Two years ago Tony Hodges, his son Benjamin and daughter Jessica were guided to the north end of Rock
Island State Park by a park ranger, to view the lanternless stone lighthouse. She told them about the Friends of Rock Island (FORI) and Tim Sweet, leader of the organization and their dreams of restoring the old light to its former glory.
Once contact was established, Tony's marine contracting company, Poverty Island, was placed under contract to first design and then later to rebuild the missing lantern room which had been removed by the Coast Guard sometime after the last keepers served there in 1946 and the subsequent automation of the light.
Within months, Poverty Island prepared plans and estimated costs for the restoration and presented them to the FORI. Members enthusiastically accepted the plans and made the lantern room the first step along a five year schedule to restore the historic structure.
The original Pottawatomie Light was erected in 1836. It was the first U.S. Government light erected in Wisconsin waters and the third on Lake Michigan. It consisted of a round, somewhat conical tower with a separate one-story keeper's quarters. Only twenty-two years had passed when it became necessary to replace the poorly constructed buildings. The present structure, completed in 1858, consisted of quarters for keeper and assistant keeper with the tower for the lantern room an integral part of the building. The light was manned until being automated in 1947. In the 1980's the Coast Guard constructed a steel tower a short distance to the west for the light, which is now powered by batteries charged by a solar panel.
Poverty Island was determined to make the new addition as accurate as possible. The only clues to its dimensions and appearance were a few old photographs and six pieces of cast iron which had formed the upper and lower window sills of the nine-sided structure. Tony decided to visit two other nine-sided lanterns, (Cat's Head Point and Raspberry Island) that were built at the same time and learned that both differed in construction details even though the cast iron parts were identical.
Meanwhile FORI members, spearheaded by their leader, Tim Sweet, began fund raising efforts. Tim was able to obtain a matching grant from the Knowles/Nelson Stewardship Program and the initial goal of the estimated $13,700 needed for phase-one was soon met. Donations large and small combined with sales of tee shirts, pewter pins, embroidered caps, and guidebooks are helping to obtain funds for the next phases, which include replastering portions of the interior walls, repainting, and refurnishing the now empty rooms with furnishings appropriate to their former appearance and restoration of the out buildings.
When the various components had been manufactured in Tony's Poverty Island workshop, the entire structure (approximately 8' x 8' and about 2500 lbs.) was assembled to insure there would be no surprises at the lighthouse site. It was then disassembled for transportation.
On Saturday, June 12, 1999 all the parts were brought to Rock Island. Assembled by the able-bodied crew of Poverty Island, the structure quickly took shape and in nine days the old lighthouse sported a shiny new copper-clad lantern room. Friends of Rock Island have seen the first part of their dreams become a reality.
Rock Island is owned and operated as a State Park under control of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It can be reached via two ferry trips. The first leg is on one of the ferries operated by the Washington Island Ferry Line. (Call 1-300-223-2094 for information). After crossing Washington Island (a 10 mile journey across the pleasant rural landscape), the Karfi, a small passenger ferry, will take you to the State Park dock which is an approximately one mile walk uphill to the Pottawatomie Light. Campsites are available on Rock Island but reservations are highly recommended. Call toll free 1-888-WIPARKS (or 1-888-947-2757) for reservations.
This story appeared in the
October 1999 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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