Mihm Enterprises of Hamilton, Michigan loaded the Washington Island ferry “Eyrabakki” with construction equipment on April 20, 2021, as a lighthouse restoration project kicked off on Plum Island located in northern Door County, Wisconsin.
The Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands (FOPPI) recently received a $200,000 grant from the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund, a donor advised fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. The project includes a new coat of paint and foundation repairs for the front range light, and the 65-foot-tall rear range light had a makeover of its watch room and lantern, including new paint and tempered glass to replace the cloudy Plexiglas windows.
Company president Frank Mihm first got into the business of lighthouse restoration when preservation architect Ken Czapski, based in Marquette, Michigan, couldn’t find any contractors willing to bid on work planned for the Detour Reef Lighthouse in northern Lake Huron 17 years ago.
“We like to do extreme projects,” Mihm told me as we rode the ferry across Death’s Door. “We lost two boats while working on Detour Reef.”
That first lighthouse adventure must have whetted Frank’s appetite. Since then, Mihm Enterprises has done restoration work on 16 Michigan lighthouses, some of which are in remote and challenging locations.
The work crew plans to be on Plum Island for about 6 weeks. Fixed red lights from the towers have been replaced by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) with temporary portable lights during the undertaking so they can still assist mariners. The USCG plans to install new red and white day boards which also serve as aids to navigation.
Local Washington Islanders Hoyt Purinton and Tom Jordan repaired Plum Island’s ferry landing earlier this spring, making it ready for the trucks and mechanical lifts to be safely offloaded. Robert Cornell of the Washington Island Electric Cooperative energized panels near the range lights and the life-saving station for the contractors to use.
The Inner Sanctum
I never dreamed I would get a chance to ride in a Genie S65 boom lift to the top of a lighthouse providing access to the “Holy of Holies” of historic maritime restoration projects, but I swear on the Bible, it happened to me on May 5th, two weeks after restoration work began.
I was standing at the base of the Plum Island Rear Range Light with fellow FOPPI board member Patti Zarling. We had arrived to prepare a progress report on the lighthouse rehabilitation effort currently underway.
“Good morning! Can we come up?” I shouted to a figure dressed in a fluorescent green jacket near the top of the lighthouse. In a little while, crew foreman Bobby Olivarez with his assistant, Jose, “lowered the boom” and were back on the ground talking to us.
The men are employees of Mihm Enterprises, the company that is doing the work for FOPPI. Over the course of two weeks, they had erected scaffolding around the 65-foot-tall lighthouse starting with a crew of six men that was now down to just the two of them. A wooden platform was constructed underneath the bottom of the watch room deck. The upper portion of the lighthouse was covered in a containment tent designed to capture particulate and old paint when sandblasting begins.
Bobby asked us, “Would you like to see for yourselves what we’re doing up there? We can give you a ride in the basket, or you can go up the steps.”
We opted to climb the spiral staircase first. All of the old plexiglass windows and their corresponding metal frames in the lantern room had been numbered and removed. These panels would be taken to a window manufacturer in Michigan, where new tempered glass will be custom made using the old ones as guides. The permanent red LED light was removed by the Coast Guard and put in storage until the new paint job is finished.
After descending the stairs and walking out of the rear range light, Bobby again offered us a ride in the basket of the Genie S65. Patti bravely agreed to go first. She put on a safety harness that was clipped to the mechanical lift’s railing. Soon they were elevating overhead.
Ten minutes later, it was my turn. Bobby explained the operation of the boom lift to me so I’d know what to expect. We arrived at a tiny opening in the containment tent about 50 feet above the ground. There we crawled through a small opening that led to a wooden platform the brave workers had fearlessly assembled. I felt like I had entered the “inner sanctum.” What a thrill it was to get an insider’s view of how this historic structure was being revitalized.
Soon the veil (tent) will be torn away, and the light will shine brighter than ever over the waters of the Death’s Door Passage! I can’t wait for the reveal to happen.
Restoration work on the range lights was expected to be finished by the end of June. FOPPI is partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service which manages the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Plum Island is open to the public during daylight hours from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
Learn more about FOPPI at
plumandpilot.org, and about the islands that make up the
Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge at fws.gov/refuge/green_bay
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2021 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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