If the United States Coast Guard gets its way, the historic lighthouse keeper’s house at Wisconsin’s Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse could soon meet the fate of the wrecker’s ball and be totally demolished, thereby altering the historical integrity of this historic light station forever.
In its request for public comment, the Coast Guard stated that the 1886 keeper’s house has undergone numerous interior and exterior renovations over the years and at one time it was converted to a carpentry shop and then back to housing for Coast Guard personnel. The Coast Guard now claims that that the building is substandard and unlivable because it is no longer structurally sound and it is a potential health hazard because it has asbestos in the plaster and there was a prior use of lead-based paint.
As any person who has been reading Lighthouse Digest for the past 24 years, or has been involved in any light station restoration project, all of these problems can be remedied and have been resolved countless times at numerous light stations across the nation, as well as at many other historic properties. Additionally, asbestos can be removed, and lead paint can be removed or abated.
After the Congress of the United States approved and appropriated the funds for the keeper’s house in 1886 a contract was signed with Francis Carpel of Lakeside, Ohio to build the house and Leathem and Smith of Sturgeon Bay supplied the lumber. However, it was soon realized that additional room was needed for additional keepers to help staff the light, so the house was doubled in size to fourteen rooms that provided two compete sets of living quarters for the keepers families and an additional room for a another assistant.
The Coast Guard also said in their press release “that the proposed demolition will not adversely affect the nearby historic structure, the Sturgeon Bay Canal Lighthouse.” While it may not directly affect the actual light tower itself, what they, the Coast Guard, failed to tell the public is that the demolition will indeed affect the historical integrity of the entire Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light Station. All anyone needs to do is to look at the photos of the light station that accompanies this story to see and understand this.
In our correspondence to Wayne E. Kean II, Environmental Engineer at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Civil Engineering Unit in Cleveland, Ohio, we reminded him and the Coast Guard that the people of the United States entrusted this historic property to them in 1939, and it is now, and always has been, their responsibility to properly maintain and care for it, which obviously they have not done correctly. In one reply we were told by Mr. Kean, “To render the building safe for habitability would be an enormous undertaking requiring a large amount of resources that are better placed in protecting the public through the performance of Coast Guard missions.” In another response Mr. Kean reminded us again of the Coast Guard’s mission and what resources the Coast Guard has are “better suited for search and rescue, marine environmental protection, drug interdiction, marine safety and law enforcement.”
Naturally, we agree that all of those missions are important and vital, but so is historic preservation. And in the case of Sturgeon Point Ship Canal Lighthouse, which is on an active Coast Guard Station, they probably don’t want to turn the house over to a nonprofit and have all kinds of citizen volunteers on an active Coast Guard station working on the restoration and doing fund-raising events there to raise the money to save it. That’s why it is the Coast Guard’s responsibility to save and restore the historic keeper’s house.
Interestingly, another building next to the keeper’s house, which the Coast Guard currently has its offices and a radio command center, was built in 1886 by the U.S. Life Saving Service. Since this building was built during the same time period, it also must have, or once had, asbestos and lead paint. There seems to be a double standard by the Coast Guard in the way it manages the care of some buildings over others.
The entire station, meaning nearly each and every building, at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse is very historic - as well as picturesque. It has a rich history that extensively includes both the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service that also once operated an active station at the site.
Plus, this is one of a number of light stations where there is not one, but two historic lighthouses, the other being the 1903 Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead Lighthouse, which the Coast Guard already divested from their rolls when it was sold at a GSA auction in 2014 for a paltry $48,500. Perhaps, because the keeper’s house was also an integral part of the history of the entire light station, the owners of the pierhead light could be convinced to take over the keeper’s house and restore it, or work in some kind of partnership with the Coast Guard to maintain and save the keeper’s house.
Also in response to our letter of objection to the proposed demolition, Mr. Kean of the Coast Guard wrote, “there exists a few maritime museums in Sturgeon Bay and Door County that help us to tell our story and the maritime story of Sturgeon Bay.” That may be true, but once the historic keeper’s house is destroyed, not only will the historical integrity of the light station be destroyed forever, it will also significantly alter the appearance of the station, something that the original builders took into great consideration when they planned the location and design of the keeper’s house. Do we really want future generations to see only a sign at the site with a picture of the light keeper’s house that once stood there? Haven’t we lost enough structures at lighthouses around the county? Isn’t it time to change the attitude of being a throw-away society?
Of the many possible ideas for the use of a restored keeper’s house, one suggestion could be a museum that would honor the history of the men and women who once lived at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse Station: people who dedicated their lives for the benefit of others, a place that would be viewed and visited by many generations into the future, thereby making it a great educational tool. Or, it could simply be restored for Coast Guard housing.
We don’t know what the final outcome will be, but if the keeper’s house at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse is allowed to be destroyed, it will be a major travesty to the maritime integrity of not just the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse Station, but to maritime history of the Great Lakes and our entire nation.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2016 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2023 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.