Washington Island, WI 54246
Hailed the “Grandfather” of Door County lighthouses, Pottawatomie Lighthouse boasts a long history and is the first lighthouse to be built in the county.
Like the Sherwood Point Lighthouse, the Pottawatomie Lighthouse beginnings lie in a time of prosperity on many fronts, the most important being the thriving trade between Green Bay (then one of just two population centers in the state) and the cities of the eastern Great Lakes.
Pottawatomie Lighthouse History
1825: With the completion of the Erie Canal, trade increases.
1834: Dozens of Detroit merchants and ship owners petition Congress to build a lighthouse on Rock Island. Congress approves.
1836: Congress sets aside money for a 30-foot-tall stone tower.
1837: Lighthouse, and a separate stone dwelling, is built. David E. Corbin is appointed the first keeper.
1845: An inspector visits Corbin and realizes he is lonely. Corbin is given a 20 day leave to find a wife. He was unsuccessful.
1850: Census reveals that Corbin was able to find a wife.
1852: Corbin falls sick and passes away. He is interred at a small cemetery near the lighthouse. Willis Allen is new keeper.
1853: Ira Crass is new keeper.
1855: Joseph LeCuyer, Sr. is new keeper.
1857: Simon Alland is new keeper.
1858: Due to moisture damage as a direct result of the wrong mortar being used, both the lighthouse and stone dwelling were razed. The Lighthouse Board Crew constructed the present day structure with an eight-foot square wooden tower.
1859: Francis O. Sawyer is new keeper.
1861: Martin Trobee is new keeper.
1865: Abraham Capers is new keeper.
1870: William C. Betts is the new keeper.
1871: Betts (38 years old) marries 16 year-old Emily Rohn, daughter of Victor Rohn the keeper of nearby Pilot Island Lighthouse. Former lighthouse keeper retires and Emily takes on the position.
1874: The first of William and Emily’s nine children arrived.
1886: Jesse L. Miner is new keeper.
1898: Louis Hutzler is new keeper.
1899: Frederick W. Raether is new keeper. Lawrence E. Brown replaces him later that year.
1902: Charles Boshka is new keeper.
1903: A telephone cable was laid to Potawattomie Lighthouse.
1909: A well is drilled closer to the lighthouse for easier access to water.
1910: Wealthy Chicago businessman Chester Thordarson begins purchasing parcels of private land on Rock Island. Within two years, Thordarson had acquired all the land on the island except the government-owned spot where the lighthouse stood.
1911: Edward H. Cornell is new keeper.
1926: Chester Thordarson starts to build a stone boathouse.
1928: John Fitzgerald is new keeper.
1940s: The lighthouse is taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard.
1941: Raymond H. Buttars is the new (and last) keeper.
1946: The U.S. Coast Guard automated the light with a battery-powered beacon attached to the railing of the lantern deck, and the last keeper and assistant left the island.
1965: The State of Wisconsin purchased the Thordarson estate from his heirs and created Rock Island State Park.
1979: The Pottawatomie Lighthouse is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1986: The batteries for the beacon are replaced by solar panels.
1989: The Coast Guard erects a 41-foot skeletal steel tower west of the lighthouse and move the beacon there.
1994: Tim Sweet and others founded Friends of Rock Island (FORI). They began restoration on the lighthouse, starting with the lantern room.
1999: The lantern room was completed by Tony Hodges of Sturgeon Bay.
2003: FORI thought the restoration would be completed with only volunteer help. They were able to afford to hire a contractor to complete the restoration of the building to its 1910 appearance.
2004: The Rock Island Lighthouse Museum was completed, dedicated, and ready for visitors.
Pottawatomie Lighthouse Tours
Today tours of the lighthouse often call for an entire day of planning, as there is a one-mile walk to the lighthouse from the ferry dock. Free guided tours are offered daily Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day weekend. The lighthouse is open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm daily during that time.
Interested parties can also apply to be volunteers and sign up to live in the lighthouse for a week at a time, serving as docents for the 5,000-plus visitors who tour the lighthouse each season.