|Pilot Island, WI|
Description: Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door, is a narrow strait separating the tip of Door County Peninsula from a collection of islands that extends north towards Michigan’s upper peninsula. In 1848, Congress appropriated $3,500 for a lighthouse to guide vessels through this passage, which links Lake Michigan and Green Bay. A stone tower and dwelling were built on the southern end of Plum Island in 1848, but it was soon apparent that this light was located too far inside the passage to properly serve mariners.
William Shurtleff, the second keeper of the first Porte des Morts Lighthouse, transferred from Plum Island to Pilot Island along with his assistant, Royal Riggins, to care for the new light in 1858, but the pair was dismissed the next year. Six additional head keepers would serve short terms before Victor Rohn began a ten-year stint at the lighthouse in 1866. Victor had served as a lieutenant in the Union Army, and when he and his wife, Janette, moved to Pilot Island, they had seven children, all under the age of thirteen.
In 1864, a wooden fog signal building was built south of the lighthouse to house a trumpet blown by a caloric engine. Invented by John Ericsson, this fog signal was one of the first on the Great lakes. During the summer of 1875, a first-class steam siren was installed, which had two disks, a fixed one and a rotating one, in the throat of its trumpet. Each disk had twelve radial slits, and the rotating disk made 2,400 revolutions per minute to produce 28,800 powerful vibrations each minute.
On July 4, 1874, a strong southeast gale prevented Keeper Rohn from launching the station’s craft and attending the annual Fourth of July celebration on Washington Island. A bit perturbed, Rohn penned the following that day:
Independence day came in fine after a heavy southeast gale. This island affords about as much independence and liberty as Libby Prison [an infamously overcrowded Confederate prison], with the difference of guards in favor of this place, and chance of outside communication in favor of the other.
Martin learned that the previous week Boyce had helped a farmer butcher a cow and had been particularly interested in the location of the jugular vein. The body of John Boyce had been discovered lying face down in some bushes with both of his jugular veins having been cut by a razor. 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.
Following the inquest, Martin Knudsen was made second assistant keeper, a position his brother Peter had earlier held for two years before being made head keeper of Poverty Island Lighthouse. After two years on Pilot Island, Martin was promoted to keeper of South Manitou Lighthouse in 1882. Peter Knudsen returned to Pilot Island as keeper in 1883, when Keeper Davidson was transferred to Grand Haven. In 1888, Peter was transferred to Peninsula Point, and his younger brother Nelson, who had been serving as an assistant, was made head keeper.
After just over a year as keeper, Nelson swapped positions with his brother at South Manitou Island, and Martin Knudsen thus returned to Pilot Island. Martin and his son Edward left for Pilot Island at once, and his wife and other children followed a few days later aboard the lighthouse tender Dahlia. Inspector Clark had refused to provide passage for Nellie, the family’s cow, but some friends volunteered to take their schooner to South Manitou to retrieve the animal. Upon their return, it was too rough to land at Pilot Island, so Nellie was unceremoniously pushed overboard near Plum Island so she could safely swim to its gravel beach. When the waters were calmer, Martin sailed over to Plum Island and picked up Nellie. As Pilot Island Lighthouse typically closed during the winter, Nellie, along with the family cat and dog, were taken to the Knudsen’s farm on Washington Island each fall and would return to Pilot Island in the spring.
In 1894, the station’s fog signals were changed from sirens to ten-inch steam whistles, which were easier to repair. A new cement floor was laid in fog signal house number two, and both of the whistles and boilers were installed therein. The steam fog signals had previously relied on well water, but a water supply crib, linked to the fog signal building by a footbridge, was added in 1894. Keeper Knudsen first sounded the new whistles, which gave a five-second blast every thirty-five seconds, on May 18, 1894. Martin made some repairs to fog signal house number one and converted it into a workshop and darkroom, where he could develop film and make prints.
On October 28, 1892, the A.P. Nichols, which was trying to pass a storm in the lee of Plum Island, drug its anchors and ran aground on a reef extending from Pilot Island. After hearing the crash, Keeper Knudsen had rushed out into the water to assist the crew. Captain David E. Clow, Jr. of the Nichols was amazed by the keeper’s efforts:
We were bound from Chicago to Escanaba, light, and were driven on Pilot Island. We had both anchors out, but they failed to hold us and the schooner went on the rocks. As soon as she struck the seas went over her from stem to stern, and it seemed as if none of us could escape. The boat was lying on a reef of rock, with deep and shoal spots all around. Knudsen came down from the light house, and although it was 8 o’clock at night and intensely dark he picked his way through the surf along the rocks, which came nearly to the surface, and got quite near to us. He made himself heard about the storm and told me to jump overboard. I did so and went in over my head.
Keeper Knudsen received a lifesaving silver medal in recognition of his courage and humanity in rescuing the eight crewmebers from the Nichols, and he was awarded a gold medal from the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York for saving the crew of the Gilmore. Due to wrecks like the Nichols and Gilmore, work on a lifesaving station commenced on Plum Island in 1895. The following year, range lights were built on Plum Island to guide mariners through Death’s Door, and Martin Knudsen was appointed keeper of the new station when it was commissioned at the opening of navigation in 1897.
After Frank Drew’s wife died at the station in February 1902, he set out for Marinette in a sleigh with two companions and his wife’s remains in a casket. Several times during the forty-mile trip, the sleigh and men crashed through the ice in to the frigid water. The newspaper article recording this feat added: “Incidents like these recall the fact that no class of men is more worthy of praise and recognition than these same lighthouse keepers and their assistants, who for weeks and months at a time are isolated at bleak and desolate points, cut off from all other companionship and communication with the outside world.”
In 1904, workmen built a new brick fog signal building with stone trimmings to house duplicate sixteen-horsepower diesel engines and compressors. The new fog signal commenced operation on September 12, giving a three-second blast followed by thirty-two seconds of silence. The old fog signal boilers and apparatus were sold at public auction in Sturgeon Bay on May 31, 1905.
In January 1913, Keeper Henry R. Bevry and his two assistants rescued the crew of a motor boat carrying U.S. mail that had become frozen in ice ten miles from the station. The keepers freed the boat and towed it back to Pilot Island and also rescued three men in a rowboat who were searching for the mail boat. To effect this rescue, the keepers went without sleep or rest for seventy-two hours.
An air diaphone replaced the station’s air siren in 1943, and in 1948, the light was electrified and its characteristic changed to occulting white.
Pilot Island Lighthouse was staffed until 1962, when the Coast Guard removed its personnel from the island, installed an automatic light, powered by wet-cell batteries, and discontinued the fog signal. Eldron Ellefson rented Pilot Island from the Coast Guard through 1981, after which the Sea Scouts took it over for use as a camp.
Jurisdiction over Plum and Pilot Islands was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007, when the islands were added to Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, Inc. was formed the following year and is working to preserve the historic structures on the islands. The roof of the 1904 fog signal building has collapsed, but a new roof was put on Pilot Island Lighthouse in 2008.
The lighthouse and brick fog signal building are the only structures that remain on the island. Cormorants, whose waste has killed most of the vegetation on the island, inhabit the northern end of the island, while gulls occupy the southern end.
Located on tiny Pilot Island, marking the eastern entrance to Death's Door Passage. The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Another quote from Captain David E. Clow, Jr. of the Nichols is the following: “It is a wonder to me how Martin Knudsen found his way out along that ledge of rocks in the darkness to the Nichols. He is about the bravest man I have ever seen. How he managed to keep his bearing after rescuing the crew has been a wonder to me ever since. A single misstep and we would have all fallen off the rocks into deep water and undoubtedly been drowned. He seemed to know the reef as well under water and in the darkness as if it has been above water in the daytime. ”
See our List of Lighthouses in Wisconsin
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.