A postscript has been added to this article, The August 21st issue of the Milwaukee Journal “Wisconsin Magazine” contained a short article about two abandoned islands in Northern Lake Michigan. The pictures shown of the islands, particularly of the Pilot Island foghorn and machinery building, was a tombstone and like a tombstone , doesn’t show that the island was once alive for seven or eight months of the year, every year. The following short article attempts to recreate a few moments of the living history of Pilot Island.
It was January 1955 and times were tough. Out of High School I put in a 3-1/2 year “Kiddie Cruise” in the Coast Guard. When I got out I had no success landing a good job. To buy a couple of years and hope for a change in the economy I volunteered for another short hitch in the Coast Guard. They were looking for warm bodies with some experience at the time. After they accepted me in my former rate I drove my 1949 Pontiac to the Cleveland District Office to get sworn in and receive my assignment. This took about a week. They sent me to Group Sturgeon Bay for further assignment.
I reported in to Sturgeon Bay Canal Lifeboat Station and the Group Office for duty. There were about sixty men there on Temporary Additional Winter Duty. Within a few days I learned that I was being assigned as the Station Engineer of Pilot Island Lighthouse off the tip of the Door County Peninsula.
Liberty (time off) was good on Winter Duty. I commuted back and forth to Waukesha every weekend until the second week in March. Joana came back with me and we took a motel cabin for a modest price in Sawyer, across the river from Sturgeon Bay, until I was ready to go out to the Island.
During the last week of March it was time to move out of the winter quarters and open up the islands. Arnold “Jake” Jacobson, Jimmy Allen, and I went up to Gill’s Rock on the tip of the Door County Peninsula where we met the Plum Island Station 40 foot Ice Breaking Motor Lifeboat. Our boat escorted the Washington Island Ferry in case they got caught in the ice until we got to the North Side of Plum Island. They went into their port and we tied up at the Lifeboat Station. It was too early to open up Pilot Island so the three of us stayed at Plum Island and performed various duties and stood radio beacon watches.
The ice finally cleared out of Deaths Door Passage. On a calm, sunny, cool day the Plum Island station boat took the three of us out to Pilot Island to open it up for the season. We moved in right away and began to put the various systems in operation. The only real problem was the water pipes were frozen up. We spent a day thawing them out with blow torches until we finally got good water flow through them. Now we could at least go to the toilet.
Pilot Island is a five acre island marking the northern limit of Deaths Door Passage. The complex consisted of the lighthouse with the light mounted on the roof, a carpenter shop, a paint locker, and a foghorn & machinery building.
The two compressed air driven, two tone, diaphone, foghorn’s were the loudest on the Great Lakes. When we started them they would vibrate the buildings and rattle the windows. How we ever slept with all of that racket I do not know. The sound became greater when the “Lakers” approached the shoal south of the Island in the fog and I often wondered if they would miss the south end of the island and that shoal.
The duty stretches were 23 days on the island and 7 days off every month. The Coast Guard’s policy was to rotate personnel on and off duty so there would always be at least two men on the station at all times. We stood live 12 hour watches. The only thing we watched for was the fog coming and going which told us whether or not to start sounding the fog horn. The guys on watch at Plum Island would tell us if the light was out because they could see it easier than we could.
There was really plenty to do on the station. At least once a week we mowed about two acres of lawn with hand push mowers. That in itself took almost a full day to do. We painted the four bedrooms in the half of the dwelling we occupied. The other half was unoccupied and we kept it broom clean. The machinery, lens room, etc. all needed attention. We actually waxed the decks in the machinery room. At my age today in 1995 of 63 I would be delighted to have a job like that. At the time I was newly married, 23 years old, and I didn’t like it too well.
We cooked our own meals. We ate together usually rotating the cooking and clean up chores. When thrown into that situation you either learned to cook or you went hungry. We shared our food bill and bought our food from a grocery store in Sister Bay by telephone. The groceries would be sent out to us by a passing fisherman. I don’t remember how we ever paid the grocer but we must have or we would have really been hungry.
Jimmy was still a teenager and was thinking of marrying a Sturgeon Bay girl. Jake was an older Boatswains Mate who was from the area and took lighthouse duty in his stride. He had a gaggle of children and probably was glad for the peace the island provided.
Jake was about 40 at the time and was a real pain for the two of us “kids” to live with. We perceived him at our tender ages to be an old fuss budget. Nothing we ever did was right. But Jake had a flaw! He was very impressionable. It took three days to talk Jake into being sick, convincing him he belonged in the hospital. Jake left the island about the second week we were out there. He didn’t come back until after I left Pilot Island for good in July.
At our young age we didn’t look ahead and that put Jimmy and I in a bind. No time off! I could talk to Joana fifty miles away by telephone in Sawyer but couldn’t see her. The Group Office must have felt sorry for us as they sent Billy Six on temporary duty over from Plum Island in mid May to stand in for Jake long enough to let Jimmy and I each take a week off. Billy left and we still remained in a bind. The answer for me was to bring Joana out to the Island for a visit. We arranged through our friendly grocery store for the fisherman who brought the groceries to bring her out on his boat. So there she remained for several weeks until Phil Peterson, the Chief of the Plum Island Station, told me to get her off the island. He was not going to be responsible for her because she was pregnant and he was worried (rightfully so) about getting her off if something went wrong.
Our electric power came from a battery bank powered by a pair of Kohler generators and was direct current. It powered the lighthouse, the water pump and the lighting systems only. Our refrigerator and stove ran on propane gas and our heating was with fuel oil. I had a used TV set Joana and I bought for $35.00. A Milwaukee Base technician came up to the island to check something or other out. He offered to lend us an AC power converter to run the TV with. Jimmy and I made a TV antenna out of copper tubing and mounted it on top of the lens room cupola. The TV came in crystal clear from as far south as Milwaukee and from the Michigan side of the lake. Life improved because we now had TV. The wind really blows up there but it really wasn’t that much of a chore to climb up on the cupola and straighten out the bent copper tubing every other day or so. Within a few weeks one of the Lakers sailing by turned us in to the Ninth District for altering the characteristics of the light with the TV antenna. It did not conform exactly to the description in the Great Lakes Light List. That brought us some company and almost got the two of us court martialled. The District technician complained that the drain on the battery bank running the converter would shorten the useful life of the batteries. He wanted to know how the converter ever got there and I lied when I said, “it was always here and I found it in the Carpenter Shop.” Surprisingly he didn’t take away the converter when he left. As soon as he left the island we moved the antenna to a pole we stuck in the ground and continued to watch TV. We only received Green Bay after that and they must only have had Channel 2 in those days.
Pilot Island became enjoyable during Joana’s stay. She brought “Wicked” our German Shepherd with her. “Wicked” cleaned the pine snakes off the East side of the island and ran the big birds off. She had the run of the island. Nobody could sneak up on us as was the Plum Island crew’s great sport. “Wicked” would meet them, and never was a dog so aptly named. After that when their station boat came over they would call up first and tell me to lock up the dog. When the Buoy Tender “Woodbine” came to refuel us “Wicked” wouldn’t let anybody on the dock until I got there. That was where “Wicked” should have lived the rest of her life. She was never tied up and had the run of the place.
Joana became our full time cook and helped us with the cleaning and the chores. She painted and shared our watch duties. It was a bit tough on Jimmy because I had a woman and he didn’t have one there.
We have many pleasant memories of Pilot Island today even though we, and I in particular, didn’t spend that much time there.
Good fortune appeared! An Engineman named Ivan Hutton who was from Washington Island wanted to get back into the vicinity. He was stationed at the Milwaukee Breakwater Light Station. The Coast Guard’s policy was to let us exchange stations with approval as long as we paid all of our own moving and transfer expenses. On July 13th, our first wedding anniversary, I left Pilot Island for good and we moved back to the Milwaukee area.
POSTSCRIPT: It is hard to believe looking backwards 44 years that this had been my home. Trees and scrub growth had been located only at the extreme ends of the island. Two acres of the five were kept mowed. Gone are most of the outbuildings except the Fog Signal building. The roof has collapsed on that. People who had once lived on the island have been displaced by large pine snakes.
How many ghosts are in this old boarded up Keepers House, trapped there until everything that is left crumbles into dust?
Old cutters are often towed out to sea and sunk by gunfire, which is a fitting end. Old lighthouses, out of the way, with their historical significance forgotten suffer the ignominy of rotting away in silence like an old, useless, farm machine in a back field.
This story appeared in the
August 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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