Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2019

From Menasha to Round Island

How Sweet It Is!

By Rangelight Rich Katuzin


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Menasha Lighthouse drawing from the 1905 ...

The foggy image of Lake Superior’s Round Island Lighthouse has just gained a little clarity. The lighthouse remnants, low piles of broken stone and brick, have puzzled researchers for several decades. Now, a recent photo and blueprints of a sister lighthouse have given the old lighthouse a more recognizable form.

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Satellite view of the southeast tip of Round ...

A 1920s-era photo published in The Beacon (Spring 2010) and Lighthouse Digest (March-April 2018) show an aerial view of the roofless lighthouse. This just about confirms that the structure was one of three Great Lakes lighthouses built from the same plans. These were Eagle River and Round Island on Lake Superior, and the Menasha Crib Light on Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin.

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Keeper’s dwelling ruins at Round Island - 1965 ...

The Menasha Light was the new piece of the puzzle that appeared in 2015 from an unexpected source. Wisconsin historian and researcher, Steve Krueger, was on his own quest for a lost lighthouse built in 1855 on Lake Winnebago offshore from the city of Menasha. Like Round Island, the Menasha Lighthouse left no photographic evidence during its brief operation. His journey took him to the National Archives where he discovered the blueprints for the lighthouse. He has since published his findings in an Arcadia Press book Lighthouses of Lake Winnebago (2017).

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Round Island Lighthouse c1920


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Cedar Point Rear Range Light c1920s after the ...

The blueprints were used by the Milwaukee firm of building contractors of Alanson Sweet, Luzern Ransom, and Morgan E. Shinn.

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Examples of Steel Light Towers used on the Great ...

Alanson Sweet was a prominent construction manager in Milwaukee during the late 1840s. He also owned a small fleet which was kept busy shipping stone and construction materials around the northwestern Great Lakes. Soon after the new U.S. Light-House Board was formed in 1852, a boom in construction resulted. Alanson Sweet’s familiarity with building procedures, materials, and cost-cutting methods made him a popular choice. During the 1850s, Sweet’s firm were the low bidders on 14 lighthouses, mostly built on Lake Superior and western Lake Michigan.

The keeper’s dwelling was a signature feature of Sweet’s construction. A pair of chimneys, each containing two flues, were built on the end of the dwelling opposite the tower. The first floor had two chambers, one a kitchen and the other a parlor. Two bedrooms occupied the second floor. Because the Menasha Light was built on a crib, space was limited, so the kitchen was incorporated inside. Many of the other lights built by the Sweet & Company had external kitchen additions.

The tower designs varied and were either conical or cylindrical and attached to the keeper’s house or connected to it by a covered passageway. Only three of these units used a square light tower incorporated into a corner of the keeper’s dwelling. (Note: The wood-framed La Pointe Light had a square wood tower built on the roof). The keeper’s house design with the twin chimneys was used frequently by the Alanson Sweet company. It was repeated in 11 of their 14 lighthouses.

Tower Height comparisons:

Eagle River: 24 feet

Menasha: 35 feet (to ventilator)

Round Island: 30 feet (35 feet in 1870)

Round Island Lighthouse (1855)

Some of the external kitchen additions were built of stone and added at the time of the original keeper’s house construction. In the case of Round Island, a wooden frame addition was added in 1870 during the light station’s upgrade. A concrete floor was poured for the cellar and access was provided by a new door cut into the southeast corner. The arched top of the doorway may have actually been one of the basement windows.


1857 Survey of the upper part of Round Island with the Lighthouse.

The survey curiously leaves off the south part of the island where a boat landing existed.


The 1858 Lighthouse Inspector’s Report lists a sailboat with two masts and two sails stationed here. It would seem reasonable to assume that the keeper’s boat would need some protection from the elements. The boathouses that were built later for the St. Mary’s River Upper and Lower Ranges were separated from the landing cribs by long roller boatways. The 1855 construction crews may have used plans that had a combined boathouse and landing.


The 1858 Lighthouse Inspector Report also shows the station contained two airtight oil butts (large wooden casks or barrels). The butt was a unit of measure typically containing 126 US gallons, but actual sizes of the lighthouse storage butts ranged from 50 gallons to 100 gallons.

The 1850s-era lighthouses stored fuel inside the dwelling. The storage room would be a smaller room partitioned off from either the kitchen or the parlor. The Round Island dwelling also contained an earth floor basement. It is possible the fuel oil was stored there under the square tower.

In the 1870s, the Lighthouse Board began replacing wooden butts with those of more durable tin. Fuel oil storage was moved into exterior oil houses built of block, brick, or cast iron. The masonry oil house appears in the 1920s era photograph.

The improvements made during the 1870 upgrade do not mention an oil house or woodshed. Both of these necessary outbuildings appear in early photos of the Eagle River Lighthouse.


The most recent photo discovered of the Round Island Light shows an aerial view of the gutted lighthouse with the station’s oil house just off to the right.

Round Island Lighthouse c1920

The picture begs the questions: Aerial photo? - How?

Did a Zeppelin flight from Hamburg make a short diversion over eastern Lake Superior for its vacationers? Were Waldo Pepper’s barnstormers hosting an Air Show at Brimley that summer? Or was the photographer on some sort of high platform? Seasoned readers of Lighthouse Digest have already guessed the correct answer.


The 11th Lighthouse District began replacing the old oil wick lanterns with the modern acetylene and electric incandescent units in the 1919 season. Of the five new acetylene beacons, Cedar Point Range received two. They were in operation just for that season before being removed and installed on Round Island.

On October 19, 1919, the two 21-inch acetylene reflector beacons at the Cedar Point Range Light Station were removed and installed on steel towers at opposite ends on Round Island. The skeletal towers were painted black and they had oval, wood-slatted daymarks painted white on their northern face.

The Front Range tower stood 50 feet and the Rear Range tower stood 70 feet above the water respectively. Each light had a fixed white beam of 2,500 candlepower.

The Front Range tower was located at the northwest corner of the island, almost directly across from, but slightly below, the abandoned stone lighthouse.

Locations of the new Front and Rear Range Towers installed on Round Island in 1919.

The Rear Range tower was positioned on the southeast corner of the island close to the boat dock. 615 feet separated the towers at a 120 degree arc. The two lights formed a range on the Point Iroquois Lighthouse.


Sometime in the early 1920s, work crews were finalizing and inspecting these lights. One such worker happened to bring along his trusty Kodak Brownie No.2 camera and snapped the now-famous pic from atop his perch on the Front Range tower. Lucky us!


In the 1922-24 Report of the Lighthouse Board, the work of transferring the beacons from the Cedar Point Range to the new towers on Round Island was listed as having been completed. Acetylene lighting equipment was installed and the lights were made unattended. The lights were renamed “Round Island Range Lights.” They functioned for about a decade before being discontinued and removed.

Improvements at the Brush Point and Birch Point Ranges plus new channel markers and a turning beacon made them obsolete.

The vacant keeper’s dwelling and property at Cedar Point was sold to a private owner. The empty wooden range towers succumbed to the elements and vandalism. The front tower is gone. Photographs from 2008 show wreckage of a collapsed rear tower and a twisted, rusting lantern room.

A new owner has restored the keeper’s house as a vacation home.


The operating history of the Round Island Lighthouse has been covered in past articles of Lighthouse Digest. But what hasn’t been addressed is the rapid deterioration of the structure. When the light was relit in 1864 after a four-year shutdown, structural deficiencies became evident such as cracks in the walls and leaks in the tower. Mortar joints are the weakest point of a lighthouse. Sloppy workmanship and the wrong mortar (soft lime based vs. hard Portland-based cement mortar) are a recipe for disaster. A too hard mixture will lead the masonry to crack. Unattended, this leads to excessive moisture accumulation and the damage is multiplied by winter freeze-ups.

The completion of the Eagle River Lighthouse was held up for two years when the inspecting engineer rejected it for structural problems. Both Grand Island (North) and the Jacobsville Lights had a list of construction issues and had to be rebuilt after just a decade of service. Point Betsie was finished too late in the season for inspection. Picking a low bidder for a job should come with a common-sense warning.

The Round Island Light Station was closed permanently at the end of the 1886 season. The keeper across the water at the Cedar Point Range was tasked with watching over the abandoned property. He remained on station until 1919 when the lights were automated. When the 1920s-era photograph was taken by one of the steel tower crew, it’s alarmingly evident that some catastrophe hit that keeper’s dwelling. One might assume that as a building naturally deteriorates there would be some remnants of wooden roof joists, window and door framing, floor beams, etc. lying about. Not a speck. The history scavengers had done their job well.

How sweet it was.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2019 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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