Posts Tagged ‘Pottawatomie Lighthouse’

Researching The Light Keeper’s Legacy

March 13, 2018

 

Color photo by Kay Klubertanz of author Kathleen Ernst and "Mr. Ernst" serving as docents at the 1858 Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, Wisconsin.

 

Photo of the front cover of The Light Keeper's Legacy, the 3rd Chloe Ellefson mystery by Kathleen Ernst, Published by Midnight Ink Books.

This article explores examples of how technical research and photographic documentation were used to help Kathleen write the award-winning third book in her Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

The Light Keeper’s Legacy (TLL) takes place in two time periods:  A modern one in September 1982 featuring Chloe and police officer Roelke McKenna; and an historical thread stretching from 1869 to 1906.

Kathleen first included an historical timeline in the previous book, The Heirloom Murders. Based on reader feedback, she crafted a more extensive one for TLL. It tightly braids together the two storylines, their characters, histories, and mysteries.

This set the standard for most of Kathleen’s follow-on Chloe books.

 

Black & white historic photo of a log cabin on Rock Island, Wisconsin.

 

Kathleen does the vast majority of research for each mystery, and TLL is no exception. She spends a lot of time doing this, and is very good at it. But only a small part of what’s uncovered ends up influencing or appearing in her books. Those choices are one of the reasons Kathleen’s stories have a descriptive richness, enabling readers to immerse themselves in her books.

Chapter 42

Most of The Light Keeper’s Legacy is set on Washington and Rock Islands, just off the tip of Door County, Wisconsin, in Lake Michigan. There are no bridges to either island; access is by public ferry boats and private watercraft — and in the case of Washington, by small aircraft. This remoteness plays a key role in the book.

Chapter 42 includes a number of exciting scenes. Below are brief excerpts from two, followed by examples of the research Kathleen used to craft them.

As the chapter begins, Roelke is trying to land a small plane on a grass runway at the airfield on Washington Island.

 

Google satellite map of Washington Island, WI.

Imagery Copyright 2018 Google, NOAA, Terrametrics.

 

Since I hold a private pilot’s license, Kathleen asked me to pull together the technical details she’d need. The following is from the book.

 

[Roelke] made two left turns, which brought him in line with the runway.  Airspeed and descent looked good. “Washington Island traffic, Seven-Seven-Echo on final for Two Two.”  There were trees near the approach end of the grass strip, so he set the flaps full down.

He was clearing the woods when the deer bounded from cover. Three of them, all does, running straight toward Two Two.

Dammit. Roelke pulled back on the yoke and shoved the throttle forward, trying to get the Cessna to climb. Instead of ramping up the engine hesitated.

What the hell was wrong? A few eternal seconds later, the engine recovered with a roar, but airspeed was still dropping. The stall warning began to wail.

I’m screwed, Roelke thought. He was seconds away from a crash.

 

Below is the cover page of the six-page research paper I prepared.

 

Scan of the first page of the research report about Roelke's Flight to Washington Island, created for The Light Keeper's Legacy Chloe Ellefson mystery by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst.

Copyright 2011 Kathleen Ernst, LLC

 

Feel free to review the research; you can download a PDF copy by clicking HERE.

The second scene from Chapter 42 involves two unknown assailants who trap Chloe alone in the lighthouse, pursuing her to the very top of the four story building.

 

Google Satellite map of Rock Island, WI.

Copyright 2018 Google, NOAA, Terrametrics.

 

As Kathleen scoped out the setting and considered what Chloe would do in this situation, I took photos to serve as reference material for use when she wrote the scene later.

Note from Kathleen:  This was one of those afternoons where I had to be careful to keep my voice down. No need for visitors to hear Mr. Ernst and I discussing the logistics of mayhem.

 

Chloe didn’t waste time on a glance through the hatch. She’d slowed Balaclava Man down. Maybe even disabled him. Guy Two could be after her any moment though. The instinct to run-run-run buzzed through her brain.

She couldn’t go down. She couldn’t go up. Only option: going out.

Chloe dropped to her knees beside a low wooden door, wrenched it open, and scrambled onto the narrow walkway outside the lantern room. “Oh God,” she whimpered, clutching the paint-sticky railing, fighting a wave of vertigo. The trees and picnic table and outhouse below looked dollhouse-sized.

The roof’s peak stretched south from the lantern room. The roof itself fell steeply on either side. Chloe’s stomach twisted again as she imagined trying to creep down to the gutters without falling.

Wait. A heavy cord of braided copper ran from the lightning rod on top of the tower down the west side of the roof before disappearing over the edge of the gutters.

Chloe bit her lip hard. Would the cable support her weight? And even if she did make the gutters without somersaulting into thin air, what then?

 

Below are some of the photos, with descriptions linking them to the passage above.

 

Pair of color photos of the stairs leading up to the floor hatch in the lightroom at the top of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, Wisconsin.

Left: Chloe’s view as she races up the stairs into the lantern room. Right: Her view from the lantern room looking down through the hatch to where her pursuers will emerge.

 

Photo taken in lantern room of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, WI.

Chloe’s view of the low wooden door to the narrow walkway outside the lantern room. Visible to the right is part of the Frenel lens that surrounds, magnifies, and directs the lamp light at night.

 

Photo taken from the Pottawatomie Lighthouse lantern room looking south.

This reveals the steep fall of the lighthouse roof, and why Chloe’s view of the picnic table and outhouse made them look dollhouse-sized. On the right side of the photo is the heavy cord of braided copper that runs down from the lightning rod to the roof and over the gutters.

 

Photo of the west side of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse showing the braided copper wire.

Here’s a ground-level view from the west of the braided copper cord running from the lightning rod (just visible atop the lantern room) down across the roof and over the gutters to the ground.

 

Now that you’ve had a chance to compare excerpts with some of the research used to write them, we’d love to hear what you think. Please leave us a comment below.

But Wait, There’s More

Hopefully this article has piqued your interest in discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ in the The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

There’s a whole page full of information about it on Kathleen’s website, including a discussion guide for the book, a custom Google map and a locations guide about where key scenes are set, a recipe mentioned in the book, a slide show of objects featured in the story, public radio interviews with Kathleen about the book, additional blog posts, links to booksellers that carry TLL — and more. To explore them, click HERE.

Next month I’ll post an article on this blog about interesting things that turned up whle researching Heritage Of Darkness, the fourth book in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

Washington Island Cook Book

June 8, 2015

I was thrilled to receive a copy of this community cookbook from a thoughtful reader. It’s a first edition, copyright 1947, compiled by the Trinity Lutheran Ladies’ Aid.

Washington Island Cook Book

“At long last your requests for favorite recipes of discriminating hostesses have been compiled in a ‘Washington Island Cook Book.’ The Island has been known for its outstanding homemakers, who specially (sic) delight in serving coffee to all who cross their thresholds.” (From the Preface)

Several scenes from The Light Keeper’s Legacy are set on Washington Island, and the rest are set on Rock Island—visible in the upper right corner of the map on the cover. Both are off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula.

Light Keeper's Legacy by Kathleen Ernst

My husband and I have served as volunteer docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, in Rock Island State Park, for the past seven summers.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse

The lighthouse has been restored to its 1910 appearance, when Charles and Mollie Boshka lived there with their two children.

Charles and Mollie Boshka

This cookbook is a treasure for several reasons. First, it includes a number of recipes submitted by Mollie Boshka. Each one is a  tangible link back to that lovely woman in the photo.

Ice Box Rolls

MB's Sour Cream Cookies

MB's Corned Beef

It also reflects the families who settled on Washington Island in the mid-late 1800s and early 1900s.  Many of the women’s surnames are still common on the island today. Many of the recipes reflect Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic heritage.

Swedish Tea Ring

Icelandic Pancakes

Toward the end of The Light Keeper’s Legacy, a Washington Island friend makes Icelandic Pancakes for Chloe.

The recipes also capture an era when old traditions were blending with new.  The cookbook includes recipes for things like head cheese and vinerbrod (Danish pastry), and many include little or no instruction. The assumption was that anyone using the cookbook would just know how to put the ingredients together, or how hot the oven should be.

But the book also includes recipes for dishes like Texas Hash (which calls for 3 Tbsp. of something called “Spry”), Spanish Noodles, and several versions of Chop Suey.

Chop Suey Cake

In addition to several main dish recipes for Chop Suey, this one caught my eye. I have no idea how it got the name.

Finally, the book tells a story about the woman who once owned it.  I’ll never know her name, but I’ve got glimpses of her. She received the book from for Christmas in 1848; the inscription is Norwegian.

Washington Island  Cook Book inscription

And she used the book a lot.  Pages are dog-eared and sometimes stained, and she added notes by some of the recipes. It’s fun to imagine her flipping pages, deciding what to prepare for family or friends.

Pineapple Salad Cream Ring

This one made me smile because I grew up eating similar Jello salads.

I’m so grateful that this particular cookbook got saved, and passed from hand to hand…and ended up in my kitchen.

* * *

To read more about the Boshkas, see Making Jam for Mollie.  To learn more about Pottawatomie Lighthouse or Rock Island history, follow The Light Keeper’s Legacy link on the right side of this page.

The Empty Meadow

September 3, 2013

I had intended to write a novel “just” about Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park. Why look any farther? Pottawatomie has it all:  a fascinating human history, a stunning location, an impressive and beautifully restored structure. My husband Scott and I have done stints as live-in docents for the past five years, so we know it well.

pottawatomie lighthouse

I write the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series. Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin, the large outdoor ethnic museum in Waukesha County where I once served as curator. A series about historic places, the magnificent lighthouse…it was inevitable. Clearly Chloe needed to spend time at Pottawatomie.

So I began planning the mystery novel that would become The Light Keeper’s Legacy. The basic premise:  Chloe travels to Rock Island as a guest curator, charged with developing a furnishings plan during the restoration process. Her peaceful island idyll gets off to a rough start when she discovers a body on the beach.

I wrote the first few chapters. Then something unexpected happened. During a non-docent visit to Rock Island, Scott and I explored the southern end of the island—something we’d never done.

While doing so we visited the site of a former fishing village.

meadow

At one time, perhaps three hundred people lived there.  This interpretive sign suggests what some of the buildings might have looked like.

Fishing village sign

Illustration Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources; artwork by Benjamin Tollefson.

The village didn’t last for long. As men had to go farther from shore to fish, they needed bigger boats and deeper harbors.

Chester Thordarson, the wealthy inventor who purchased most of Rock Island in 1910, restored a couple of the small cottages and cabins still standing at the village site, intending to use them as guest accommodations.

Thordarson-oldest log home in Wis

Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

Rock Island oldest log002 - Version 2

Note the same cabin, barely visible on the north side of the cove. Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

The same spot today.

The same spot today.

Now, nothing physical remains.  A few shallow depressions—suggesting long-gone foundations—are all that can be seen of the fishing village.

DSCF5063

Yet something does remain, something intangible but compelling. As I walked through the peaceful meadow, I imagined the bustling activity it once held.

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I could almost see the little cabins, almost hear the thuds of a cooper’s mallet and the sweet tones of a Danish lullaby. I could almost smell the smoke of wood fires, the tang of new-caught fish, the wet green scent of drying nets.

Danish wife

As I wandered around the shallow harbor it was easy to imagine English and Irish and Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen hauling their boats onto the cobbled beach.

Danish fishermen

And, as sometimes happens when I’m writing, my vision for the book changed. I created an historical plotline featuring a family of Danish immigrants who settled on the fishing village in 1869. Ragna Anderson, a fictional woman from the Hedebo region of Denmark, became a major character.

Danish women

Ragna’s story is woven with Chloe’s more modern experiences. The two are linked by the lighthouse, and by one of the real families who lived and worked at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Emily Betts appears in Chloe’s research, and as a character in the historical plotline. My novel is much richer because of the inspiration I found in that “empty” meadow.

On Rock Island, it is very easy to focus only on the magnificent lighthouse, and the equally magnificent Viking Hall and Boathouse built by Chester Thordarson.

boathouse, Rock Island

But those structures present an incomplete picture. Many people came and went from Rock Island without leaving any still-lingering physical evidence behind—European and Yankee fishermen, Pottawatomie and Menomonee and Huron travelers, French traders and explorers.

The same thing is true, of course, throughout Door County—and elsewhere. Next time you travel your favorite back roads, use your imagination and a guidebook or two to explore the landscape. Imagine who might have once peopled the peaceful forest; the tranquil field.  You never know what—or who—you might discover.

Making Jam For Mollie

June 17, 2013

My husband Scott and I have served as docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, setting for The Light Keeper’s Legacy (the third Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mystery), for five years now. There are lots of stories to tell. I wove some of my favorites into the book—especially those concerning the Betts family, occupants in the late 1800s.

Visitors touring the lighthouse, however, see the structure as it appeared in about 1910. Charles Boshka was head keeper then.

Charlie Boshka

Charlie Boshka at an earlier posting.

I knew the basic facts of his time there, but until recently, all I knew about his wife Mollie was how lovely she was.

Charles and Mollie Boshka

This was Charlie and Mollie’s wedding photo.

That changed when I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting two of the Boshkas’ descendants. Thanks to the generosity of Connie Sena and Kari Gordon, the handsome couple in the portrait displayed at the lighthouse are a little more real to me now.

DSCF6420

Some sheet music was among the family treasures. Charlie played the violin, and even composed at least a few tunes.

The couple had two children.

scan0003

Charlie and Mollie with their son, Lucien Nels, and daughter, Ella Josephine.

DSCF6417

I adore this photograph! It gives a hint of life beyond the daily requirements for lighthouse families.

I was particularly pleased to get glimpses of Mollie. She grew roses.

DSCF6433

Some of Mollie’s roses still bloom at the couple’s home on Washington Island.

And she was a knitter.

DSCF6437

Mollie’s needles…

DSCF6435

…and a closer view of her handiwork.

I hoped to find a lace pattern similar to these, practice over the winter, and knit during my stay at Pottawatomie this year. Time got away from me, so—maybe next year.

However, Connie shared another treasure with me:  Mollie’s recipe for rhubarb jam.

DSCF6422

DSCF6423

The week Scott and I traditionally stay as docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse comes right at the peak of rhubarb season. Perfect.

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That’s me, harvesting from the lighthouse garden.

Other than rhubarb, I brought the fixings for Mollie’s jam. I made a batch the day we arrived at Pottawatomie, and wrote the recipe out on brown paper.

rhubarb jam

Scott said the simmering jam made the whole house smell wonderful!

An added bonus?  The jam was delicious. I kept one jar for display, and we enjoyed the rest on our morning toast all week.

Mollie Boshka’s Rhubarb Jam
1 qt. rhubarb cut up fine
1 qt. sugar
2 oranges – grind rind and all
Let sit on back of stove until juices form.  Then let it boil good for 20 minutes.

Just before you take it off stove put in 1/4 lb. of walnuts, cut up fine
Also grind half a cup of raisins and put in the mixture.

*Note:  I omitted the sugar and added a splash of maple syrup instead. Also, I didn’t have a grinder, so I minced the oranges, walnuts, and raisins with a sharp knife.  Mollie’s reference to letting the rhubarb sit on the back of the stove harkens back to the days when the back burners of a wood-fired cookstove stayed warm; I stirred the rhubarb, oranges, and sweetener over low heat until it began to simmer.  I did not actually can the jam, but I plan to make another batch and freeze it in small containers.

It made me happy to bring a little something of Mollie back to the lighthouse.  And on chilly evenings, I could almost hear Charlie playing violin in the parlor—just as he did a century ago.

Pottawatomie lighthouse parlor

The Library Box

January 21, 2013

“What did the library box look like?”

DSCF5116

The question came up last week when I visited a book group to discuss the 3rd Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy.  A library box is featured prominently in the story, linking the historical timeline to the modern one.

A reproduction library box also happens to be my favorite object in Pottawatomie Lighthouse. When I give tours as a volunteer docent, I never fail to share it with guests.

DSC_0154

Photo by Kay Klubertanz.

Joseph St. Andre, who once lived at a lighthouse, explained the system in Living at  Lighthouse:  Oral Histories From the Great Lakes. “The Lighthouse Service had lending libraries. …Boats would take the box from one station to another one.  You had no choice of what library you were going to get. …They were good books.”

The lending libraries arrived in sturdy wooden cases, constructed to withstand the strain of transport from one lighthouse to the next.

Library box, Potawattomie Lighthouse, WI

I’ve heard and read about how precious these traveling trunks were. There may not have been a school accessible to the lighthouse children, especially in the 19th century. At Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park, setting for The Light Keeper’s Legacy, two women taught school in the cellar during their time there. They no doubt welcomed each fresh installment of reading materials.

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But the libraries contained more than school books. Lighthouse families were often isolated, with long evenings to fill. The librarians who filled the trunks took care to provide a variety of books for all age readers.

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Light keepers and their families took pride in being well-educated. It’s easy for me to imagine how exciting the arrival of the supply ship was. Forget the lamp oil and dried peas; I’d make straight for the new library.

Mr. St. Andre echoed that sentiment when he was interviewed: “…Every time we’d get a library we’d start reading a book and everybody’d grab a book and sit in the corner and read. But you didn’t want to take somebody’s placemarker out of it, that was criminal.”

DSCF3026

Cast Iron and Memories

September 6, 2012

Pottawatomi Lighthouse, the oldest light station in Wisconsin, sits on top of a bluff on Rock Island, in lake Michigan. Rock Island is now a state park, and it provides the setting for my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

In the mystery, Chloe is hired to write a furnishings plan for the lighthouse.

The lighthouse was occupied until 1946, when the light was automated. Decades passed before an energetic volunteer support group formed to restore the lighthouse. When the Friends of Rock Island (FORI) returned the lighthouse to its 1910 appearance, they had to find period artifacts to furnish the rooms.

My husband and I have had the good fortune to serve as docents, helping visitors imagine life at Pottawatomie.  Here’s Scott talking with guests in the ground floor kitchen.

Although most pieces in the lighthouse came from elsewhere, one major exception can be found in the second floor kitchen. The original cast iron stove had been placed in storage. When the restoration was complete, FORI and park staff hauled the stove out, cleaned it up, and managed to get it back upstairs.

I’d have fond feelings for the stove simply because it is original to the building. But it also helps tell a great story.

And here I am at the old stove in the second story kitchen.

When I give tours, I often ask guests to guess what fuel was used to keep the lamp burning. The two most common answers are whale oil (which was used by the earliest keepers) and kerosene (used in later years). But there was an intermediate fuel, designated by the lighthouse service when whale oil became too expensive. What was combustible, cheap, and readily available in the upper Midwest?

Lard.

The lighthouse was designed to accommodate two families, with a kitchen on each floor. Since the second story kitchen was (obviously) closest to the tower, I imagine that during the lard era keepers constantly kept a kettle of fat simmering on the back of this stove.

Emily Betts, a real woman who lived at Pottawatomie Lighthouse with her family, served as assistant keeper during this time. Decades later, when she was 93, a reporter wrote of asking Emily about her most vivid memories from that era.

“… In cold weather, the oil would thicken and turn white and the light refuse to burn.  Emily and her husband would warm lard oil on the stove, wrap the bowl in hot towels, rush it up the tower stairs, and by keeping up this process the light was persuaded to burn through the long cold nights.”  (Door County Advocate, 12/5/1947)

I simply can’t imagine how she managed. The stairs are very steep. Emily had a large family, and would have been pregnant some of the time. (Her first two children were born at the lighthouse.)

I’ve climbed those stairs in a long skirt. I need one hand to hold the hem high enough that I don’t trip, and the other to clutch the railing.

In time lard gave way to kerosene. When the light was automated, kerosene gave way to electricity. Today a single solar panel on a metal tower powers the light at Pottawatomie station.

But the old iron stove, and Emily Betts’ description in an faded newspaper clipping, remain. They are tangible reminders of the long, cold, dark nights when keepers hurried up the stairs time and again to replenish light and clean congealed grease from the lens…while merchant captains steamed safely through Rock Island passage.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse is open for tours Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend (October 7 in 2012) . Two ferry trips are required, so advance planning is important. A car ferry runs from the peninsula to Washington Island, and a passengers-only ferry runs from Washington Island to Rock Island.  The lighthouse is about a mile from the dock.

For more information:

Rock Island State Park:  http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/rockisland/

For Ferry information:  http://washingtonisland-wi.com/ferry-schedules/

Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop To Drink

June 29, 2012

So said Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his famous ballad, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  I suspect that some of the former light keepers at Pottawatomie Lighthouse (Rock Island, WI) muttered the same phrase.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, built in 1858.

My husband Scott and I have had the privilege of doing docent duty there four times. We are proud members of The Friends of Rock Island (FORI), the volunteer support group which (in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) has done an extraordinary job of preserving, protecting, and interpreting the lighthouse.

The lighthouse has many tales to tell, but one of the stories that I find particularly compelling is the relationship between the people who once tended this lighthouse and water.

Pottawatomie sit on a cliff on Rock Island, in Lake Michigan. In the 1830s, a group of Detroit merchants and shipowners petitioned Congress to establish a light station on the island, in order to guide captains safely through the channel and on into the growing port of Green Bay. The petition was successful, and in 1836, David Corbin took up residence as first keeper.

View from cliff-top.  Beautiful, but a long way down.

It was rugged duty.  There was no easy way down the cliff, so Corbin hauled his water from a more sheltered landing over a mile away. As time permitted, he cleared trees and hacked a lane down to that small bay.  He kept a pony, and likely used it to haul water back to the isolated station.

His stone cottage was so poorly constructed that water condensed on the inner walls. But every gallon needed for cooking, cleaning, watering his garden, tending his pony, and maintaining the light had to be lugged in from the landing or captured from rainfall.

In 1858 a new lighthouse was constructed, designed to house two families. It included a gutter system to capture rainwater from the roof, and store it in cellar cisterns. Residents could pump water into their kitchen—pretty fancy!

Part of the original gutter system.

Rainwater stored in cellar cisterns could be pumped directly into the kitchen.

But by the 1880s, the cisterns failed and were pronounced unrepairable. That period was marked by several seasons of drought. Keepers begged the Lighthouse Service to dig a well. The Service seemed to be unconcerned. Stairs were constructed down the cliff to the beach below.

Some of the original stone steps leading to cliff’s edge.

For decades, families once again hauled every drop of water needed at the station either from the harbor over a mile away, or up 154 steps from the beach below the lighthouse.

And the staircase leading down to the water. (A modern replacement, but you get the idea.)

Old photos show that families kept big gardens. Some raised chickens and cows at the station, and grew hay. They were responsible for keeping the entire station spotless and ready for inspection at any moment. One keeper, William Betts, vented his frustration in the official log:  If the men who pretend to keep up repairs at the light station do not provide for a water supply before long, I shall quit this business. (July 31, 1884)

William’s wife Emily, who served as assistant keeper, appears as a character in my third Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy (coming in October).  I wove in mention of the Betts’ frustration with the water situation. My first obligation is to tell an entertaining mystery that keeps readers turning the pages…but I hope that the book also provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by the Betts family and other long-gone keepers.

Beyond Death’s Door

June 16, 2011

Chloe’s off to the lighthouse!

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, Rock Island State Park, WI

Well, she will be at some point, anyway.  It’s always been my plan to get Chloe Ellefson, curator and protagonist in my adult mystery series, out and about. Yes, she’ll stay rooted at Old World Wisconsin. What fun, though, to have her travel to different places!  It will let me showcase some of my favorite historic sites.

For the past three years, my husband Scott and I have been lucky enough to serve as volunteer live-in docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, on Rock Island, in Lake Michigan.

Ready for guests.

Pottawatomie is the oldest light station in Wisconsin.  The original 1836 stone cottage and tower were replaced in 1858 by a magnificent lighthouse. Rock Island is a state park. A support group, Friends of Rock Island State Park, worked with the DNR to fund and manage the structure’s restoration.  FORI also coordinates the docent program.

It takes two ferries to reach Rock Island, which is off the tip of Door County—the first from the mainland to Washington Island, and a second from Washington to Rock. It’s well worth the trip.

Swans in Jackson Harbor, Washington Island; taken from the second ferry.

The restoration is magnificent, the setting is spectacular, and I love sharing lighthouse stories with visitors. Scott and I give tours from 10-4 each day. After that, things get pretty quiet.

After hours.

History, beautiful scenery, and long evenings…lets just say that for someone with an over-active imagination, like me, it didn’t take long for plot ideas to start swirling in my brain.

A month or so ago I submitted a proposal to my adult series publisher, Midnight Ink, suggesting that the third book in the series be set on Rock Island. I hadn’t heard anything by the time Scott and I left for our week-long stay. Just before getting on the first ferry—and going out of cell phone range—I checked email. A message from my agent was in my Inbox. Midnight Ink had given the lighthouse book a green light.

The book’s working title is Beyond Death’s Door. Death’s Door is the passage separating mainland Door County from Washington Island. As the name suggests, it’s treacherous.  While the ferry made it’s crossing that morning, I sent thank-you emails to my agent and editor from the middle of Death’s Door. It seemed appropriate.

So at some future date, in book 3, Chloe will be off to Rock Island. She’ll stay at the lighthouse, with no phone, in the off-season when few if any people are on the island. And while of course she’ll encounter murder and mayhem, I suspect she’ll love being there as much as I do.

Fresnel lens and view from the lantern room.

Update:  Book 3, now titled The Lightkeeper’s Legacy, will be out in autumn, 2012.

Should It Stay, Or Go?

July 1, 2010

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?