Port Washington Light - 1860
By Linda M. Nenn
Co-Director and Historian
Port Washington, WI  1860 Light Station 

The Light Station in Port Washington, WI was established in 1849 when a free standing masonry tower and separate one story keeper's dwelling was built.  In 1860 the station was rebuilt.  The free standing tower was demolished and a combination dwelling and lighthouse tower and lantern were erected.  Sister lighthouses, using almost identical plans, were constructed during the same era at Northport, MI, Rock Island, WI and Pilot Island.

The 1860 Lighthouse was operated continuously from 1860 to 1903.  At that time this coastal or shore light was decommissioned in favor of a wood pierhead lighthouse built in 1889.

In 1934 the old dwelling/lighthouse was gutted, the tower and lantern dismantled and the building converted to a duplex consisting of an upper and lower apartment.  This served as the residence for a keeper and assistant keeper and their families.  The keepers manned the 1935 masonry Breakwater Light which sits at the end of the federal pier approximately 2500' long.

The station was actively manned until 1976.  The light had been automated almost a decade earlier, but the diaphone foghorn had to be manually operated until '76.  The year of our nation's bicentennial marked the end of an officially functioning light station in Port Washington.

From 1976 (this is an estimate which may be off by a year or two) to 1991, active duty Coast Guard personnel from station Milwaukee were assigned to housing in Port Washington.  They did not service the pierhead from this location.

In 1993 the Port Washington Historical Society leased the abandoned station from the USCG and used the facility as a local history museum, performing only maintenance on the building and grounds.  The site was declared excess in 1997.  The city of Port Washington accepted ownership in 1999, and, in turn, again awarded the Historical Society a renewable lease.

Restoration of the site began in the fall of 2000.  The tower and lantern were rebuilt, in Europe, by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, in remembrance the Luxembourg immigrants that settled in the area during the mid 1840's and  1850's.  The Luxembourg government also chose to honor the American forces that liberated their country, from German occupation, in the Battle of the Bulge.  What a gift!

At a cost approaching $250,000 and over 8000 volunteer hours the dwelling, tower, lantern and 1934 generator building have been restored.  Current plans include the re-creation of the brick oil house built in 1894 and demolished in 1934.

The light station is open to the public mid-April through October.  Hours of operation are Saturdays, 11-4 and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.  Group tours welcome year round, any day of the week, with advance confirmation.  The light station is operated completely by volunteers.  A $3/person admission is charged to tour the station buildings.  The grounds are open to the public free of charge.  Recent construction of a high-rise and private home now obstruct the view of the light station from most of Port Washington's lakefront.  But, one can see the lake and harbor, on a clear day, easily from the lantern room.  Focal plane is 132' above the lake.

Any visit to Port Washington would not be complete without a planked whitefish dinner at Smith Brothers, at the end of Grand Avenue at the harbor. (Webmaster’s personal favorite).

2007 Update
Linda Nenn

The watch shack/generator building now contains a steamboat's wheelhouse with a full compliment of equipment, including the binnacle and pilot house telegraph from the whaleback CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. Step up to the wheel and gaze out over Lake Michigan (between the trees!).

Entering the Light Station proper you'll have to climb the stairs to the second floor to view our newest lighthouse acquisition. Thomas Tag and his wife chose our Light Station as the recipient of an amazing collection of lighthouse illumination devices. Light bulbs powerful enough to give off 1000 watts of light, a xenon gas bulb, a bulb changer, small vials of the oils once used before the days of electricity. Tom and his wife have written extensively about most if not all the technical aspects of lighthouses.

We recently purchased a Lothrop box foghorn. It needs new bellows. Anyone familiar with this old type of boat horn? I want to add it to my eclectic collection of hand held and pump foghorns that currently reside in my living room and the foyer of the Light Station.


Click on images to enlarge

1991 Photograph by Dave Wobser

2004 Photograph by Alan Culley

Post Restoration Photos
by the
Port Washington Historical Society

Location: 311 Johnson Street, Port Washington, Wisconsin
Date Built: 1860
Active: No

Open to


Sundays 1-4 pm (Memorial Day through first weekend in October)  262-284-7240

Mailing Address:
 Port Light Station, P.O. Box 491, Port Washington, WI  53074

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