Racine Remembers: Racine Lights

Racine Lights

The following information on these storied structures is excerpted from Belles City Beacons: Lighthouse of Racine County by George W. Schemel, Jr. This highly informative booklet details the histories of lighthouses, keepers and changes over time.

Pier Head Lighthouse

Racine’s first beacon to sailors was built in 1839 to guide ships into the Root River. The Root River Lighthouse [was] built on a bluff overlooking what was then the mouth of the Root River and today is the site of the Racine Public Library. [This] lighthouse was decommissioned on September 10, 1865, brought about by the dredging of a new river mouth 1/2 mile north of this site.

The change in the course of the river necessitated a light that would more accurately pinpoint the developing port for sailors. Piers had been erected in 1844, and in 1849 the government installed a simple frame lighthouse at the end of the north pier. This light stood until the evening of December 3, 1859, when in a storm, the schooner Newman collided with the pier and carried away the light.

In 1868, the north pier was extended into the lake beyond the lighthouse, and a wooden structure was erected to house the beacon on the other end of the pier, 400 feet east of the current lighthouse. An elevated catwalk was constructed to give the lighthouse keepers access to the light.

Racine Harbor Lighthouse

In 1866 work began on the Racine Harbor Lighthouse. This lighthouse was built on a stone filled crib, measuring 100 feet by 100 feet, placed on the lakebed 200 feet from shore.

The lighthouse and its connecting lighthouse keepers dwelling were made out of brick. The tower was built to a height of 47 ½-feet above the lake, and the attached dwelling was a 1 ½-story structure. On September 10, 1866, the 4th order Fresnel lens system, moved from the Root River Lighthouse was lit. On November 23, 1901, the light was moved to a steel structure at the end of the north pier and the old tower was capped.

This structure is still standing today. In 1903 the original lighthouse keepers dwelling was remodeled into a 2 ½-story structure and given shingle siding. The building [is] now in private ownership. Over time, the land has moved out to meet the crib upon which the structure [was] built, [it] no longer stands offshore, but [has] become a part of the shore that forms the mouth of the Root River.

Wind Point Lighthouse

A ship coming south from the port of Milwaukee had to somehow avoid a peninsula of land jutting out into Lake Michigan. This peninsula was then known as North Point and later as Wind Point. During daylight and fair weather safe passage was accomplished by using a very tall tree on the lake bank as a landmark; this tree remained until 1910.

In 1878 Congress appropriated the money to construct Wind Point Lighthouse. Work was completed in 1880 and the light went into service on November 15 of that year.

The tower is capped with a ten-sided cast iron lantern roof that is reached by 144-iron grate steps spiraling up through the center of the tower. A 3rd order Fresnel lens was specified for this lighthouse, but none was available when it was to be installed. An available 2nd order lens was installed until a 3rd order lens could be obtained in December of 1881. In July of 1964, the Wind Point Lighthouse was fully automated with 1,000-watt rotating airport style beacon producing a little over 1 million candlepower of light. The Fresnel lens is now owned by the Racine Heritage Museum and is on display in the Wind Point Village Hall, which is also the former lighthouse keepers dwelling.

The Reef Lighthouse

As far back as 1839 the government warned sailors of the dangerous Racine Reef, located 2 miles offshore of Racine. The first warning device on the reef was placed sometime in the 1800s – a pear-shaped buoy. In 1899 the buoy was replaced with a red gaslight mounted on a steel skeleton structure and placed on a concrete crib. This reef beacon was considered unsatisfactory and on October 6, 1906, it was discontinued when the new Racine Reef Lighthouse was placed in service.

The third warning structure on the reef was built on the northeast corner of the reef. The Racine Reef Lighthouse tower and lighthouse keepers dwelling were combined into one structure. The winter of 1911-12 was so severe that men were ale to walk the two miles over the frozen lake to the lighthouse. In February of 1915 a tremendous storm struck. The waves crashing against this structure left and eight-inch layer of ice on the east and northeast sides of the lantern glass, 72 feet above the normal lake level.

The Racine Reef Lighthouse was taken out of service in 1954 and dismantled. The Fresnel lens is owned by the Racine Heritage Museum and is on display. In 1961 a fully automated light tower went into service on the original foundation 17 feet above the lake surface.

2007 Racine Heritage Museum – The Outlook Newsletter

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Denise Lockwood
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