This river is distant from the entrance of Green bay seventy-five miles, and its being the most northern point on the west shore where a harbor can be formed makes it of great consequence to lake navigation. I did not land at this place, but, from all I could learn, the river is of sufficient size to allow of its being made into a good artificial harbor.These great plans all changed when the gold boom turned bust and the land speculators moved on.
During the summer of 1856, a second pier was constructed to serve the increasing steamer and schooner traffic. The citizens of Kewaunee held several meeting in 1859 to make plans for developing their harbor, but the Civil War intervened, and a project for improving the harbor was not adopted until 1881.
The following excerpt from the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board from 1888 gives the status of these improvements and describes the first lights that marked the harbor.
The project for the improvement of this harbor provides for the construction of two parallel pilepiers, each 15 feet wide and 200 feet apart, to extend to 18-foot contour in the lake. The north pier is now 1,000 feet and the south pier 750 feet long, being about 54 per centum of their projected lengths. The water is 9 feet deep at the entrance and the channel between the piers is about 100 feet wide and from 10 to 12 feet deep. During the season of navigation the Goodrich Transportation Company’s boats stop here regularly three times a week. During the calendar year 1886 the number of vessels arriving and departing was 350, with a tonnage of 95,000 tons. The total approximate value of the principal articles of import was $141,000, and of export was $265,000. In his last annual report, Captain Davis, the local engineer, stated that it is doubtful if the local business at this harbor will in itself justify the completion of the improvement. It will, however, afford protection for vessels in stress of weather, and as a harbor of refuge its completion is desirable. During the continuance of the work of construction the contractor maintains a light on the north pier, in accordance with the customary practice. At other times the city authorities maintain this light. On the completion of this season’s work the Kewaunee City authorities erected a frame at the end of the north pier and maintained a red light, using a signal lantern for the purpose. The Board therefore recommended that funds be provided for establishing a pier-head light at this place. An appropriation of $16,000 has been made at the current session of Congress to build this and three other pier-head lights on the lakes, and measures will be taken for their erection as soon as practicable.
In October 1891, a railroad was completed between Kewaunee and Green Bay, and the following year a line of steamers was established to provide railroad car ferry service between Kewaunee and Frankfort, Michigan. This first-of-its-kind service across Lake Michigan provided a vital link to the eastern states and increased the importance of Kewaunee Harbor.
The north pier was extended 300 feet in 1891, and the framework tower was moved about 200 feet lakeward on October 16, 1891. A front light was established at this time to form range lights to mark the approach to the harbor. The front light was a tubular lantern that showed a fixed red light at a height of twenty-three feet above the lake. The rear light was also fixed red and was displayed at a height of forty-two-and-a-half feet from a square pyramidal tower that was painted white.
A conduit, supported by twenty frame trestles, was completed on November 10, 1893 so the keeper could run the tubular lantern to and from the front range post without having to leave the rear light tower. This conduit was a 335-foot-long box, and the tubular lantern rode atop a special car connected to a three-eighths-inch line that looped out to the front post and back.
In February 1891, the Lighthouse Board requested $5,500 for establishing a steam fog signal on the pierhead after one of the large railroad transfer boats ran ashore the previous fall while trying to make Kewaunee Harbor in thick weather. This amount was approved on August 4, 1894. The front range light was discontinued on November 7, 1894, and the elevated conduit was taken down. The framework tower was relocated 300 feet nearer the outer end of the northern pier, and a fog signal building, securely bolted to six crossties in the pier, was constructed just shoreward of the tower. The fog signal boilers were delivered in late December, and on January 31, 1895, the ten-inch Crosby automatic steam whistle was put in operation. Over 275 feet of elevated walkway were erected to help the keeper reach the tower in inclement weather.
In 1893, Keeper Charles C. Petersen conceived the idea that the American flag should fly over the lighthouse on certain days. By passing the hat, he raised enough money for a twenty-foot flag for the station. On November 3, 1901, Keeper Petersen and his son Ralph set off in a boat to retrieve lumber that had been lost from the schooner Julia B. Merrill. Just after the men had left the harbor, a westerly gale sprang up and blew the pair out into Lake Michigan. There was hope that the men were able to land elsewhere, but when a systematic search was made by local lifesavers and the fishing tug Carrie Hermann, the men were presumed drowned in the lake. Eugene V. Kimball was transferred from Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, where he had served as first assistant, to take the place of Keeper Petersen.
The Lighthouse Board first requested funds to construct a duplex for the keepers in 1894, when preparations were being made for the erection of the fog signal. The Board made the request again in 1896, and then renewed the request the next five years until Congress provided $5,000 on June 28, 1902. After difficulties obtaining a site near the pier, land was finally purchased in 1905. A new site was then purchased in 1907 on the south side of the river, and upon this a duplex was finally constructed in 1908.
After a new concrete south pier was completed at Kewaunee in 1912, buildings were placed on it rather than the north pier to house pierhead range lights and a fog signal. The new lights were established on March 26, 1912, and the new fog signal commenced operation on June 28. The front light was exhibited at a height of forty-three-and-a-half feet above the lake from a white square pyramidal steel structure, and the rear light was displayed at a height of sixty-two feet from a white skeletal steel tower surmounted by a square lantern. The one-and-a-half-story fog signal building was located ten feet behind the front light and housed a fog whistle that gave a two-second blast every twenty seconds when needed. A flashing red light was established on the end of the new concrete north pier in 1913.
The fog signal was improved in 1919 when electric engines were installed and the chime air whistle was replaced with a diaphone fog signal. In 1931, a square tower surmounted by a lantern room was installed atop the fog signal building, and the white steel tower was removed from the end of the pier producing the configuration that is found today. The tender Hyacinth towed the old steel tower, loaded on the barge Riprap, to Milwaukee. In 1938, the tower used at Kewaunee was placed on Chicago Harbor Southeast Guidewall at the entrance to Chicago River, where it still serves mariners to this day. A fifth-order Fresnel lens was used at Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse for many years.
Between 1935 and 1937, most of the old north pier was removed and a convergent, 3,130-foot-long breakwater was built on the north side of the entrance to the river. The outer end of this breakwater was marked by this light in 2006.
After the Type F diaphones were removed from Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse in 1981, they were acquired by an organization in Duluth, Minnesota known as TOOT (reTurn Our Old Tone) that wanted to restore the familiar “Bee-Oh” sound to their harbor. Fortunately, the sound of the diaphone at Kewaunee was captured on tape, and in 2005 it was made part of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. The elevated walkway was removed sometime after the automation of the station in 1981.
In 2009, Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) of 2000. Upon hearing of the availability of the lighthouse, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sent a letter to the National Park Service announcing their interest in the lighthouse and their proposed use for it. An excerpt from the letter follows:
If given ownership of the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse, PETA would install interactive educational displays to help the public learn more about fish and why they should never be eaten or tormented for “sport” (i.e., fishing). The lighthouse would also be the perfect location to display the world’s first “fish empathy quilt,” a 300-square-foot quilt made by PETA volunteers that pays tribute to the billions of fish needlessly killed for their flesh or abused by anglers. We will open a café at the lighthouse serving faux fish sticks and other tasty vegetarian dishes. And every visitor 12 and under will be given a free plush toy fish emblazoned with the tagline “Fish Are Friends, Not Food!”
The City of Kewaunee also submitted an application for the lighthouse and received word on September 10, 2010 that the National Park Service had recommended that the property be transferred to the city. The lighthouse was officially transferred to the city in September 2011.
In June 2019, the Fresnel lens was removed from Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse and placed on display in the Kewaunee County Historical Society's History Center. An LED beacon was installed in the lantern room to serve mariners. A non-profit group called The Friends of the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse worked with the City of Kewaunee to renovate the exterior of the tower starting in 2015, and over the next four years, the roof and siding were replaced. On July 20, 2019, the public was allowed inside the lighthouse for the first tour. The Friends group hopes to offer regular tours in the future.