The Neville Public Museum

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Safe Harbor: Lighthouses of Green Bay

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lighthouses have guided seafarers through treacherous waters for thousands of years. These navigational aids first began as fires on coastal hills, but eventually developed into tall structures visible for miles.  In American maritime history, lighthouses were equally as crucial for safe navigation.  The first being built in Boston in 1716.  On the Great Lakes, the first lighthouse was built in 1804 at the mouth of the Niagara River in Lake Ontario.

Wisconsin’s first lighthouse, Pottawatomie, was built in 1836 on Rock Island at the entrance to Green Bay. Construction of new lights accelerated in the mid - late 1800s to accommodate increased maritime traffic in Green Bay and Lake Michigan.  Lighthouses     today are fully automated and continue to guide vessels into safe harbor. 

Given this maritime history, the Neville Public Museum recently installed a temporary exhibit entitled, Safe Harbor: Lighthouses of Green Bay.  This exhibit features historic photographs of the lighthouses in Green Bay, from the museum’s extensive historic photography collection, as well as recent photographs taken by lighthouse enthusiast George McCourt.  By contrasting historic images with George’s contemporary images, it allows the viewer to appreciate the lighthouses that remain standing and those that have vanished from sight.

In addition to photographs the exhibit features two historic logbooks from the Grassy Island Lighthouse. They were recently donated to the Neville Public Museum by the family of Frank Baumann.  The logs record the day-to-day life on Green Bay’s Grassy Island between 1896 and 1927.  They were completed by the lighthouse keepers Ole Hansen and Louis Hutzler who lived and worked on Grassy Island during the months of April to December, when marine traffic navigated to and from the port of Green Bay. 

This exhibit was initiated by George McCourt, because of his passion and knowledge of lighthouses throughout the United States.  I asked George when he first became interested in lighthouses and what it is about them he finds so interesting.

“While on a business trip in Portland Maine in June 1995, after having a great seafood dinner on the shore below the Cape Elizabeth Twin Lights, we visited the Portland Head Light. While in the airport gift shop waiting for my flight home, I purchased a photo book of Maine lighthouses. I was hooked and have visited 136 lighthouses in 14 states since then. There are many aspects of lighthouses that I find intriguing such as: visiting them, at times in remote locations, climbing the towers, taking photos, and learning their histories. I am particularly interested in researching the history and old photos of the Long Tail Point Lighthouses here in Green Bay. I have been researching them for the past 14 years. I have an extensive collection of lighthouse books and have attended the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival in Alpena Michigan and the Door County Lighthouse Walk/Festival many times.”

Furthermore, the exhibit features a 1/10th scale model of the “old stone tower” lighthouse on Long Tail Point. This replica was constructed primarily by David and Dr. Jane Jelinek, with assistance by George McCourt. The original limestone tower was completed in 1848 and was in use until 1859.  It featured six windows, a pine spiral staircase, and a birdcage-style lantern room. The stone tower stands to this day and measures 51’6” high, 25’ wide at the base, with 4’8” thick walls at the base, tapering to an exterior width of 12’9”at the top, with 2’6” thick walls. It was originally lit with nine oil burning lamps (Winslow Lewis Argand-style) each outfitted with a fourteen inch parabolic silver coated reflector. During its tenure, the lighthouse keepers were John P. Dousman 1849-1853 and Thomas Atkinson 1853-1859.

Finally, visitors to this exhibit will be able to take the content with them by downloading the customized exhibit mobile app designed by Zymo Entertainment. The Neville Safe Harbor” app is available for download on iTunes and will allow the user to navigate to the lighthouses discussed in the exhibit, in addition to several others along Lake Michigan’s western shore.

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