Throughout the years in the days of staffed lighthouses, the exploits of such things as hardship, family life, and bravery of some lighthouse keepers has been highly reported and written about, mostly through old newspaper stories or written and oral memories that have been handed down.
But, for the most part, many lighthouse keepers served quietly in due diligence while silently keeping the light to save those at sea, all without ever having a big story written about them or hardly ever having their name mentioned in the newspaper, other than perhaps when they retired or died. Such was the case with long-time veteran lighthouse keeper Henry J. Wierzbach, that is, with one somewhat comical exception in a minuscule story that appeared in the Manitowoc Herald Times on June 1, 1935 titled, “New Respect,” which gave him his claim to fame.
“Assistant lighthouse keeper Henry Wierzbach hereafter will show considerable respect for manhole covers. The other day “Hank” became irritated over the constant rattling of the cover as cars passed over it. It disturbed his sleep. He could endure it no longer, so he got out of bed, hurried to the intersection – and gave the heavy cover a lusty kick. The cover fell into place, but it took the keeper’s big toe with it. Now, Hank’s nursing a broken toe.”
It was that somewhat laughable story that piqued our interest to learn more about the career of Henry “Hank” J. Wierzbach and try to track down descendants who might have a photo of him.
Henry “Hank” Wierzbach was born in Germany on May 3, 1885 and immigrated with his parents to the United States, where they settled in Wisconsin. In 1909 he married Lucy Gagon in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Reportedly, he joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1916, but didn’t start as an assistant keeper at Michigan’s Poverty Island Lighthouse until 1917 and stayed to 1918. From there he went to Ludington North Pier Lighthouse in Michigan from 1918 to 1919; and then to Wisconsin lighthouses at Rawley Point (Twin River) Lighthouse from 1920 to 1930; Manitowoc Breakwater Lighthouse from 1930 to 1931; Two Rivers Pier Light from 1931 to 1940; Green Bay Harbor Entrance Light from 1940 to 1942; and then at Cana Island Lighthouse from 1942 to 1947.
In 1939 when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service, rather than join the military he decided to stay on as a civilian keeper. However, when Hank’s wife Lucy died in 1947, he decided it was time to retire from lighthouse duty. At the time he didn’t have a lot to say to a reporter, but he did mention the early days when he was at Poverty Island Lighthouse where he said that he and other men “batched it” while stationed there, and in the winter they walked across the ice to visit their families on the mainland. In looking back at his 30-year lighthouse keeping life, he said, “Now that it’s all over, I can recall for the most part it was a pretty lonesome life, particularly off on some remote island station.”
Henry “Hank,” Wierzbach also dabbled in local politics. When he ran for County Supervisor of the 4th Ward in Two Rivers Wisconsin, his newspaper ads stated, “Retired Lighthouse and Coast Guard. I have the time and experience to give full time to the work.”
In April of 1949, Hank and two other men were swept into office as new City Councilmen in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, in what the local newspaper called “something of an upset with only one of the current councilman getting enough votes to be reelected.” However, Wisconsin winters must have too much for Hank, and in February 1950, he resigned to go to Florida where he had wintered in previous years.
Henry “Hank” J. Wierzbach died on October 9, 1964 and was buried in the Calvary Cemetery in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 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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