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Pilot Island, WI  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.   

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Pilot Island Lighthouse

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.

Lighthouse in 1883 before 1901 modifications
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Pilot Island, a low-lying, roughly elliptical islet situated at the southern end of Death’s Door, roughly two miles from Plum Island, was selected as the site for a new lighthouse, and a construction crew arrived there in 1858. The highest point of the island, just eleven feet above the surrounding water, was chosen for the lighthouse, and the crew blasted a hole in the island’s dolomite to serve as a basement. A two-and-a-half-story, thirty-five-foot-square keeper’s dwelling was built out of cream-colored brick with a one-story kitchen attached to its northeast corner. A square tower topped by a decagonal, cast-iron lantern room was mounted atop the dwelling’s western gable, and a fourth-order Fresnel lens was employed to cast a flashing white light out over the waters at a focal plane of forty-six feet.

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.

Station buildings in 1883
Photograph courtesy National Archives
During the summer of 1880, a duplicate steam siren was erected on Pilot Island to lessen the chance that the station’s fog signal would be inoperable. Emmanuel Davidson, who had replaced Rohn in 1876, was serving as head keeper at the time, with his wife, Christine, as first assistant, and John Boyce as second assistant. John Boyce was ashore on Washington Island in June and mentioned to Martin Knudsen, the justice of the peace, that he would soon be leaving Pilot Island. Encouraged by his wife, Martin wrote a letter to Keeper Davidson expressing his interest in becoming a keeper should Boyce leave. On the way to the post office, Martin met Boyce, who offered to personally deliver the letter to Davidson. The next Sunday, one of the masons who was working on the new fog signal building came to Washington Island to request that Martin return with him to preside at an inquest into the death of John Boyce.

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.

Pilot Island Lighthouse after 1901 modifications
Several significant changes took placed on Pilot Island while Martin Knudsen was in charge. In 1891, a new lens was installed in the lantern room, changing the light’s characteristic from a white flash every minute to fixed red. This change didn’t last long, as in 1894 district lampist Crump returned with yet another lens, and the characteristic was changed to fixed white varied by a white flash every fifteen seconds. A new circular iron oil house was put up on the island in 1892.

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.

As I came up he reached out for me from the shelf of rock where he stood, and pulled me up near him. Then other members of the crew jumped in one by one, Knudsen seizing each one as they came to the surface, and pulling them safely to the spot where he stood. My aged father and the female cook jumped overboard in the same way. He carried these two ashore, picking his way along the ledge, which was crooked and uncertain. The rest of us followed him and all got ashore in safety. A single misstep would have carried us into deep water.

All this time the sea was running heavy and it was with the utmost difficulty that we could stay on our feet. When we reached the lighthouse we found that the crew of the Gilmore had been there a week and were told that they were saved in the same way. The two crews made big inroads on the provisions of the lighthouse keeper, and had not the sea gone down so we could get the provisions from our boats we might have all starved.

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.

In December 1898, assistant keepers Charles Boshka and Peder Pedersen were sailing to nearby Detroit Island from Pilot Island when their sailboat capsized. Keeper Pedersen had previously been the owner and master of the schooner Iris, but sold the vessel when he became a keeper. Pedersen was known as a fine sailor, even though he was raised on a farm in Denmark and knew nothing about sailing until arriving in Door County in his twenties.

Keeper Pedersen had insisted on sailing across a shoal to save a few minutes in reaching Detroit Island. This decision ended up costing him his life, as a large breaker suddenly rose on the shoal engulfing the craft and throwing to over on its beam ends. Keeper Boshka managed to swim roughly half a mile to reach shore, but was so chilled and exhausted that he was unable to help Pedersen, who didn’t know how to swim. Efforts to locate Pedersen’s body immediately after the drowning were unsuccessful, but the life saving crew on Plum Island found the body the following spring off Detroit Island.

Pilot Island Lighthouse in 1914
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1901, while Gottfired Hansen, Martin’s successor, was keeper, the dwelling on Pilot Island was enlarged and reconfigured to provide separate quarters for the keeper and first assistant. Twin, two-story brick enclosures, containing stairways, were added on the north and south sides of the dwellings to provide separate entrances to the new quarters, which each had five rooms and a cellar. Up until 1899, the keeper and his two assistants were able to live in the lighthouse as there had never been three families amongst them, but this changed in 1899 with the appointment of Frank Drew as second assistant. Using salvaged wood, Drew built a small shack so his family could live with him on the island. This crude structure was abandoned in 1901, when fog signal building number one was remodeled to house the second assistant.

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. All the fog signal machinery was removed from the island, leaving the fog signal house empty. To deter visitors and vandalism, the Coast Guard removed the marine railways from both landings and destroyed the landing cribs at the east landing. 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.


  • Head: William Shurtleff (1858 – 1859), Mathew Garey (1859 – 1861), E.T. Wells (1861 – 1863), John C. Kenward (1863 – 1864), D.A. Read (1864), Jacob H. Stahl (1864 – 1865), John C. Kenward (1865 – 1866), Victor E. Rohn (1866 – 1876), Emanuel Davidson (1876 – 1883), Peter Knudsen (1883 – 1888), Nelson Knudsen (1888 – 1889), Martin N. Knudsen (1889 – 1897), Gottfried M.S. Hansen (1897 – 1903), Charles Bavry (1903 – 1907), Henry R. Bevry (1907 – 1913), Samuel C. Jacobson (1913 – 1914), Walter Ottosen (1914 – 1920), Robert G. Young (1920 – 1925), George I. Haas (1925 – 1935), Clarence J. Anderson (1935 – 1945), Clifton L. Willis ( – 1960), Thomas E. Brown (1960), William D. Dwyer (1961 – 1962).
  • First Assistant: Royal F. Riggins (1858 – 1859), John Garey (1859 – 1862), Whitmond Taylor (1862), John C. Kenward (1862 – 1863), Joel Westbrook (1863 – 1864), E.H. Read (1864), Joel Westbrook (1864 – 1867), Jane A. Rohn (1867 – 1876), Christine Davidson (1876 – 1883), Jesse L. Miner (1883 – 1886), August Stein (1886 – 1887), Nelson Knudsen (1887 – 1888), Frederick Bertschy (1888 – 1889), Jacob Young (1889 – 1890), Charles E. Young (1890 – 1891), Thomas J. Armstrong (1891 – 1892), Gottfried M.S. Hansen (1892 – 1897), Charley Boshka (1897 – 1900), Frank A. Drew (1900 – 1903), Edward H. Cornell (1903 – 1909), John T. Trucker (1909 – 1912), Alfred L. Cornell (1912 – 1915), Louis Pecor (at least 1917 – 1919), William H. Lee (1919 – 1922), Clarence J. Anderson (1922 – 1934), Hartwig J. Jacobsen (1939 – at least 1941).
  • Second Assistant: Peter Knudsen (1875 – 1877), Byron Olson (1877 – 1879), John Boyce (1879 – 1880), Martin N. Knudsen (1880 – 1882), Lesander Davidson (1882 – 1883), Charles Johnston (1883), Edward Peterson (1883 – 1884), Jacob Young (1884 – 1886), John P. Carroll, Jr. (1886 – 1887), William P. Rooney (1887 – 1888), Frederick Bertschy (1888), Jacob Young (1888 – 1889), Charles E. Young (1889 – 1890), Gottfried M.S. Hansen (1891 – 1892), Hans J. Hanson (1892 – 1897), Peder H. Pedersen (1897 – 1898), Frank A. Drew (1899 – 1900), Edward H. Cornell (1900 – 1903), Jesse G. Denio (1903 – 1905), Christian O. Pedersen (1905 – 1906), Charlie E. Tesnow (1906 – 1907), Fred Magnussen (1907), John T. Trucker (1907 – 1909), Alfred L. Cornell (1909 – 1912), Royal G. Peterson (1912 – 1915), Stannie Sigurdson (1915 – 1916), Leonard V. Knudson (1916 – 1917), Robert O. Knudsen (1916 – 1920), Levi Simoneau (1920 – ), Walter Lucke (at least 1921), Abraham Jessen( at least 1930), Hartwig J. Jacobsen (1935 – 1939), Peter J. Scrip (1939 – 1942).
  • USCG: William D. Dwyer (1960), Leo R. Nack (1960 – 1961), David A. Jacklitch (1961).


  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Keepers of the Lights, Steven Karges, 2000.

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