My family has the distinction of having members of three previous generations work on Plum Island, beginning in 1895. Now, the baton has passed to me. They were building and serving on Plum. I, with the help of many others, am in a race against time to preserve its maritime structures and the maritime structures on Pilot Island, as well. As members of the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, and in conjunction withthe United States Fish and Wildlife Service, we can change the destiny of both islands.
My family members who worked on Plum Island were my great-grandfather, Torger Engelson, my grandfather, Daniel Magnussen, and my father, Warren Nilsson.
A Norwegian emigrant, my great-grandfather, Torger Engelson, had a vision for a better life. After living and working as a carpenter in Chicago for 16 years, he moved to Washington Island in 1893.
Torger’s work on Plum Island started in 1895 and continued into the summer of 1986, during which time he worked on the Life-Saving Station. On July 28, 1896, the tender, Amaranth, anchored off Plum Island to deliver supplies to the new lighthouse. Torger went to work with about 40 other men on various building projects on Plum Island. In September, the workers finished laying 164,000 cream-colored bricks on what is now the lighthouse keepers quarters, while the work continued on the front and rear range lights. On December 4, 1896, the Plum Island Station was complete.
Daniel Ingebert Magnussen
Daniel Magnussen, my grandfather, grew up on Washington Island. He was the second child born in the Icelandic Castle to Oddur Magnusson and Guðrún Ingibjörg Gunnlaugsdóttir, both from Iceland. He married Torger Engelson’s daughter, Tillie.
Daniel Magnussen joined the United States Life-Saving Service as a surfman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7, 1904, when he was 22 years old. He worked there for about a year before he was transferred to the Plum Island Station, where he worked until 1917.
While on Plum Island, he used his lifesaving skills to rescue stranded seamen. He lived in a small surfman’s home with his new wife. The cottage was one of several owned and occupied by married surfmen. When they transferred to another location, they sold their cottages to other married surfmen. Some of these cottages are now on Washington Island.
In 1915, Daniel and Tillie had a daughter, Anna Gertrude, my mother, who was born in Room 2 at Sunset Resort, the home of Torger Engelson.
As I grew up and engaged with my grandfather, I learned that, while on Plum Island, he assisted in rescuing crews from steamers, barges, tugs, small craft and large craft when rough seas and high winds wracked Death’s Door. His rescues included the schooners Berwyn and Resumption.
Warren Otto Nilsson
My father, Warren Nilsson, entered the United States Coast Guard in July 1938 as a surfman. He served until May 1960. During the summer of 1943, he worked on Plum Island, testing the underwater cable from Northport to Plum Island to ensure transmissions were successful and the cable met specifications.
My family is not unusual in having members that served or worked on Plum and/or Pilot Islands. Many others from Door County and across the United States are also descendants of those who served there. All of these families are concerned about the future of the islands. Eighteen years ago, the lighthouse keepers quarters and the Coast Guard Station on Plum Island were listed among Wisconsin’s ten most endangered historic properties. Over time, their condition has continued to deteriorate.
In addition, the nesting cormorants on Pilot Island have destroyed the island’s natural wooded beauty, leaving behind barren trees, stumps and a terrible stench.
The significant issues on both Plum and Pilot Islands will not be easy to fix, but we must be successful. With a deep appreciation for our history, I feel compelled to make this plea to you: Both Plum and Pilot Islands matter, not just to local families who see them every day, but to the thousands of visitors who come to Door County every year and whose imaginations are fired at the sight of these iconic, historic maritime structures. With enough support, we can preserve these structures. We can restore them. We can make them as enduring, as accessible and as invaluable as they are irreplaceable. They may be at Death’s Door, but we can bring them back to life.
Please join me and become a member of FOPPI. We can work together to preserve, protect, and restore Plum and Pilot Islands’ timeless maritime structures and conserve and enhance the fish, flora, fauna, and their habitats for future generations to enjoy. For membership information, please visit: www.plumandpilot.org.
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