There’s a new museum in town, and it shines a light on Kenosha’s harbor history. The new Southport Light Station Museum opened to the public on Saturday, May 15th, 2010, after a sneak preview was held the evening before. The new museum is a lighthouse and maritime museum, housed inside the lighthouse keeper’s house, which was built in 1867. The first floor of the building has been restored to a 1907-08 time period, complete with historic paint colors, a period kitchen, and exhibits.
The first floor exhibits document Kenosha's harbor history, including information on its lighthouse keepers, shipping and commercial fishing history. A chart desk for nautical charts and maps displays historical harbor maps that date back to 1839, which shows the plot of Southport. An authentic Fresnel lens, on loan from the U.S. Coast Guard, is on display. It has the size lens that used to sit atop the Southport Lighthouse.
The museum is filled with fascinating facts, including that the first and only woman lighthouse keeper was Lorinda Merrill in 1871. She replaced her late husband Joseph. By 1850, building lumber and coal were the major imports into the Kenosha harbor. Wheat was a major export. Between 1902 and 1920, the Hill Steamboat Co. dominated activity in Kenosha’s harbor, transporting passengers and freight, including goods for Nash Motors, American Brass, Simmons Company, Allen Tannery, and Peter Pirsch.
In 1837, the Pike Creek settlement, where Kenosha now lies, became Southport. It was so named because the area was the southern most port in the Wisconsin territory on Lake Michigan. In that year, 61 steamboats and 80 schooners called on the village. A lighthouse was needed in order for these ships to find the village at night. The first was an oak stump cut ten feet off the ground with a wooden platform, lined with rock, built on top. On this, a fire was lit each night during the shipping season.
The Southport Lighthouse, built in 1866, is the third lighthouse tower to have existed. During museum hours, visitors can climb the 72 steps to the top of the lighthouse, which is located just steps from the house. The tower stands 55 feet above the lighthouse grounds. Lighthouse souvenirs are available around the corner from the museum, at the Kenosha History Center.
The Kenosha History Center oversees this new museum. According to Tom Schleif, Executive Director, “the opening was just fantastic.” He said the new museum was busy the entire weekend, with many people climbing the lighthouse tower, and they are looking forward to greeting many more visitors at the new museum. Those present for the Saturday morning grand opening ceremony included current and former elected officials, re-enactors, and the granddaughter of a former Southport lighthouse keeper. Entertainer David Drake performed maritime music.
Once funding becomes available, the second floor of the building will also be outfitted with exhibits. The plan is to include information on the history of Kenosha’s Coast Guard station and on the light station’s restoration project, a rotating photo exhibit, additional information about commercial fishing, and more. More artifacts, via loans, will also be added over time. Tom says they continue to apply for grants.
The new museum, like the Kenosha History Center, is available to rent for functions, as are the lighthouse grounds. Motorcoach groups may book a tour outside of the normal operating hours. Anyone interested in volunteering at the new museum may contact Don Shepard at the Kenosha History Center.
Located at 5117 - 4th Ave. on Simmons Island, the Southport Light Station Museum is open seasonally, mid-May through October, Sat. 10am-4pm, Sun. 12-4pm. There is a suggested donation to tour the museum: $2 adults / $1 students & children. The lighthouse climb costs $10 adults / $5 children 8-12 years old. (Must be 8 or older to climb.)
For more information: 262-654-5770, www.kenoshahistorycenter.org