Shining Light on History

9/5/2017 - Anna Hegland

History, Lake Michigan
Southport Lighthouse and Light Station Museum in Kenosha, WI
Southport Lighthouse and Light Station Museum in Kenosha, WI
Southport Lighthouse and Light Station Museum in Kenosha, WI
Southport Lighthouse and Light Station Museum in Kenosha, WI

I love seeing all the sailboats out during the summer months, or watching kayakers paddle around the harbor, or going aboard a tall ship like the Red Witch. The lakefront area also gives us some fun beaches, a great downtown area, and incredible views. None of this is particularly new though — Lake Michigan has always played a big role in life in Kenosha, stretching all the way back to the 1800s when our city was a busy little shipping port called Southport.

Now, the first rule of having a shipping port is that you need a lighthouse. Luckily, Southport had a lighthouse on its coast (now Simmons Island), built in 1848. That lighthouse wasn’t permanent and a new one was built on the same site in 1858. That second lighthouse didn’t last terribly long either, because in 1866 the historic Southport Lighthouse as it stands today was finished.

I’ve always liked history; I think it’s really cool to learn about the past and how we got to where we are today. It’s especially cool when you can physically visit and interact with a piece of history. And that’s what our lighthouse is — a piece of history, connecting us to all the men and women who worked and lived there from 1866 to 1906, when the red North Pier light was built and took over as our operational lighthouse. Now serving as a historical attraction, the Southport Lighthouse and its connected museum in the keeper’s house are open from mid-May to the end of October. However, autumn is the perfect time to visit — the views are so pretty as the leaves begin to change.

When I visited the lighthouse, I started by climbing its 72 steps to the lantern room at the top and getting a view of the harbor and surrounding park area. The lighthouse is 55 feet tall and built of the old Milwaukee Cream City brick, which has a gorgeous yellow color. The metal steps are fairly easy to climb, but they do get slippery, so be careful! When the lighthouse was first constructed, it used a fourth order Fresnel lens to guide ships out on the lake. While you won’t see a Fresnel lens in use today (there’s an electric light up there now), there is one on display in the museum. It’s a really impressive piece, and I recommend stopping next door to see it!

The keeper’s house (built in 1867) now contains a maritime museum, which opened in 2010, making it Kenosha’s newest museum. I liked being able to go straight from the lighthouse into the exhibition space, the first floor of which is modeled in the early 1900s style — complete with heavy metal irons warming on the massive stovetop and a plate of fresh cookies on the sideboard! It was great to be able to learn more about the role lighthouses have played in Kenosha’s history and how they worked in the latter half of the 1800s. There’s biographical information on the keepers (including the only female lighthouse keeper our lighthouse ever had, who took over when her husband died in 1871), an overview of Southport’s time as a pretty major freight port for lumber, coal, and wheat, and some old charters and documents from the time period.

One of the side rooms is filled with maps, which show the city’s growth from Pike Creek Settlement to Southport to Kenosha. It’s amazing to see how much the lakeshore has changed since 1837 (only 180 years ago). I spent quite a bit of time looking at the different maps; I even found approximately where my house stands, on what used to be called Market Street! Upstairs, on the second floor of the house, there’s a gallery dedicated to Lake Michigan’s shipwrecks, including a timeline for one of Kenosha’s most infamous and tragic wrecks, the sinking of the Wisconsin in 1929.

If you have a few free hours on a weekend, it’s definitely worth checking out the historic Simmons Island lighthouse. While there’s a charge to climb the lighthouse itself, entry to the museum is free. There’s so much to learn onsite — did you know our city was, at one point, a port of entry into the US? — and it’s always fun to look out over the lakefront from a different, higher perspective.

Anna Hegland

Community Blogger

Kenosha Native with a love for baseball, ice cream, and the arts. Studied in Iowa, Italy, and England - returned to her hometown. Works for the Kenosha Public Museum and drinks too many chai lattes.