Small Steps and Big Goals on Plum and Pilot Islands

The remaining historic structures on Plum and Pilot Islands are facing the fate of Pilot Island’s fog signal building:  little more than four crumbling stone walls and a collapsed roof covered in bird droppings. They are decades past needed maintenance and, without some support, the islands of Death’s Door would reclaim them to their natural state, taking 150 years of national maritime history with them.

The Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands (FOPPI) have made it their quest to restore both islands to their heyday by overcoming more than just the challenge of the treacherous Death’s Door waters.

“It’s wild, it’s rustic,” said FOPPI President Mary Beth Volmer, recalling the first few experiences she had on Plum Island that drove her to join the cause in FOPPI’s early years. “You go onto Plum Island and she kind of zaps you… You’re picking up on all the voices and people that have walked before you on this island that have history and stories to tell. To me, it’s magical.”

“If people have the opportunity to go there and to experience the natural beauty while they also get a dose of the history, maritime history and the importance of the island… I think that same kind of attachment can develop,” said former FOPPI president and founder Tim Sweet. “It’s just a matter of people getting out there and experiencing it for themselves.”

The roof on the Pilot Island fog signal building has collapsed. Photo by Tim Sweet.

Hitting the Ground Running

Part of what has attracted initial support for the restoration projects is simply getting started. The group is not waiting for the entire $7.5 million needed to restore every building, but rather starting on the projects they do have funds for. That preliminary work not only helps the longevity of structures that are waiting for a complete restoration, it also helps with visibility from potential donors.

“We have a lot of visibility with the ferry coming past the island taking people to Washington Island,” said Volmer. “They have seen these buildings forever in the same disrepair as what they have been.”

With bright new red roofs on three of Plum Island’s buildings, ferry passersby can see a breath of life in the long-dormant island. Sweet hopes these small steps will carry momentum forward.

“We’ll see what happens over the course of the next few years,” said Sweet. “I think definitely that we’re gaining interest and some traction in what we’re trying to get accomplished.”   

While the public support has slowly blossomed and fundraising may come a bit more easily with public access to Plum Island, the logistics of island restoration will always be a hurdle.

The remoteness of the islands that gives them beauty and serenity also proves the greatest challenge. Transportation of trucks, materials and people is difficult. Forgetting to bring a hammer or a hinge can compromise an entire day of work. There is no electricity or water and certainly no hardware store nearby.

“You really need to plan out what you’re going to do,” said Volmer. “If we run short on materials we can’t just go out to Menards.”

Many locals met those challenges with a willingness and unique capability to help. Hoyt Purinton, FOPPI board director and president and general manager of the Washington Island Ferry Line, offers his vessels to transport trucks and equipment. Jim Robinson of Shoreline Charters has taken volunteers and visitors to the island for a day of work or retreat.

FOPPI also has a close relationship with the island’s owner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The FWS took over after the Coast Guard was looking to unload the islands from its list of properties. A requirement for the FWS to take control of the islands in 2007 was that they must coordinate with a nonprofit to help with management and restoration. With no shortage of enthusiastic maritime and island lovers, the two organizations have enjoyed a close relationship.

“There is actually a person there who works and gets paid to oversee these islands,” said Sweet of FWS Park Ranger Dustan Hoffman. “When those things happen it just made a huge difference.”

“The other benefit comes from the Fish and Wildlife Service because then people like Dustan Hoffman and Steve Lenz (Horicon National Wildlife Refuge manager) can show that to their supervisors and help to make the case for more internal funding.”

Park ranger Dustan Hoffman (center) leads the first group of visitors to Plum Island on a birding expedition after the island became open to the public in June of 2017. Photo by Jackson Parr.

Small Steps

The group has hit major milestones since its founding in 2008, most notably opening Plum Island to the public in 2017 by completing the boat dock. But most impressive is their optimism and ability to garner wide support early on, when the projects are essential but not always thrilling.

Take the $52,000 in grant funds to complete a Historic Structures Report (HSR). The 700-page report is mostly filled with pictures of chipped paint, crumbling concrete and faulty electrical wiring. It does include a detailed history of the islands and cost estimates for restoration, but FOPPI members warned that a bulk of the document made for some dry reading.

Or consider the $34,000 spent on a new roof for the Plum Island lighthouse keeper’s dwelling. It was an essential project to prevent further deterioration of the 1896 structure, but the building is still unsafe for the public to go inside.

“It was definitely more difficult to convince potential donors that they should give money or contribute to the cause because they couldn’t really go out there,” said FOPPI founder and former president Tim Sweet.

“Right now, because the buildings are not open, [visitors] kind of nod their heads and they go off and walk the trails,” said Volmer.

The group has managed to answer one of the more difficult questions for a young organization: How do you get people excited in the early stages when your work is essential but harder to appreciate? How do you get people excited about a septic system instead of Aldo Leopold benches?

Volmer and Sweet see the completion of the Plum Island dock as a watershed moment to drive interest and excitement from visitors. Chartered tour boats have begun taking passengers to the island and private boats are now welcome to dock and spend the day in the summer. Volmer and Sweet hope the ability to experience the island in person rather than looking on from the Washington Island ferry will be a boon for fundraising support.

On the shore of Plum Island looking toward the boathouse and Life-Saving Station. Photo by Tim Sweet.

Big Goals

While Pilot Island, an important migratory nesting place for cormorants, will likely be closed to public access indefinitely, Volmer has a very specific idea of what she hopes to offer visitors at Plum Island in the future.

“The boat comes in, we meet them,” said Volmer. “We take them on a tour through the buildings and have them experience the way the men lived there.”

She envisions docents similar to those at Rock Island State Park who stay in the restored buildings and offer tours to visitors.

Should the buildings become habitable, researchers can stay for longer periods of time while studying the federally threatened dwarf lake iris or the formerly endangered waterbirds that are now enjoying such strong population growth they are stressing some ecosystems.

In 2018 the group hopes to take advantage of research on the location of invasive species on Plum Island and help eradicate them while replacing the vegetation with native plants for pollinators.

For now, FOPPI is happy to welcome all kinds of visitors to the previously shuttered island landscape and are optimistic for the future. “The support of our membership and fundraising base and volunteer base should only increase by now being open to the public,” said Volmer.

“These people just have such a strong feeling for the islands and preserving it and sharing them with other people,” said Sweet of his fellow FOPPI members. “I think it’s very inspiring.”

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