Digest>Archives> October 2003

Islands at Death’s Door

By Jeremy D'Entremont

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Pilot Island Lighthouse in better days. Courtesy ...

The narrow rockbound strait between a cluster of islands and the peninsula that today comprises Wisconsin’s Door County was named “Porte des Morts” — Death’s Door — by early French settlers. The chief passage between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, windy Death’s Door has spelled doom for many vessels though the centuries. Today the buildings on Plum and Pilot islands, symbols of the area’s long maritime legacy, are endangered by neglect and layers of governmental red tape.

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The Old Coast Guard Station on Plum Island is ...
Photo by: Tim Sweet

The first attempt to provide a major navigational aid in the vicinity was the establishment of a lighthouse on 296-acre Plum Island in 1848. From the time it was built, mariners complained that it was too far west to be of any real use. It was replaced in 1858 by a new lighthouse on nearby four-acre Pilot Island, an integral tower on the roof of a two-story keeper’s dwelling.

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This early photo of the Plum Island Rear Range ...

Late in the 19th century it was decided that range lights on the southwest side of Plum Island would be a boon to the increased shipping in the area. In 1897 a small wooden front range tower and a 65-foot rear range tower, more than 1,600 feet from the front light, were erected. A U.S. Lifesaving Station was also established around the same time. The front range light was replaced by a steel skeletal tower in 1964, but the original white, iron skeletal rear range lighthouse tower still stands.

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Hans Jacob Hanson, keeper of the Plum Island ...

After many decades of resident Lighthouse Service and then Coast Guard keepers, the Plum Island Range Lights were automated in 1969. The crew of the Coast Guard station was moved to the mainland in 1991, leaving all the island’s buildings at the mercy of the elements, wildlife and vandals. They have not fared well. In fact, three years ago the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation named the Plum Island Light Station one of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties.

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Harriet Hanson, daughter of Keeper Hans Jacob ...

Meanwhile, Pilot Island Lighthouse was automated in 1962 and the keepers were removed. The lighthouse was maintained for a while, but now the island has become an overgrown nesting site for seabirds. “The buildings there are all but lost,” says lighthouse preservationist Tim Sweet. “The island has been taken over by cormorants.”

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The old boathouse on Plum Island.
Photo by: Tim Sweet

The Coast Guard put a new roof on the Plum Island keeper’s house a couple of years ago, but some of the floors in the building have fallen through. The house and all the other structures are deteriorating fast. “If we don’t do something soon to protect them, my grandkids’ kids may not see them,” Jerry Waite, a volunteer with Door County Maritime Museum and Lighthouse Preservation Society, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

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Plum Island Rear Range Light today.
Photo by: Tim Sweet

Plum and Pilot islands are two of four Wisconsin properties turned over in recent years by the Coast Guard to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM is working to find new qualified owners for the properties. The Coast Guard and BLM require the new stewards to maintain the buildings.

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The boarded-up keeper’s house from the top of the ...
Photo by: Tim Sweet

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has recommended no public access at Pilot Island because of the nesting seabirds, and the situation for the lighthouse buildings looks grim. Brian Kelsey, executive director of the Door County Maritime Museum and Lighthouse Preservation Society, sailed around the area as a kid and has a special attraction to Pilot Island, which he calls “an amazing place.” The museum wants to stabilize the structure even if there’s no public access. “There’s nothing we can do except to keep the buildings from crumbling,” says Kelsey.

One of the buildings has already done just that — the roof of the 1904 fog signal station has fallen in and the building is apparently beyond repair. Kelsey says the museum would like to use the Cream City brick (named for Milwaukee, the “Cream City”) from the ruins to help repair other structures on Plum Island or Cana Island. The museum has been maintaining the lighthouse station at Cana Island and providing public access for over 30 years.

There’s good news and bad news, or at least frustrating news, regarding the future of Plum and Pilot islands. The good news is that a plan is being worked out between USFWS and the Door County Maritime Museum (DCMM) to renovate the buildings on Plum Island and Pilot Island.

USFWS has been pursuing ownership of Plum Island since 1988. They’d like to turn the island into a wildlife refuge, protecting nesting bald eagles and various migratory birds, while working with the DCMM to restore the buildings. Officials of the DCMM envision regular boat trips to Plum Island, with exhibits in the old Coast Guard station. USFWS could also install exhibits on wildlife and ecology. The rear range lighthouse would be opened to visitors and trails would be established on the island, including one to the ruins of the original 1848 lighthouse. Kelsey says that initially the keeper’s house would be stabilized. “In the distant future we would like to be able to have the funds and support to completely redo the keepers house,” he adds.

The bad news is that before Plum Island and Pilot Island can be transferred to USFWS, the Coast Guard must clean contaminated soil on both sites. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must then inspect the sites to assure BLM that the contamination has been removed.

On Plum Island, there’s lead paint soil contamination around all the buildings, lead contaminants at an old firing range, and PCBs from lubricating fluids used for a 1940s transmitter. And there’s fuel contamination at the light station where a diesel tank burst in 1963. David Robb, who was on the island as a young Coast Guardsman in 1964, says that he and the others at the station drank water from Lake Michigan instead of the well water that smelled and tasted like diesel fuel.

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral James D. Hull, commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District, said in spring 2002 that the cleanup would take place last year, but no progress was made. Tim Sweet, a lighthouse preservationist who has been deeply involved with the renovation of Rock Island (Pottawatomie) Lighthouse, says that the contamination issue on Plum Island goes back 40 years. “If that happened in my back yard, I would not be given 40 years to clean it up,” says Sweet.

Chief Warrant Officer Jim McInnis of Coast Guard Group Milwaukee explains that isolated, inactive sites like Plum Island and Pilot Island just haven’t been a priority. “It’s less urgent than some other projects,” he says. “For example, we had a search and rescue station that had a leak in the sewer line.”

Contractors hired by the Coast Guard recently analyzed the extent of the contamination on Plum Island. McInnis says that personnel from the Coast Guard’s Civil Engineering Unit in Cleveland will be meeting with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources this fall to develop a plan of action and a budget for the cleanup. Wisconsin Congressman Mark Green has said that if the issue is still in limbo next year, he “will consider making a special request to fund the Plum Island cleanup.” It’s hoped that the project can be fit into the budget so the cleanups of the islands can happen in 2004. But the actual transfer of the islands probably won’t happen before 2005 or 2006.

In the meantime the buildings on Plum Island and Pilot Island continue to fall into ruin, ultimately raising the costs of future renovation already estimated as high as $2 million. “Not many people seem to have a great sense of urgency regarding the preservation of these historic maritime treasures,” mourns Tim Sweet. “It’s been a bit frustrating,” adds Brian Kelsey, echoing the feelings of all involved. CWO Jim McInnis says that public pressure could speed up the process. “Anytime the public, who we work for, expresses pleasure or displeasure at what we’re doing — we notice that,” he says.

This story appeared in the October 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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