Lighthouses dot the Wisconsin shore, many of them dating from the age of sailing ships. The advent of GPS rendered them less vital, yet the blinking lights are still a visual aid for sailors and a landmark for landlubbers.
In the new revised edition of Wisconsin Lighthouses: A Photographic and Historical Guide (Wisconsin Historical Society), Ken and Barb Wardius recount the development of lighthouses and the lore of the men—and women—that staffed them. A surprising number of women were in the old U.S. Lighthouse Service. Often entire families lived in the lighthouses and there was plenty for many hands to do—especially in the years before electricity when oil burning lamps provided the illumination.
The book's focus quickly passes to Wisconsin, where the first lighthouse was built in 1836, nearly a decade before statehood. "Lighthouses are like people, every one is different," the authors insist, and proceed to support their assertion with photos and descriptions of a number of the state's shoreline beacons. Many are essentially decommissioned, their function replaced by LED lanterns atop steel posts; some have been designated as landmarks and are open to tours; others are left in ruins. A few, especially the elegant Rockwell Lighthouse on Lake Winnebago, are architecturally distinguished.
Most familiar to Milwaukeeans is the Breakwater Lighthouse, the many-storied white fortress guarding the mouth of the city's harbor. It’s a rough neighborhood. Rotating crews were sometimes trapped for days in turbulent weather and the half-inch thick glass portholes were broken on occasion by severe storms. The city's other beacons include the Pierhead Light at the south end of the Summerfest grounds and the North Point in Lake Park, loving restored and maintained by a community group, the North Pont Lighthouse Friends.