Should It Stay, Or Go?

Scott and I recently spent nine wonderful days as live-in docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. It sits on a cliff within Rock Island State Park, off the tip of Door County, Wisconsin. It was our second stint, and we hope to go back. We love the whole experience.

Me and Scott at Pottawatomie, 2009

Pottawatomie is the oldest light station in Wisconsin. It was established in 1836, twelve years before Wisconsin became a state. The first keeper lived in a tiny stone cottage, and tended a separate light tower. In Pottawatomie’s earliest days the light was fueled with whale oil.

In 1858, the lighthouse service built a new tower and attached duplex, designed to house a keeper and assistant keeper and their families. When whale oil became too expensive, the keepers used lard to light the lamp. Pig fat was cheaply available from the Chicago stockyards. It was also a difficult fuel to use. Pots were likely kept simmering on the stove, and several times during cold nights keepers would haul hot lard up to the lantern room. Every morning a sheen of fat had to be cleaned from the glass Fresnel lens.

The 1858 lighthouse (the back addition, a summer kitchen, was added later).

The lighthouse has been beautifully restored to represent it’s 1910 appearance by the Friends of Rock Island, a support group which works with the Department of Natural Resources to preserve, maintain, and interpret the site.

By 1910, the light was fueled by kerosene. For a time huge quantities were kept in the lighthouse cellar. The keepers finally were successful in their request for a separate oil house, but all that oil still had to be hauled up steps from the beach below, or up from a landing over a mile away.

Keepers lived in the lighthouse until it was automated in 1946. Forty years later, the Coast Guard planted a metal tower beside the lighthouse, with a solar-powered light on top.

Last year, a visiting Guard member told us that maintaining the light took about four hours a year. He also told us that when these automated lights die, they won’t be replaced; ship captains will rely solely on GPS and computerized navigation. During our 9-day visit this year, in fact, the modern light was not functioning. Perhaps we’ve already seen the end of the era of warning lights on Rock Island.

View from the parlor window. The modern tower sits in close proximity to the 1858 lighthouse.

By almost any standard, the metal tower is an eyesore. It certainly detracts from the lovely restoration work done on the 1858 building with such great care and expense.  The Friends of Rock Island have worked hard to create an impression of 1910 both inside and outside of the lighthouse.  Most people who love Pottawatomie Lighthouse can’t wait for the day the tower is formally decommissioned and removed.

But while on Rock Island this year, I heard an alternative perspective proposed.

Now, visitors to the station can stand in one spot and see the foundation lines of the 1836 stone cottage, the 1858 lighthouse, and the 1986 tower. The entire history of Rock Island’s guiding lights can be taken in at a glance.

Here's the 1836 foundation line, with modern tower in background. The lighthouse is just out of view on right.

All that remains of that first station is the tiny stone privy. Today it is celebrated as the oldest building in Door County.

The first keeper's stone cottage was so poorly made that it soon needed to be replaced. This outhouse is all that remains.

So…should that metal tower and solar-powered light be part of the interpretive story? A century from now, will interpreters wish it had been saved?

When any restoration project is undertaken, philosophical choices have to be made. There is no right or wrong answer.

Me, I want to see the tower removed. I want to be able to stand in that peaceful clearing, and contemplate the families who lived in the lighthouse, without any modern intrusion.  Docents can use photographs of the tower to discuss change over time.

But I also acknowledge that the tower is part of the continuum, and part of Pottawatomie’s story.

The end of an era.

What do you think? Should the metal tower stay, or should it go?

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14 Responses to “Should It Stay, Or Go?”

  1. Meg Justus Says:

    I’m inclined to say it should stay, just because of those folks 100 years from now who would want to see more than a picture. But there’s also the problem of maintenance and rust and no one really caring about the tower until it’s really old [g]. I suspect it would wind up even more of an eyesore than it is now.

    An interesting question. And lucky you for getting to stay at a lighthouse. I’ve always wanted to do that, but it’s not in the picture yet.

    BTW, when I click on the box to be notified of follow-up comments, the procedure, which involves replying to an email and then having to go back and turn the whole thing off again, is off-putting. Most blogs just send the comments without having to go through a rigmarole. Is there any way to make yours do that, too? (I have not clicked on the box for this comment, so you’d have to email me to respond).

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    I think you’ve hit on the problem… it would go through a period of *really* being an eyesore before it becomes old and rare enough to be valued again. Hard to find storage for a tower.

    As for the notification issue, hmmn. I don’t know, but I’ll try to figure it out.

  3. Alice Trego Says:

    This is a really good question, Kathleen. As you say, there are many philosophical choices to be made and I hope the choice will be a good one for us, and for future generations, too.

    However, I’d like to pose a question of my own: during our recent vacation, we traveled to many museums and historical sites, one of which was Fort Larned in Kansas. We learned that the fort is one of a few ‘original’ forts left in the United States, all the buildings except one are the original stone.

    There are no signs of any modern technology on the fort’s site. So why not let your beloved light station be seen in its original glory as much as possible, with subtle technology built in?

    As you’ve also indicated, there is no correct answer to your question posed here. But I like to think that we, a people who want to preserve our past, should adhere to that mantra as much as we can so we can let future generations have the same experience we have when admiring historic sites.

    Hope I made sense 🙂 Great question to ponder, though.


  4. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    It’s quite powerful to stand in one spot and contemplate the entire history of the light station. And yet… as my husband would say, “I feel strongly both ways.”

    There are two spots inside the restored lighthouse that offer visitors the chance to stray from 1910–the entryway (formerly summerkitchen), where docents provide orientation (complete with photos from various eras), and a “museum room” on the second story. Exhibits there help visitors understand the restoration process.

    Perhaps one day that “subtle technology” will emerge, as you suggest. The Friends of Rock Island do a superb job, and have an impressive track record of raising funds!

    And PS – thanks for the tour tip – I’ve never been to Fort Larned!

  5. leescott58 Says:

    I too have mixed feelings. A big rusting tower that no longer does its original duty — it should go. But in the long run, and for future historians and archaeologists, it will be seen as part of the lighthouse’s history. It’s ugly and out of place in the midst of stone structures and lovely lilacs, but I guess two questions should be asked (these are, I believe, two of the criteria for putting places on the National Register of Historic Places): First, is it intact and in its original condition? And second, is it in any way unique, or are there many others just like it with other lighthouses? If it is intact and unique, then maybe, just maybe, it should stay; if not, let it go the way ugly metal structures should go. Tear the ugly thing down. You’re lucky that there’s as much of the original REST of the lighthouse as there is. I live across the Missouri from Ft. Abraham Lincoln, home to the 7th Cavalry before they left for the Little Big Horn and history. Although new troops occupied it after that, it was abandoned in the 1880s, because its purpose (to protect people building the railroad westward) had been complete, and most of the original inhabitants of the area were confined in reservations. Because this is a prairie, and all the lumber and planks that built the barracks, stables, commissary, and officers quarters had been brought in by train, as soon as the military left, the homesteaders and Bismarck/Mandan residents took all the lumber, and much of the stone, for their own building needs. All that was left were a few foundation stones. As a state park, it’s been mostly rebuilt based on photos from the period when it was occupied; the commandant’s quarters — aka The Custer House — was rebuilt using the plans that the Custers used after a fire destroyed the first house in 1874. And much of the original furniture, along with decorative items and photos, was donated by Libbie Custer’s heirs/descendants, including some of her clothing. The rest are period pieces gleaned from antique stores or donated by those who love history. A far cry from Fort Larned! Thanks for an interesting story — it must have been wonderful to live in the lighthouse for those 9 days!
    Lori Orser

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks, Lori. At the moment, there are many such towers–nothing special about it! But that is part of what makes it a tricky decision. It’s not rare, so I don’t think many would see any particular need to save this particular tower.

      There’s a part of me who wants to save *everything*! I’ve known the frustration of trying to find an original something, for research purposes, for for my former job, and not being able to find it. But I also realize that we can’t save everything. In this case, the Friends’ and DNR’s limited resources are being more focused on the primary task at hand, which is the 1858 stucture.

      As for Fort Abraham Lincoln, what a loss! Of course it’s understandable that in the 1880s, local people would be need to make use of the resources. But that story is so iconic–it would be powerful to stand in the original buildings, and contemplate the lives of Custer and his men before they headed out. I’m glad the site itself has been preserved, though. One more place on my to-visit list!

  6. Arletta Dawdy Says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    This is a lovely, thoughtful piece. I may put the question to my archaeologist daughter when she visits next week. When is a recent construction importat to preserve…or not? My impression is that the tower adds little to our understanding of the need, use and evolution of lighthouses. Rust and deterioration are not likely to add to the beauty of the place as the 1858 structure and relatively rare Fresnel lens do.

    Your husband certainly looks the role of lighthouse tender or ship’s captain! And where is your period costume? Iknow you have one!

  7. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Hello Arletta! Perhaps just the actual solar lamp and panel should be saved for future discussion. Nice for comparison.

    As for the period costume, you’re right! Maybe I’ll get my act together by next year…

  8. Eunice Boeve Says:

    Enjoyed the photos andyour story of the lighthouse. Interesting comments on whether to save or not to save and I think all bases were covered, so have nothing new to add. However, I might, if I had ever visited the lighthouse and seen it through my own eyes.

  9. Arletta Dawdy Says:

    HI Kathleen,
    I put the question to Shannon and got a not very clear answer. As I understood her, preservationists are of two schools: 1. Save everything; and 2. Pick a point in time and preserve all that relates to that period. She also said that the feds(who might be involved in funding this project) consider anything over 50 years old is to be saved.
    Now that we got that clear, I’ll be interested to hear the outcome in the future!

  10. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thanks, Arletta! It will be interesting to see what happens. I’ll keep you posted.

  11. Mary Kultgen Says:

    Thank you for sharing details about the lighthouse. My sister and I will be first time docents next week. We are so excited.

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