|Milwaukee Breakwater, WI|
Description: In 1882, work began on a breakwater at Milwaukee to create a harbor of refuge to afford mariners a protected anchorage during severe storms. The north arm of the breakwater starts near North Point and extends southeast for 2,450 before turning south and continuing another 1,000 feet. After a gap of 400 feet, the south arm of the breakwater runs another 4,500 feet.
The Lighthouse Board repeated its request for a fourth-order light and a companion fog signal for the breakwater in 1900 and 1901, and then in 1902, it modified its recommendation, asking instead for $100,000 for a third-order light. This more powerful light was to have a focal plane of at least 105 feet and would allow North Point Lighthouse to be discontinued. The Board repeated its request for $100,000 in 1903, 1904, and 1905, before being granted $50,000 “toward the construction of a light and fog-signal on the south end of the breakwater” in 1906, provided the total cost of the project did not exceed $100,000. A second $50,000 was appropriated in 1907, but after $75,000 was awarded for a lightship at Milwaukee in 1908 and $10,000 was allocated for the restoration of North Point Lighthouse in 1909, the Lighthouse Board decided not to pursue the construction of a major light for the breakwater. The $100,000 was accordingly carried to the surplus fund.
In 1902, while the Lighthouse Board was waiting for funding for a new breakwater light, metalwork was delivered to Milwaukee, and the post light at the southern end of the breakwater was enclosed in a white, hexagonal structure. Work on this new lighthouse, “a white pyramid, surmounted by a shaft, having two glazed belts forming the lanterns, surmounted by a dome,” was completed in October, and its lights were activated on the 24th of that month. The upper light was shown at a focal plane of forty-and-a-half feet and the lower light at thirty-two feet.
Under a $74,558 contract, Racine-Truscott-Shell Lake Boat Company built Milwaukee Lightship, (LV 95/WAL 51) in 1911 – 1912. The 108.5-foot, steel-hulled vessel sank at the contractor’s docks in Muskegon, Michigan on December 26, 1911, and was not raised until February 20, 1912. The steam screw lightship was equipped with a lantern atop its foremast in which a revolving parabolic reflector and incandescent lamp served as the illuminating apparatus. After MILWAUKEE was painted in white on the lightship’s red hull, the vessel took up its station three miles offshore from the breakwater on November 1, 1912.
The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses for 1929 provides the following detailed description of Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse.
The main light is located at the south end of the north breakwater in 34 feet of water. It marks the north side of the main entrance.
The circular lantern room with helical bars and the fourth-order Fresnel lens used atop Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse were taken from the Milwaukee Pierhead. The pierhead tower was then equipped with an old lantern from stock and a fifth-order Fresnel lens. Milwaukee Lightship remained at its station until 1932.
Michael M. Rotta served as an assistant keeper at North Manitou Lighthouse before being transferred to Milwaukee. He was keeper of the Milwaukee Pierhead Light for several years before being placed in charge of all the lights in Milwaukee. In April 1937, while he was keeper of the pierhead light, his six-year-old son Michael, Jr. and his eleven-year-old brother Richard were returning home from school when Michael, Jr. was run over. The boys were crossing a street when a truck and trailer turned the corner, and Michael, Jr. was struck by a projecting trunk and knocked under the wheels. Keeper Rotta received word of the accident while working at the lighthouse, but by the time he reached the hospital his son, who wanted to be a lighthouse keeper when he grew up, had died.
On May 21, 1952, Keeper Rotta was painting the Breakwater Lighthouse when tragedy once again touched the Rotta family. Alfred Schreiber was an assistant keeper at the time and was painting North Point Lighthouse when he heard about the accident. “The Chief and Dick Skolwig were on duty at the Lighthouse that fateful day,” recalled Schreiber. “No one knows exactly what happened. The left hand tackle became unhooked at the top railing and the Chief fell to the concrete crib in front of the propane tanks and doorway. He died there of massive injuries. It was surmised that he attempted to climb off the platform, by shinning up the suspended tackle. Which was a common practice. The upper block was not moused. He must have inadvertently unhooked it, and the heavy weight of the staging pulled him off.”
Jack Eckert was assigned to Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse in 1955, at which time, the station was staffed with four coastguardsmen. The men served three-days on and three-days off, and two of them were always at the lighthouse, where they stood watches of twelve-hours on and twelve-hours off. Their main duty was to monitor the timing of the radiobeacon and the distance-finding blast of the foghorn. Each day, they also had to clean the cobwebs from the lantern room, where spiders “came in all sizes, shapes, and colors.” Spider bites on the station were just a way of life.
Mr. Eihlein of Schlitz Brewery, who had provided the station with a large black and white television set just before Eckert began his duty at the breakwater,also offered to provide the station with beer, but that offer was politely declined by the officer-in-charge. The Milwaukee Braves were having a good year in 1955, and their televised baseball games were a big hit at the station. Besides the television, Eckert filled his free time taking correspondence courses and keeping an eye on fishermen near the station, who would sometimes climb the steel ladder up to the lighthouse and enter announced using their “taxpayer rights.”
In June 2011, Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse was declared excess to the needs of the United States Coast Guard and made available to eligible organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Qualified entities were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest and were required to obtain permission to access the lighthouse from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the pier on which the lighthouse sits. Three nonprofit groups, Optima Enrichment, the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee (UWM), and Mt. Zion House, submitted an application for the lighthouse, but after a tour of the structure, UWM dropped out, and Optima Enrichment and Mt. Zion House decided to combine their efforts, and in September 2013, the lighthouse was awarded to Optima Enrichment. “We are absolutely thrilled to be entrusted with the lighthouse and the restoration of this icon of our harbor,” said Randall Melchert, co-founder of Optima Enrichment. “The view of both the Milwaukee skyline as well as Lake Michigan (from the lighthouse) is a spiritual experience that we want to share with our community and tourists alike. We are hoping to open it to the public for events like Doors Open Milwaukee. We want to open it for events and sightseeing for people to appreciate the maritime history of Milwaukee.”
Chamberlin Group will be the project development manager for the restoration of the lighthouse, which is expected to cost up to $2.5 million.
Head Keepers: Michael M. Rotta (at least 1943 - 1952).
Located at the southern tip of the northern breakwater in the Milwaukee harbor. The lighthouse is owned by Optima Enrichment. Dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by Optima Enrichment. Dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.