“Virtually all visitors to Rock Island land at the dock by Thordarson’s great hall.”
Lighthouse Keepers & Their Families
Door County, Wisconsin—1837-1939
Title: Keepers of the Lights
Author: Steven Karges
Publisher: Wm Caxton Ltd (2000)
Softcover: 370 pages
Where to buy: Fair Isle Books & Gifts, Islandtime Books and More
Book Excerpt, Keepers of the Lights:
“Potawatomi Light—Rock Island”
Virtually all visitors to Rock Island land at the dock in front of Chester Thordarson’s great hall and boathouse. As they spread out to explore the island, those interested in seeing the lighthouse strike off to the north, following a trail that well may have been cut by the first keeper. The path climbs and descends gradually, rising from lake level to some 150 feet above the lake where the hikers emerge from the forest into the clearing around the lighthouse. Today, the painstakingly cleared opening is only a fraction of its original size, and the gardens, hay field, and barn have been replaced by trees. While the lantern is gone from the tower, the visitors can look out across the Rock Island Passage to St. Martin Island to the north just as the keepers did as they tended the light. The history of the area, however, begins long before the history of this lighthouse that stands high atop the bluff overlooking the passage.
Four hundred years ago, this part of Wisconsin was a land of forests, islands, lakes, bays, and inlets populated by various Native American nations, including the Potawatomi, Chippewa, Menominee, Fox, and Winnebago. In 1634-35, the Frenchman Jean Nicolet visited the area, and historians surmise from his journals that he found members of the Potawatomi nation living on Rock Island and the mainland to the south, the area we know today as the Door County peninsula. Nicolet apparently spent some time with the Potawatomi, but whether he actually set foot on Rock Island has he coasted along the east shore of Green Bay cannot be determined with certainty. Other Frenchmen followed Nicolet including Radisson, Gosseillier, Marquette and Joliet, and La Salle.
The French were interested both in the Native Americans’ furs and in their souls. In 1669, Jesuits established the St. Francois Xavier mission upstream from the mouth of the Fox River near the present city of De Pere. In 1717, the French erected Fort La Baye closer to the mouth of the Fox. The route from Mackinac Island to Green Bay, up the Fox, and down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi gave the French fur traders access to a vast, valuable fur-bearing region, though Rock Island itself played a passive role in the development of this trade. Individual parties may have camped on Rock island, but no missions, forts, or trading posts were established there.
French control of the region ended in 1763 at the conclusion of the French and Indian War; as part of the settlement, England took control of France’s North American empire. Thus, under the 1783 Peace of Paris, the United States not only gained her independence but also acquired the territory east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes. However, the British withdrew from the area only after the conclusion of the War of 1812. To control access to the Northwest Territory, the Army Department built a series of forts at strategic locations, including one named Fort Howard near the mouth of the Fox River and on its west bank. The village of Green Bay soon developed on the river’s east bank and quickly grew into a thriving community. Green Bay became the county seat and was also the site of the district land office; it was across the river from a military post and an Indian agency; it was the only Lake Michigan port in the region; and it was the starting point of various military and civilian roads and trails that led off into the interior. In 1820, Green Bay and Prairie du Chien were Wisconsin’s only important population centers, and already a pioneer steamship had visited Green Bay.
With the completion of the Erie Cana in 1825, commerce on the Great Lakes grew rapidly. As the fur trade declined in the face of advancing settlement, the fishing industry in the upper Great Lakes began to expand. Sailing vessels soon were making regular trips carrying lake trout and whitefish to Buffalo, New York. If Rock Island had played a passive role in the fur trade, she played an active role in the fishing industry. In 1831, the Menominee Indians ceded to the United States a large part of eastern Wisconsin, including all of what would become Doro County. In the spring of 1834, surveyors marked township lines on the mainland. The following year, they completed their survey of Washington Island and Rock Island, and settlers could begin buying the land.
The dangers involved in navigating the entrance to Green Bay from Lake Michigan were clearly indicated in early 1832 when 30 Detroit merchants, masters, and owners of vessels petitioned Congress to build a lighthouse on Rock Island, then the entrance to Green Bay:
…the interests of their commerce and navigation on these waters require the erection of a lighthouse on “Isle Pou” or “Potawatomi,” situated at the entrance of Green Bay in Lake Michigan. The ship channel in entering the Bay is on the North side of this island and is about one mile in breadth, the approach to which is rendered hazardous in dark nights in consequence of two extensive shoals.
There is no point on the Northern Lakes, where in the opinion of your Memorialists, a light house is more imperiously required than at this. The Island is a high rocky Bluff at least Sixty feet above the surface of the lake, where a tower of forty feet in height would give the light sufficient elevation.
Your Memorialists feel that the increasing commerce on the Northern Lakes will justify them in an earnest appeal to the liberality of Congress of an appropriation.
The petition was referred to the House Committee on Commerce, and the committee chair subsequently introduced a bill providing for construction of a lighthouse on Potawatomi Island, but the House failed to approve the bill. Two years later on 20 June 1834, however, a similar bill became law, and $5,000 was appropriated for building the lighthouse. In May 1836, Congress appropriated another $3,000, and in March 1837, Congress provided an additional $5,000. Why the 1837 appropriation was necessary is not clear, since the actual cost of the project was only $5,789, and the remaining $7,211 was returned to the surplus fund.
In the 1830s, fishermen working west from Mackinac began setting their nets in the waters around Rock Island. In the middle of the decade, the first of these fishermen actually took up residence there, rather than just camping on the east side of the island; by 1840, there were at least seven people residing at the south end of the island. During the next few years, Rock Island’s population grew. These residents were primarily interested in fishing rather than farming, though they planted small garden plots and a few fruit trees. However, a number of circumstances—among them the lack of a good harbor, an increase in the size of the fishing boats, and a change from sail to steam engines—caused the population to dwindle. By 1970, Rock Island had declined into a relatively unimportant, largely deserted island with only the lighthouse keepers remaining.
In August 1834, Reverend Jackson Kemper, an Episcopal minister who was making a trip to inspect church missions in the Northwest, boarded a boat in Green Bay. Also on board was Abraham Wendell, collector of customs at Mackinac. Two people with prominent positions in Wisconsin history—Judge James Doty and Hercules Dousman, son of the wealthy Michael Dousman of Mackinac—were among the group that saw Kemper off. Kemper recorded in his journal that the captain sailed along the Door County shoreline, passed north of Washington Island, and then anchored off the northwest corner of Rock Island.
When at Potawatomi or Louse island the Capt. Took the Collector [Abraham Wendell] ashore to fix upon a site for a light house the Gov. has ordered built.
When the party landed, they found that there was a shelf only two or three feet wide at the foot of a perpendicular cliff. There were occasional ravines, but they were too steep to climb according to Kemper. The group then coasted along the west shore in their small boat, but they concluded that further exploration would take too much time and so returned to their vessel and continued on their journey. Wendell apparently never actually set food on the site he selected for Potawatomi Light.
Having selected the location for the proposed lighthouse, Abraham Wendell next signed a contract with Michael Dousman on 1 April 1836, setting out the details for the construction of a lighthouse tower and dwelling house on Rock Island. The tower was to be built from stone or hard brick laid in good lime mortar with a foundation three or more feet deep as necessary. The plans called for the tower to be 30 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter at the base with walls three foot thick. At the top, it was supposed to taper to nine feet in diameter with walls 20 inches thick. On top of the tower, a soapstone platform 11 feet in diameter and four inches thick with a scuttle door was to be placed. The tower was to have three windows and a circular stairway from the ground floor to within six feet of the platform. The last six feet were to have an iron ladder. On the platform was to be erected an eight-sided cast iron lantern surrounded by an iron railing and topped by a ventilated copper dome. When completed, the tower was to be plastered with roman cement and given two coats of whitewash. The lantern and tower woodwork were to receive two coats of white lead paint, and the dome was to be painted black.
In addition, the contract called for construction from stone or brick of a dwelling house 34 feet by 20 feet, with a cellar and two upper chambers built under the sloping, shingled roof. The contract also specified construction of a kitchen 14 feet by 12 feet to be attached to the house, as well as a brick outhouse four feet by five feet with a shingled roof. All work was to be finished by 1 October 1836, just six months later, and, upon completion of construction and approval by government officials, Dousman was to receive $5,000.
Dousman was responsible only for building the tower, lantern, dwelling, and outhouse, and on 10 August 1836, Wendell contracted with John Scott of Detroit, Michigan, to provide the lighting apparatus. One month after the lighthouse was finished, Scott agreed to install a light of the Winslow Patent design containing 11 lamps and 14-inch reflectors, each to contain six ounces of pure silver. The contract also specified various accessory items to be provided, including two spare lamps, double tin oil butts sufficient to hold 500 gallons of oil, and assorted tools. When Wendell or his agent agreed that the contract had been fulfilled, Scott was to receive $474.
Dousman’s crew cleared the lighthouse site and began quarrying rock for the dwelling and tower from a location south of the site. The men brought their supplies through the woods from an easier and more protected landing almost two miles to the south, rather than carrying them up the cliffs in front of the station. Since only the general site for the buildings was specified, the men themselves picked the actual location for the tower, which was located 30 feet north of the dwelling. For unknown reasons, Dousman did not meet his contract completion date. Not until 20 October 1837 did Joseph Hobbs, superintendent of the buildings at Potawatomi Light, certify to Wendell that the material of which the lighthouse and dwelling are made, are of the best quality and that the work is done in a substantive and workmanlike manner.
When Wendell received this statement, he paid Dousman and Scott. However, contrary to Hobbs’ report, there were serious problems with the construction; in 1858, the original tower and dwelling were replaced by the present combined tower and dwelling.
The exact date upon which the Potawatomi Light first shone out over the Rock Island passage to Green Bay is not recorded. On 8 September 1837, Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed John Wright of Detroit, Michigan, keeper of the light. However, Wright refused the appointment and on 19 December 1837 (too late to begin operations in 1837), the secretary appointed David E. Corbin of Saginaw, Michigan, as keeper. Corbin served as a sergeant in the regular United States Army during the War of 1812 and was wounded at the Battle of Plattsburg; he came west after the war to serve with the Fort Howard garrison. Upon leaving the Army, Corbin worked for the American Fur Company at Green Bay, and he may have met Abraham Wendell while visiting the company’s post at Mackinac. As part of his duties as port collector, Wendell was responsible for lighthouse keeper appointments, and presumably, he at least knew of Corbin. In return for tending the light, Corbin received an annual salary of $350, supplies, and a residence.
Despite the survey which had been conducted of Door County, including Rock and Washington Islands, a good deal of confusion prevailed at first in regard to the exact location of the new lighthouse. When the area was opened to settlers eager to buy land, the land office commissioner at Green Bay, acting on his own initiative and on the basis of a verbal report, withdrew the presumed site of Potawatomi Light from sale. Unfortunately, the land he set aside was on Washington Island, not Rock Island, and this led to claims that the light had been built on the wrong island. Not until 9 June 1840 was the matter straightened out, when President Van Buren reserved for the use of Potawatomi Light:
the fractional west half of lots No. 2 and 3 containing 109 acres of fract. Section 14 and the whole of fract. Section 15 containing 20 37/100 acres both situated on the North-West Cape of Rock Island in Township 34 R., 30 East of the 4th Prime Mer.
In 1840, Corbin complained to his superiors that some of the plaster had fallen off in his dwelling and that the lighthouse needed whitewashing. Although less than four years old, there were indications that all was not well with the construction of the station. Two years later, inspector W. D. Wilson reported that the station was very badly constructed, the mortar used not having the proper admixture of lime, permitting the water to ooze through it much as to keep the tower generally very damp.
To remedy this situation, Wilson recommended that the buildings be painted with water cement and whitewashed. This suggestion apparently was not followed, since no action was taken. Corbin asked for new lamps for his light, but his lamps were in better shape than most that Wilson had seen on his inspection tour; Wilson only made a few repairs and gave Corbin some hints on burning the lamps. The station’s supply of oil was sufficient for at least a year, but, because of his isolated location and the relative difficulty of landing at the station, Wilson left an additional year’s oil supply with Corbin.
The keeper had already removed four to five acres of woods around the light, and Wilson suggested removal of an additional two or three acres to improve the light’s visibility and usefulness. The inspector also noted that Corbin had opened a road two miles long from the light south to the lake, “the only accessible way to the light and which is highly necessary for public use.” The path and stairs down the bluff in front of the station had not yet been built. For doing all this extra work, Corbin thought he should receive a small addition to his salary. Wilson agreed because it would allow Corbin “to place some additional comforts around him in his dreary and lonely home.” Clearly, the inspector felt this would be a good policy in order to keep Corbin at the station. Wilson felt Corbin was a man of considerable energy, the kind of person particularly well suited for Potawatomi Light.
John McReynolds, who replaced Wilson as inspector, visited Rock Island in 1845 and found Corbin to be well qualified, if lonely. According to McReynolds, Corbin’s only companions were his favorite horse and faithful dog. The inspector granted Corbin a 20-day leave of absence—the first time Corbin had the opportunity to leave the island for that long in eight years—on the condition that the keeper return with a wife! Corbin accepted the terms and left to take his leave. Interestingly, despite his predecessor’s recommendations, McReynolds found everything at the station in good order with no repairs necessary. The inspector note that Corbin had made his own road to the lake and, since there was no well at the light, Corbin had to bring all his water and supplies over this road. According to McReynolds, given
that from the isolated and lonely condition of his officer who is required to make his own road, is denied every enjoyment, and has no other food than that which he himself produces and who must attend to his duties in sickness or in health, he should have an addition of $50 to his present salary.
But the fifth auditor of the treasury, Stephen Pleasanton, McReynold’s superior, did not accept his inspector’s recommendation.
The following year, McReynolds again found everything at the station in almost perfect order, with no repairs necessary. However, he also learned that Corbin had been unsuccessful in his quest for a “helpmate”; 20 days apparently was just too short a period of time to accomplish that goal, so Corbin was once again “doomed to solitude during another dreary winter” with only his pony and dog for companions.
In 1947, the fountains of the old lamps had worn out, and McReynolds had a new set of lamps installed in the light. Once again, McReynolds noted:
He suffers from his solitary and isolated situation, being cut off entirely from his fellow man, except occasionally in summer. His personal supplies did not reach him ’til first of June 1847. During the winter, he had to kill his favorite cow.
The inspector again asked that Corbin’s salary be raised to $400 per year due to this situation but, as in the past, Pleasanton did not accept this recommendation. McReynolds overestimated Corbin’s isolation in an effort to convince Pleasanton to grant the raise; in reality, Corbin and the fishermen and their families from the other side of Rock Island often spent time with each other.
It was about this time that Jack Arnold—an old friend and a sergeant and veteran of the War of 1812—moved in with Corbin as an unpaid assistant. Unfortunately, Arnold fell sick in 1848 and died despite Corbin’s devoted care. His body was taken the length of the island and buried in the cemetery near the fishermen’s homes on Rock Island’s east side.
Corbin had the first and, for a long time, the only horse on Rock Island, an animal named Jock. Corbin often let other settlers use Jock to haul their stove wood, dock timbers, and other loads too heavy for manpower alone. With so many drivers, Jock got quite tricky and (some thought) lazy in his old age. One of his tricks was to make several half-hearted efforts at pulling a load and then finally to pull with all his might. One day, a teamster using him to haul logs pretended to hitch Jock to the logs but actually did not. Slapping the reins, Jock made two or three of his initial preparatory pulls without any progress sand then gave an enormous tug. Much to the amusement of the teamster, Jock almost landed on his nose.
Corbin used Jock to haul the island’s first cook-stove from the landing to the station in 1850. The stove caused quite a stir, and most of the island’s residents trekked up the lighthouse to see Corbin’s marvel. In fact, there may have been a good reason to make improvements in the kitchen. Corbin had been unsuccessful in persuading a woman to come to live with him earlier, but the 1850 U.S. Census reveals that the lighthouse may have been crowded that year, for Catharine Storce and her three children were recorded as living at the station. Catharine was 30 years old, and she and her children were Wisconsin natives. In addition, there was also a 19-year-old laborer named William Kingsley listed at the lighthouse. Whether he was actually living there or just happened to be there when the census taker came was not revealed.
The records show that the winter of 1851-52 was especially cold and long. Corbin’s energy seemed to wane, and he asked John Boon, one of Rock Island’s pioneer settlers, to care for his horse. When summer came, Corbin failed to revive. The fall was cold and windy and, despite all efforts, Corbin continued to fail. He died in December 1852 at the age of 57 and was buried in a small cemetery a few yards south of the lighthouse he had so faithfully tended.