbor’s breakwater light, north pierhead light and its adjoining fog signal equipment, the persistent matter of inadequate housing accommodations at the station still needed to be addressed. To this end, in 1908 the single family keeper’s dwelling of 1867 was turned into a duplex via a two-story red brick addition on its northern side. At the same time, a second floor was added to the kitchen at the back of the house.
In 1913, the lantern room was removed from the long unused brick tower for possible use elsewhere and the decapitated tower became a Weather Bureau Station. A 25-foot tall steel tripod mast was erected on its top for the display of weather and storm warning signals. This service continued into the early 1950s and the mast was finally removed around 1960, leaving more than a generation of Kenosha residents with no memory of anything other than a lanternless tower.
The Southport Light Station was finally abandoned by the government in 1940. Automation of the breakwater and north pierhead lights had eliminated the need for resident keepers. By the early 1950s the government announced plans to raze the vacant buildings. Protests by local residents eventually led to the transfer of the station property and its structures to the City of Kenosha in 1955. Shortly thereafter and through 1999, the old keeper’s house served as rental housing.
Preservation and Restoration
In 1991, the City of Kenosha and the Kenosha County Historical Society, with the help of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, initiated a restoration effort starting with the brick light tower. On May 7, 1994, a replica lantern room was placed back on the tower. During Fourth of July celebrations in 1996, old Southport Lighthouse was ceremoniously relit and has remained lighted every night since. The fixed white light exhibited emanates from a 300mm acrylic Tidelands optic, but it does not function as a listed aid to navigation. Its display is purely ornamental.
Kenosha County Historical Society is a campus of two buildings with four exhibit galleries, a gift shop, staff offices and an archives library. The Kenosha History Center houses the main offices, three of the exhibit galleries, the gift shop, and the archives. Plans finalized in 2002 called for the Southport Light Station, located at the top of the hill just above the History Center building, to house the fourth gallery with exhibits pertaining to the history of the light station and the maritime heritage of Kenosha Harbor.
The plan called for the restoration of the keeper’s dwelling to its 1908 appearance. Work began in 2004 with all exterior work (new roof and gutters; brick tuck-pointing; rebuilding of the chimneys and front porches; window replacement; and installation of handicap accessible entrance ramps) completed in stages between 2005 and 2007. Interior restoration of the staircase and six rooms on the first floor was completed in 2009. These are the rooms that will reopen to the public in May, 2010. Exhibits will focus on the history of the harbor including sequential charts showing harbor evolution over time; the history of the light station; the history of the breakwater and pierhead lights; and the display of a fourth order Fresnel lens on loan from the local Coast Guard base. The only room to be outfitted with furnishings circa 1908 will be the kitchen. Anticipated visiting hours will be 10am to 4pm on Saturdays and Noon to 4pm on Sundays, during which times the tower will also be open for tours.
The Kenosha History Center still needs to raise additional money to finish the five rooms on the second floor. To raise additional funds, the History Center is featuring several programs to attract potential donors. They include the purchase of memorial bricks, lighthouse keeper bricks, room naming, and window sponsorship. Despite the present downturn in the local economy, it is hoped the work can be completed by the end of 2010. Restoration of the Southport Lighthouse serves as an excellent example of a local community coming together, over a long period of time, to bring back an important aspect of its maritime past. For additional information please visit their website: www.kenoshahistorycenter.org or call (262)654-5770.
This story appeared in the
May 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.