Navigation

Historical Door County Lighthouse Needs Help

by TIM SWEET, Historic Preservation Committee Member, Friends of Plum and Pilot Island

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

— Margaret Mead

Lighthouse Digest has published a Doomsday List since 1993 with the hope of drawing public awareness to lighthouses that are in danger of being lost forever. Both the Plum and Pilot Island lighthouses have been on the magazine’s list, but they’ve since been removed after receiving some help in recent years.

On Plum Island’s 325 acres, a former U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) lifesaving station, a boathouse, a front and rear range light, a keeper’s house and a fog-signal building remain from the late 1800s, and this island is open to the public for daytime use from the Friday before Memorial Day through Labor Day. 

Significant stabilization and preservation work has been completed on Plum Island over the years through the dedicated efforts of the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands (FOPPI) organization and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 

Tiny Pilot Island – at just 3.5 acres – is home to an 1858 lighthouse, the ruins of a fog-signal building and thousands of colonial nesting birds, including double-crested cormorants, herring gulls and American white pelicans. No public access is allowed.

The light station on Pilot Island was automated in 1962, and after that it was essentially abandoned. A caretaker has lived there on occasion, and a sea scouts program briefly made use of the lighthouse a long time ago, but for 45 years, the buildings were left to fend for themselves. Can you imagine what your house would look like if you didn’t do much to take care of it for nearly half a century?

In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management transferred the two island properties from the USCG to the USFWS, and they became part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge (GBNWR). Also established in 2007, FOPPI became a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that partners with the USFWS to assist in the stabilization, preservation and restoration of the buildings on Plum and Pilot Islands. 

In 2008-09, FOPPI worked with the GBNWR to hire Martin Anderson of Washington Island to replace the roof on the Pilot Island lighthouse, and his work likely saved it from ruin.

Over the years, the USFWS and FOPPI have patched shingles if they were found missing during springtime visits. In 2021, FOPPI worked with the refuge to raise money and install a new metal roof on the summer kitchen, and it added missing gutters and downspouts to direct water away from the Cream City brick. In 2022, FOPPI raised more funds to repair the roof on the lighthouse and lantern room deck. 

On May 9, 2023, a group of USFWS personnel and FOPPI volunteers made a trip to Pilot Island to assess the condition of the lighthouse tower and roof and found that two areas of shingles and tar paper had blown away during the winter. Architectural historian John Lauber went along to lend his expertise and shimmied out onto the ridge to inspect the tower beneath the lantern room deck.

Lauber reported that the soffit under the deck was still relatively solid, but there was some rot near the top of the joists.

“It’s fairly easy to repair joists,” he said. “Then put on a new deck and a metal roof over it.”

Lauber went on to explain that Plexiglas in the lantern room “should be removed and replaced with laminated safety glass, tempered glass or even hurricane-impact glass. Metal stops that hold the glass in place are all there, but some are loose, and one is broken in half.”

Such work would help to eliminate water infiltration.

“Ceiling and wall plaster has collapsed throughout much of the keeper’s house,” Lauber said. “The area below the tower is more intact, indicating there aren’t huge amounts of water getting in. Most water damage seems older, but the newly observed roof damage will change that.”

Chuck Scheckel, chair of FOPPI’s Historic Preservation Committee, has been in contact with a roofing contractor to make emergency repairs to the lighthouse as soon as possible.

Lauber recommends eventually replacing the asphalt shingles with diamond-shaped, interlocking metal shingles.

“These would be much more gale resistant,” he said.

Lauber and Scheckel are currently developing a scope of work detailing how to shore up the tower and lantern room of the Pilot Island lighthouse.

Everyone needs an advocate at some point, especially when they’re most vulnerable. Please consider helping FOPPI and the USFWS save the historical maritime beacons of Plum and Pilot Islands. 

Learn more about FOPPI at plumandpilot.org and the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge at fws.gov/refuge/green-bay.