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A Light Emerges from the Dark: The North Point Lighthouse

Nov. 8, 2012
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The North Point Lighthouse’s single, bright light—a beacon in the night—guided many ships safely to the shores of Lake Michigan. Though it is now a historic marker on Milwaukee’s East Side, this lighthouse once provided a very important service to captains and sailors.

The North Point Lighthouse resides in what is currently known as Lake Park. The United States Lighthouse Service acquired the 2-acre plot in 1851. The original lighthouse was 28 feet tall with a nearby “keeper’s quarters” built of local Cream City brick. Counting the height of the bluff, the lighthouse stands 107 feet above the water, making it the highest lighthouse on the Great Lakes upon its completion in 1855.

However, the lifespan of the original lighthouse would not be long. A few decades after it was built, erosion came creeping in upon the bluff and the lighthouse had to be moved. Funds were acquired from Congress in 1886, and the new lighthouse was built 100 feet inland from its original location.

The new lighthouse boasted a 39-foot-tall tower built with cast-iron sections and a new “keeper’s quarters.” The high-quality lens from the old lighthouse—built in Paris—was transferred to the new building, and construction was completed on Dec. 20, 1887.

It was around this time that Lake Park was being designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—best known as the designer of Central Park in New York City—around the location of the lighthouse. Since the plot of land, owned by the federal government, went from the street to the bluff, the park had to be built in two sections around the lighthouse. This proved to be problematic, as special permission had to be obtained from the federal government in Washington, D.C. Eventually all parties agreed to allow a bridge east of the lighthouse to be built to connect the park.

Unfortunately, these would not be the last of the problems for the North Point Lighthouse. In 1907, Congress stopped funding for the lighthouse and turned off the light. Due to the growth of tall trees, the visibility of the light was diminishing. It would take five years to secure funding to build a structure to elevate the lighthouse once again.

In 1912, a 35-foot steel structure was built to raise the lighthouse. It was taken apart and reassembled atop the structure, creating a new super-lighthouse that was 74 feet high. The light, visible once again, remained lit for many decades, bringing ships safely to the shores of Lake Michigan.

But as technology changed, Americans began to rely less and less on marine transportation, and the North Point Lighthouse turned off its light in 1994. The U.S. Coast Guard granted the transfer of the property to Milwaukee County in 2003, making the lighthouse and the “keeper’s quarters” officially part of Lake Park.

The North Point Lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Lighthouses and the National Register of Historic Places. Restoration continues on the structure, which is now open to the public for weekend tours. A visit to the North Point Lighthouse is a wonderful way to view local and marine history in a beautiful park setting.


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