When the federal government recently offered to give away for free, under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, Wisconsin’s Manitowoc Breakwater Lighthouse, surprisingly, there were no takers. The City of Manitowoc didn’t want it, the State of Wisconsin didn’t want it, the National Park Service didn’t want it, and none of the local qualified nonprofits wanted it. This may come as a shock to some people, but there are still organizations and government entities that either don’t care about historic preservation or are scared off by the financial obligation a lighthouse might impose.
Since the Manitowoc Breakwater Lighthouse is the only lighthouse left standing in Manitowoc, they all missed out on the many possibilities this lighthouse could have given back to the community. Because of this, the government was forced to put the lighthouse on the auction block to the highest bidder.
So let’s review some of the lost and nearly forgotten lighthouse history of this historic lighthouse, because if we don’t, the memories may likely slip away and never be fully told.
Perched high on a bluff near the mouth of the Manitowoc River stood the first Manitowoc Lighthouse completed in 1839. Later, when a pier was completed, the community received a second lighthouse when a thirty-five-foot wood pyramidal lighthouse was built at the outer end of the pier.
In 1859 the original lighthouse was torn down and completely rebuilt at the same location. In 1895 a two-family keeper’s house was added to accommodate the families of the keeper and the 1st assistant keeper.
In 1895 the Manitowoc Breakwater Lighthouse was established on the outer end of the North Breakwater, thus becoming the third lighthouse and the fourth lighthouse in Manitowoc. It was a kerosene lamp attached to a fog signal building as shown in the distance in the photo to the right.
Captain E. J. Warren, who served as the keeper of the light for ten years in the early 1900s, recalled that reaching the lighthouse over the pier was originally too dangerous and he had to row to the light in a 14 foot boat. He said, “In those days we stood 24 hours watch in the wintertime, changing at eight o’clock each morning.”
Warren recalled in a 1933 interview, “At one time I was marooned there for three and a half days. Another time, lighthouse keeper Jens Rollefson was stranded there for five days. We anticipated these forced stays and kept a supply of canned goods on hand.”
By the time Chester B. Marshall became the keeper at the breakwater lighthouse, there was a catwalk to the structure. However, the catwalk did not always assure safety and, like other keepers before him, he often found himself stranded at the lighthouse until the weather improved. In fact, every year he had to replace his heavy leather gloves after they would literally wear out from holding onto the ice-covered cables as he made his way along the catwalk.
In 1918 the light on the North Breakwater was demolished and replaced with the structure that stands there today. It originally had a 4th order lens, but was later replaced with a 5th order Fresnel lens. At this time the original tower on the bluff was demolished, but the keepers continued to live in the keepers’ house. However, in 1934 a new keepers’ house was built and the original keepers’ house was sold.
In 1938 a typical Great Lakes storm hit the area and destroyed the wooden Pierhead Lighthouse. The October 22, 1938 Herald Times Reporter newspaper reported the story saying, “The big red lighthouse at the river entrance to the harbor, a landmark of the sailing vessel days, was undermined and toppled over into the shallow end of the pier by a severe southeast gale early this morning. High waves which rolled into the harbor entrance several hundred feet east, pounded against the foundation until it fell outward smashing the lighthouse.” The article went on to say that lighthouse officials stated the lighthouse was destroyed beyond repair.
Manitowoc is a Native American term meaning “Home of the Great Spirit.” And today, although some of the lighthouses of Manitowoc are gone, their spirit and the spirit of the keepers who manned them, live on in the dusty pages of time as part of Ghost Lights of the Western Great Lakes.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2011 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.