Pilot Island Light
By Dave Wobser

Pilot Island is a small island, a couple of miles off the tip of Door County Wisconsin, near the entrance to "Porte des Morts Passage" or Death's Door.

Death's Door is most southern of the four the entrances from Lake Michigan into the bay of Green Bay, between the many islands that clutter the area. It is also the narrowest, but most convenient for vessels traveling between Green Bay and lower Lake Michigan. The name was earned by the number of shipwrecks that have occurred in the area over the years.

The first light in this corridor was built on nearby Plum Island in 1848. The light proved to be ineffective and a new light was built on Pilot Island 1858. At that time the island was known as Porte des Morts Island, and the name was changed to Pilot Island in 1875.

The remaining 1858 tan brick, two-story, duplex keeper's dwelling supports a short wooden tower and octagonal lantern room. The original Fourth Order Fresnel lens has been replaced by a modern solar-powered plastic light. The light is 48 feet above water level.

Due to the frequent fog in the passage, a fog signal bell was established in 1862 and replaced by a foghorn in 1864. A steam-powered fog siren was added in 1875 and in 1880 a separate building was built to house a duplicate for siren.

In 1900 the fog siren were replaced with a 10" steam whistle and a new building was built to house the new whistle. This building also survives near the water edge.

What once was a small island covered with lush vegetation has been almost completely denuded by the nesting (and subsequent manure) of the protected cormorants.

Seeing this light is difficult, with a private boat being the best option. The water around the island is shallow and rocky. During the Door County Lighthouse Walk held each year in May, special excursions are offered to view the island from a boat. The Walk is sponsored by the Door County Maritime Museum & Lighthouse Preservation Society.

In 2005, plans are underway to transfer ownership of the island to the Door County Maritime Museum for preservation and restoration.

2007 Update
Historic Structures Get a Breath of Hope:
Ownership of Plum and Pilot islands finally transferred

11/7 - Door County, WI - The long battle to save the Plum Island lighthouse took a critical step forward when ownership of Plum and Pilot islands was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Oct. 17.

Plum Island, a 296-acre expanse located between Northport and Washington Island, is home to a century-old lighthouse and a former Coast Guard life-saving station abandoned by the service in 1991 when they moved operations to Washington Island. In the years since the buildings have fallen into sad disrepair.

“It’s very exciting news,” said Tim Sweet, President of Friends of Rock Island State Park and a longtime advocate of saving the structures. Sweet led the effort to restore Rock Island’s Pottawatomie lighthouse and would like to do the same for the historic structures on Plum and Pilot Islands.

Sweet has worked diligently since 1999 to push the transfer process along as it struggled through bureaucratic red tape.

The Fish and Wildlife service has wanted to take control of the abandoned island for years to manage as part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which already includes Spider, Gravel and Hawk islands. The islands are critical sanctuaries for migratory birds.

One of the hurdles in transferring the property was the contamination of soil and water on the island caused by a decades-old incident in which an above-ground diesel fuel tank burst and spilled fuel into the ground. The contamination was finally addressed in 2004, mitigated at a cost of $863,000.

Now Sweet and about 60 others have organized Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, which has begun planning and fundraising to preserve the structures, labeled one of the ten most endangered historic properties in the state in 2000 by the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation.

Sweet said Pilot Island will be the greater challenge because the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t want any public access on the island and it’s further away. Efforts on Plum Island are expected to result in opportunities for hiking, bird-watching, and possibly deer hunting down the road.

Two preservation architects recently visited the islands with the Friends group to determine priorities and possibilities for the islands. Sweet expects to get a report from them in the beginning of November.

Sweet said possibilities for restoration on Plum Island are more promising because the roofs of the structures are in better condition.

“The pier there is one of the priorities we’ve identified,” he explained. “Now we wait for the historic structures report to come back and then we can approach different organizations who might provide funds and grants for the project.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is developing a management plan for the islands, which would impact any restoration and visitation plans.

Those interested in learning more about the effort to preserve the structures on Plum and Pilot Islands or who want to get involved can contact Tim Sweet at tjsweet@charter.net or 715.823.6873.

From the Peninsula Pulse

2008 Update
The Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands have been granted 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. For additional, see  www.plumandpilot.org

Click on image to enlarge

West Side View
Photograph by Dave Wobser

Location: Southwest of Northport in Door County Wisconsin.
Date Built: 1858
Active: Yes

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