|Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead, WI|
Description: Several lights have been established along the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, but the first of these was the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse. Located just off the coastline of Lake Michigan, the lighthouse was constructed in October and November of 1881, after Congress finally appropriated money for the project originally proposed by the Lighthouse Board in 1873. The light guides ships into the entrance of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, which provides a shortcut to Green Bay, avoiding the dangerous Northern Passage around the Door Peninsula commonly referred to as “Death’s Door.”
The Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Canal and Harbor Company was established in 1872 as a private venture by a group of local businessmen. Construction on the 6,600-foot-long canal began in July 1872. The waterway is approximately seven miles in length, and consists of two parts: a dredged portion of Sturgeon Bay and a 1.3-mile canal dug through the Door Peninsula. This shorter portion was dug by a private group headed by then-president of Chicago and North Western Railway, William B. Ogden, between July 8, 1872 and late fall of 1881. Although some ships began using the canal in 1880, it was not open to large vessels until 1882.
While on an inspection tour of lighthouses on the Great Lakes, Commodore Alexander Murray traveled to Sturgeon Bay to monitor construction of the canal and determine if the Lighthouse Board should place any navigational aids in the area. Canal owners and mariners wanted both a lighthouse and breakwater built at the eastern end of the canal, but the government was reluctant to directly aid the private venture. Petitions from local businessmen coupled with a favorable review of the project by Commodore Murray, convinced the Lighthouse Board to recommend the construction of a lighthouse at the lake entrance, which it did in 1873.
Construction of a breakwater and harbor of refuge was begun by the Corps of Engineers in the late 1870s. This work consisted of a north pier and south pier, located at the lake end of the canal. The piers were 850 feet apart at the shoreline and extended into Lake Michigan about 1,100 feet, before converging to create an entrance with a width of 335 feet. Two smaller detached piers, approximately 150 feet long, extended eastward from the entrance.
Charles Dobson, who had recently completed the Dunlap Reef Range Lights in Sturgeon Bay, supervised construction of a lighthouse at the outer end of the detached portion of the northern pier. Material was brought to the site by barge in October 1881 and work was completed in late November. Besides the wooden frame light tower, a wooden elevated walkway was constructed from the lighthouse to the shore so the keeper could reach the light in inclement weather. The lantern room arrived later that year, but was not installed until March 1882.
Dense fog banks frequently shrouded the entrance to the canal, so in 1884, a fog signal was established on the pier just shoreward of the light. Two buildings measuring seventeen feet wide by thirty-two feet long were erected on the pier, one behind the other, to house duplex steam boilers to power a fog whistle. Due to the added responsibilities that came with this equipment, Charles Oliver Chapman was hired as Wright’s assistant. Chapman was well qualified for the position, as he had previously worked with steam engines at a gristmill and aboard vessels. The whistle sounded for five seconds followed by thirty-five seconds of silence and could be heard at a distance of eight to twelve miles away, depending on conditions.
By 1902, the pierhead light and fog signal were in need of major repairs, prompting the Lighthouse Board to recommend the construction of a new combined fog signal and light. A work crew arrived at the station in May of 1903 and relocated the light to the outermost point of the pier so work on the new structure could begin. After concrete footings were in place, ¼-inch steel plate was riveted to metalwork to create a twenty-four by thirty-three foot building, with a hipped roof and a circular light tower at its eastern end. The lantern room and fifth-order Fresnel, which replaced the original sixth-order Fresnel lens in 1900, were transferred from the old light to the new tower, and the combination light and fog signal was completed and tested in early September 1903.
Keeper Chapman witnessed the erection of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse to serve as a coastal beacon in 1898 and was still serving as keeper when the new pierhead lighthouse was finished in 1903, when the 1866 keeper’s dwelling was doubled in size in 1904, and when the wooden walkway to the pierhead light was replaced by a metal one in 1905. A second keeper's dwelling was added to the station in 1900.
In 1931, the light was electrified and the fog signal changed to an air diaphone.
The numerous structures at Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light Station remain in immaculate condition today, receiving the attention of the Coast Guardsmen who are staffed there.
A Notice of Availability, dated June 28, 2010, announced that Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse was excess to the needs of the United States Coast Guard and would be “made available at no cost to eligible entities defined as Federal agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations for educational, park, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes.” Qualifying organizations were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest.
After no qualified steward was found, an online auction for the lighthouse opened on July 23, 2014. Four people participated in the auction, which closed on September 12, 2014 with a high bid of $48,500.
Head Keepers: Rufus J. Wright (1882 – 1886), Charles O. Chapman (1886 – 1910), Charles Bavry (1910 – 1921), Charles Bavry (1926 – 1927), Conrad A. Stram (1927 – 1933), Claude Chapman (1933), John T. Trucker (1933 – 1940), John J. Hahn (1940 – 1942).
Located at the end of the pier on the northern side of the entrance to the Sturgeon
Bay Ship Canal. The lighthouse is privately owned. Pier open, dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Pier open, dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.