True stories behind 12 of Wisconsin’s coolest lighthouses

True stories behind 12 of Wisconsin's coolest lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Canva

By Claire Mainprize

December 7, 2023

There are 55 lighthouses along Wisconsin’s shores, the majority dating back to the 1800s. For centuries, the beacons of light ensured the safe passage of ships crossing the Great Lakes, bringing all sorts of cargo and passengers across the oft-angry waters. 

Although many of them are no longer in service, each lighthouse that still stands serves as a scenic reminder of the state’s maritime past—a past that includes deadly shipwrecks, haunted encounters, tragic love affairs, and scenes reminiscent of the 2019 thriller “The Lighthouse.”

Here are the fascinating tales behind 12 of the state’s lighthouses. 

Content warning: The following article mentions suicide. 

Michigan Island Lighthouse, Apostle Islands

It wasn’t until the beacon of Michigan Island Lighthouse was finally lit in 1857 that someone realized a monumental mistake had occurred. You see, the lighthouse was supposed to be housed on Long Island, which was just a hop, skip, and jump away from Michigan Island, where it was built. 

At some point in the planning process, lines had gotten crossed and the construction took place on the wrong island. After one shipping season, the Lighthouse Service moved the lantern room to a different structure. A decade or so later, a new lantern room was installed on Michigan Island. 

Another notable story about this lighthouse occurred in 1895 when a keeper spent the winter there. While fishing one day, the ice broke and his wife and three kids watched as he floated away on top of the berg. He ended up stranded for four days but was eventually rescued. 

Asylum Lighthouse, Oshkosh

True stories behind 12 of Wisconsin's coolest lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Winnebago County

With such a foreboding name, you just know this lighthouse has a backstory. The Northern Asylum for the Insane (later changed to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute) was built in 1871 on the small island of Lake Winnebago. The surrounding bay and subsequent lighthouse were named after the psychiatric hospital. 

One of the asylum’s notable patients was John Flammang Schrank, who attempted to assassinate Theodore Roosevelt. Another infamous patient who is still currently housed there is Morgan Geyser, one of two 12-year-old girls who lured their friend into the woods and attempted to murder her to appease the fictional character Slender Man in 2014. 

After the suspicious death of a patient in 1934, a legislative inquiry into treatment at Wisconsin’s mental health facilities was launched, resulting in a mass firing of staff. There’s even a cemetery on Asylum Point, though few of the former patients buried there have headstones. 

Cana Island Lighthouse, Baileys Harbor

Built in 1869 and considered the most iconic of Door County’s 11 lighthouses, Cana Island Lighthouse has stood watch at Baileys Harbor for more than 150 years.

Two decades after the lighthouse was built, a disastrous storm hit the Great Lakes. Nicknamed the “Big Blow of 1880,” the October storm destroyed a total of seven ships, the most notable being the Alpena, a 200-foot side-wheel steamer that capsized after hitting what was called the “worst gale in Lake Michigan recorded history.” After the wreck, thousands of apples that the Alpena had been carrying were seen bobbing around Saugatuck. Though the only known passenger list was aboard the vessel, it’s believed that all 80+ people aboard lost their lives that night. 

These days, you can take a complimentary tractor-and-hay-wagon ride to shuttle you over the causeway to Cana Island, where you can climb the 97 steps up to the top of the lighthouse.  

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, Rock Island 

True stories behind 12 of Wisconsin's coolest lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Built in 1836, the Pottawatomie Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin. In fact, it’s even older than the state itself. With so many keepers coming in and out over the years, it comes as no surprise that the lighthouse has a few ghost stories attached to it. 

According to Travel Wisconsin, visitors have reported strange noises, doors opening and closing on their own, and thumping sounds coming from the second floor. Many attribute the encounters to the lighthouse’s first keeper, David Corbin, who happens to be buried just outside. You can tour the lighthouse from Memorial Day to Columbus Day if you want to check it out for yourself. 

Sherwood Point Lighthouse, Nasewaupee

Sherwood Point Lighthouse is another supposedly haunted destination in Door County. About 50 years after it was built, the then-keeper—named William Cochems—married Minnie Hesh, who later became one of the few women in history to hold the title of assistant keeper. Her position didn’t last long, though, as she suffered a stroke and died within the lighthouse walls. 

Ever since, people have reported hearing creepy noises including muffled voices and teacups clinking. Perhaps the spookiest encounter happened when a relative of Hesh’s visited the lighthouse in 1984 and took a photograph that appeared to show her face in a window. 

Outer Island Light, Apostle Islands

True stories behind 12 of Wisconsin's coolest lighthouses

Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Aside from its stately structure and inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the Outer Island Light is known for two eerie shipwrecks that occurred there on the same night. 

On Sept. 2, 1905, a 337-foot schooner barge named Pretoria lost the line to the steamer it was towing amid a wild storm and began to break apart. The 10 men aboard hopped into a lifeboat and tried to make it to shore, but the lifeboat flipped over. Even though 61-year-old keeper John Irvine was alone and without his two assistants that night, he swam to the boat and heroically rescued half the crew. 

Sadly, the steamer Sevona didn’t have the same luck, as it struck a reef that same night and sank to Lake Superior’s floor along with its seven-man crew. 

Rawley Point Lighthouse, Two Rivers

Rawley Point houses the tallest lighthouse in Wisconsin. Under the control of the US Coast Guard since its construction in 1853, the lighthouse stands 113 feet high and is one of the brightest lights on the Great Lakes. 

Before (and after) the navigational aid was erected, the area saw a number of deadly shipwrecks. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a total of 26 ships were “founded or stranded on the point,” including a barge, two steamers, three brigs, and 20 schooners. 

The most infamous of them all was a steamship called Vernon, which at the time was one of the biggest and most elegant ships on the Great Lakes. On one fateful journey in October 1887, the massive ship sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan, killing 48 people—leaving one lone survivor. 

Algoma Lighthouse, Algoma

True stories behind 12 of Wisconsin's coolest lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

The Algoma Lighthouse, also called Algoma Pierhead, was initially built as a set of range lights in 1893. Even before the actual tower and accommodations were built at the end of the pier, Algoma Lighthouse had several keepers that manned the tower. 

In 1901, the third keeper of the light—Gustavus Umberham—made his way to the area, bringing his five children with him. A decade later, he sadly met his demise while boating with friends when a giant wave pushed him overboard. At the time of his death, his salary was $600. 

Green Island Lighthouse, Peshtigo

The two-story Green Island Lighthouse was constructed in 1862, and Samuel Drew was hired to be its very first keeper. He, his wife, and their six children moved onto the island to begin their new job. 

Three months after having their seventh child, Anna H. Drew, a storm hit the area. Anna fell ill, but the weather prevented the family from heading to the mainland to seek medical care for her. She died and was subsequently buried on the island, where you can still see her grave. Two other Drew kids—Helen Marie and Frank—went on to become keepers themselves. 

If you travel to the spooky site now, all you’ll see is an abandoned, hollow shell surrounded by overgrown weeds, as the lighthouse was deactivated back in 1956. 

Chambers Island Lighthouse, Gibraltar

True stories behind 12 of Wisconsin's coolest lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Friends

To get to Chambers Island Lighthouse, constructed in 1868, you have to take a boat across Green Bay. Many keepers have tended to the light over the years, and a ghost or two have reportedly taken up residence as well. 

According to Travel Wisconsin, the first paranormal experience happened in spring 1976, when a caretaker heard footsteps coming down the staircase and crossing the living room and kitchen before the kitchen door closed on its own. When renovations took place a few years later, workers noticed tools disappearing and reappearing in strange places. Overnight visitors also reported their beds shaking in the middle of the night. 

Some have attributed the occurrences to the ghost of the lighthouse’s first keeper, Lewis S. Williams. 

Pilot Island Lighthouse, Gills Rock

In the mid-19th century, it became increasingly apparent that the narrow strait that links Lake Michigan and Green Bay required a lighthouse. The waters were so treacherous that the area was named Porte des Morts, which translates to “Death’s Door.” In 1848, Congress approved the construction of a lighthouse, which was initially built on Plum Island. 

After the lighthouse was rebuilt on the nearby Pilot Island, a number of keepers manned the structure. Victor Rohn served a total of 10 years there, where he and his wife raised their seven children. He once described the island as affording “about as much independence and liberty as Libby Prison,” which was an infamously overcrowded and derelict institution. 

A couple years after Rohn ended his stint, Emmanuel Davidson and John Boyce took over. Shortly into Boyce’s new role, he helped a farmer butcher his cow, making sure to ask where the jugular vein was located. Soon after, his body was located with both his jugular veins having been sliced by a razor. According to Lighthouse Friends, “Boyce had been depressed prior to taking his life, and many people believed it was the isolation and loneliness of being a keeper on Pilot Island that drove him to take his own life, but a relative of Boyce insisted his depression was due to a failed romantic relationship.”

Sand Island Lighthouse, Apostle Islands

 

Sand Island Lighthouse was built at the west end of Lake Superior’s Apostle Island chain in 1881. Although it was one of the first lighthouses in Wisconsin to become automated in 1921, and only had two keepers before then, they both led interesting lives. 

The first keeper, Charles Lederle, single-handedly rescued the crew of the steamer Prussia, which had caught fire several miles from shore. The second keeper, Emmanuel Luick, moved in with his wife Ella in 1892. When Luick became ill in 1901, Ella completed all of his duties herself. As soon as the Lighthouse Board secured a permanent assistant keeper, though, Ella boarded a ship for Bayfield, never to return to the lighthouse (or her husband) again.

Author

  • Claire Mainprize

    Claire Mainprize is a writer and editor who covers the intersections of pop culture, lifestyle, and spirituality. Find more of her work at ClaireMainprize.com.

CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | LOCAL HISTORY

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