Pottawatomie Lighthouse History

    Rock Island is located in a strategic position at the mouth of Green Bay. Rock Island being on the passage from all eastern waters into Green Bay prompted some merchant and ship owners to petition Congress to build a lighthouse on Pottawatomie Point. The federal government set aside 133.7 acres on Rock Island for this purpose. When built in 1836, Rock Island's Pottawatomie Light became the first federal light in Wisconsin on Lake Michigan.

    The original 1836 Rock Island Lighthouse, a 34 x 20 foot residence, had a separate grey conical 30-foot high tower. The 11-foot diameter round conical-shaped lantern held a Winslow Patent designed lens with 11 oil lamps and 11 14-inch reflectors. The light itself was 159 feet or 48 meters above the water.

    The present lighthouse on Pottawatomie Point replaced the original in 1858. It's mortar caused the original building and tower to be damaged. The new 33' x 31' dwelling built of quarried dolomite enclosed a 8' x 8' tower which held a nine-sided lantern with lamp using a 4th order Fresnel lens. The lamp produced a steady white light visible for 14 nautical miles.

    In the early years, lighthouse-keeping families resided year-round in the three-story residence and tower with large basement, surrounded by many smaller buildings including a barn, smoke house, and outhouse. Cleared grounds provided wood and area for gardens, apple trees and lilac bushes. Families obtained water using the winter kitchen hand pump which brought water up from the basement cisterns filled by roof runoff. Foods cultivated and wild supplemented annual shipments of supplies by the U. S. Supply Steamer Dahlia.

    First shipments arrived at the only dock, a Federal Dock established on the southwest corner of Rock Island (near the present park office and Boathouse). To receive supplies at the Federal Dock, David Corbin, Rock Island's first lighthouse keeper (1838 - 1852), constructed the road (presently used) from the lighthouse to the dock. Years later, twentieth-century Rock Island owner, Chester Thordarson was able to remove this early dock and boathouse by permitting federal shipments at his newly constructed 1914 dock.

    It is reported that for a short period of time between 1865 and 1870, the wife of the assistant keeper, Abraham Grover, taught the island children using the basement of the Lighthouse for that purpose.

    In 1871, while keeper, William Betts (1870 - 1886) married Emily Jane Rohn, one of fifteen children of Captain Victor Rohn, Pilot Island Lighthouse keeper, and started his family at the lighthouse. The first two Betts children (Wm. Jr. and Jane) were born right at the lighthouse without the assistance of doctor, nurse, or neighbor, the next seven children were born on Washington Island. Records indicate Emily Betts, assistant keeper, and family continued to live at the Lighthouse during the navigational season. It is not clear in which year lighthouse families began living and using Washington Island as their primary residence. Then, children schooled during the year, with families joining the keeper on Rock Island during summer breaks, and the keeper joining his family on Washington Island when shipping stopped at the close of the navigational season - Dec. 15 through April 1.

    At this time, cisterns provided all lighthouse water. A dry 1884 summer brought no rain and a defect in the cisterns. With no water easily available, Betts and his family carried water, two bucketsful at a time, up from the lake, 154 steps. The Lighthouse Board had a well drilled at the lighthouse in 1903.

    The variety of fuels and power used to produce light range from sperm whale oil, lard oil, coal oil (Kerosene), to batteries and solar power. The small brick oil house east of the lighthouse stored kerosene after approval for use in early 1900's by the Lighthouse Board.

    The U.S. Coast Guard took command of lighthouses in 1944, automating Pottawatomie Lighthouse in 1945 with a battery-powered flashing beacon. In 1986 solar panels installed readied the relocation of the light fixture in July 1988 to the steel light tower west of Pottawatomie Lighthouse.

    Prepared by Susan Rock, Naturalist of Rock Island, August 1996 with updates/corrections by Bill Olson & Floyd Koyen, June, 2001

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