Pottawatomie (Rock Island) Light
By Dave Wobser

Pottawatomie Light marks the Rock Island Passage, from northern Lake Michigan into Green Bay, between Rock and St. Martin Islands. These islands are part of a string of islands, running from the end of the Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin to Point Detour Michigan, that separate Lake Michigan from Green Bay. The lighthouse is named after the early natives who lived in this area.

Built in 1858 to replace an earlier lighthouse that was washed away, the gray limestone, 2-story building sits atop a high bluff on the north side of the island. The square wooden tower sits on the roof of the building. The tower is only 41 feet high, but the location gives the light a focal plane 159 feet above the water.

The lantern room was removed a number of years ago, and replaced by plastic lens beacon mounted on top of the square tower. In recent years, the automated beacon has been placed on a steel tower in front of the lighthouse. This was done to make the light visible above the growing trees, when permission could not be received from WDNR to trim the trees. A replica lantern room has been replaced on the tower.

Early in its life, the lighthouse basement served as a school for children of a local fishing village. The school was taught by the wife of an assistant keeper.

Rock Island is the former home of Chester Thordason, an eccentric electrical inventor, and is now Rock Island State Park. Several buildings remain from the Thordason estate including a huge stone boathouse and Great hall.

To reach the island requires taking a Washington Island  auto/passenger ferry from the tip of the Door County Peninsula, Wisconsin to Washington Island, then driving across Washington Island to Jackson Harbor and taking the Karfi passenger ferry to Rock Island. It is a delightful day trip, but requires some planning. Only backpack camping is permitted on Rock Island, and there are very few overnight accommodations on Washington Island. No wheeled vehicles of any kind are permitted on Rock Island, and there are no concession stands. Take a lunch, and your swimming suit, and spend the day on Rock Island.

The lighthouse has undergone a recent restoration by the Friends of Rock Island Lighthouse, and is open for tours during the summer.

A resident docent program has been recently introduced. The following is a magazine interview of Melanie Donnelly about her experience on the island.

Life as a Docent at Wisconsinís Pottawatomie Lighthouse: A First Hand Account

 Melanie Donnelly and four girl friend-daughters of the South decided to lend their Charleston South Carolina, historic district docent-guide experience to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on scenic Rock Island, Wisconsin for a week.

 Editor: Melanie, how did you hear about the resident docent program at Rock Islandís Pottawatomie Lighthouse?

I am a summer resident on Washington Island, a seven-minute ferry ride away. My family and I have often gone camping on Rock Island, and having become a Friend of the Lighthouse Renovation Project, I knew that it was open to the public and docents were needed.

 Editor: I understand that you and several of your friends volunteer in Charlestonís historic homes and gardens tours. How did this experience help you as a docent at a lighthouse?

Living in historic Charleston SC, I enjoy interacting with tourists. I take part in many docent training programs and have several years of docent experience in sharing Charlestonís treasures. So, I thought I would be able to share and inspire enthusiasm in others about the history of this Door County, Wisconsin landmark.

 Editor: What does one pack for a week at a restored lighthouse?

Thatís a great question!  Although the lighthouse kitchen is stocked with cooking and eating utensils, we needed to bring enough food and clothing to last a week. There is no store on Rock Island where we could replenish supplies. We sat down together and planned all our meals, three per day, with the consideration that one of us needed to be on a gluten-free diet.  We ate very well I might add!

 Editor: Were the living accommodations typical of the mid-1800s right down to the utilities and bathroom facilities?

Absolutely! The lighthouse, having been restored to its original condition, has no electricity or running water. The only modern convenience is a fridge and range-operated by propane gas. We pumped water from a well and used a lovely outhouse. There was a shower rigged up in a private area behind the house, and we used camping lanterns to guide our way once the sun went down. Not for the faint of heart I might add! We each had our own bedroom and a very comfy bed.

 Editor: What was a typical day at the lighthouse?

Well, we woke early and had our breakfast, put every morsel of food away and made sure our personal belongings were stowed out of sight.  We were open for tours from 10am-4pm.  As there were four of us, we were able to split time on duty: while two were at the lighthouse, the other two were free to explore the island, hike, swim, read or just relax in the sun.  When 4 oíclock, came we all were free until 10am the next day.  Our chores included cleaning the outhouse as well as sweeping, mopping and dusting the lighthouse. Many hands make light work, and I must say we all pitched in with these chores, so it really was easy.

 Editor: How versed in the history of the lighthouse and the keepers did you become? Were visitors interested?

We were given a guidebook for the Pottawatomie Lighthouse which had an outline of material for us to use as a guide for the different rooms. There was also a detailed history of the lighthouse and the many keepers and their families who occupied it from 1836 until 1946 that we studied and shared with our visitors.

 Editor:  Were visitors interested?

Absolutely! For me one of the most gratifying things about being a docent was to see the enthusiasm and interest from the families, especially the children, when they listened with rapt attention to our descriptions and anecdotes.

 Editor:  Did you have much downtime? What did you do?

As I mentioned, we were open for tours 10am-4pm.  We each had some free time during the day, and the evenings were wonderful! We sat outside under the stars with our glass of wine talking like school girls. We brought Scrabble and played by the light of our lanterns -- a new experience, but fun!

Editor:  What was the funniest experience of your stay?

Funny you should ask!  One evening after having sat outside till quite late, we tried to open the front door to the lighthouse to go to bed only to find we were locked out. Panic ensued. Luckily we were able to boost our smallest person through the only window that wasnít locked. We laughed at the idea of spending the entire night outside!

 Editor: Any advice for folks thinking about volunteering their time as docent lighthouse keepers? 

Sure! Just be willing to live without your modern conveniences for a few days, and above all bring along your sense of humor! This is not for someone who canít live without daily cell phone updates or a hairdryer. There is a Park Ranger available for emergencies, however.

 About The Author:

Over the years, Melanie Donnelly has been a volunteer docent for multiple historical organizations. She splits her time between Charleston, South Carolina and Washington Island, Wisconsin where she manages and owns Wisconsin Cottage Rentals 

Door County, Wisconsin boasts of having more lighthouses than any other county . The Door County Maritime Museum hosts an Annual Lighthouse Walk, on a weekend in May, that offers a chance to visit and tour lighthouses not normally open to the public .

Click on images to enlarge

2013 Photos by David & Janet Wobser
Visiting hours plaque and rear view from walking path

Left side views including oil house

Left side view and lantern detail

The "little house out back"

Two views of the Head Keeper's kitchen

Head Keeper's Bedroom and Parlor

Stairs to second floor and lantern

Assistant Keeper's Bedroom and Kitchen

Acrylic replica Fresnel lens

2000 p
hoto by Andy Rutledge - 2000


Location: On the north side of Rock Island between Lake Michigan and the bay of Green Bay.
Date Built: 1858
Active: No. Replaced by a skeletal tower nearby.

Open to

Yes. Monday thru Saturday, 10:00 PM to 4:00 PM, Memorial Day thru Columbus Day. www.fori.us 

Getting there - To visit Rock Island and the Potawatomie light requires at least a days commitment. Take Wisconsin Hwy. 57 (W-57) north out of Green Bay or W-42 along the east coast of the Door Peninsula. Either road passes thru Sturgeon Bay and they become W-42 in Sister Bay. Then follow W-42 to the end of the road at the Washington Island Ferry dock at Northport. See www.wisferry.com for ferry schedule. Take your vehicle.

You will have a chance to see the Pilot Island and Plum Island Rear Range lights during your ferry trip to Washington Island. Also the U.S. Lifesaving Service buildings on Plum Island.

When you leave the ferry dock on Washington Island, turn right on Lobdell's Point Road and follow it 1.74 miles to the Stop sign at Main Road. Turn left on Main Road and travel 2.63 miles to Jackson Harbor Road when you will turn right. Travel 3.9 miles to the Rock Island State Park Road and the "Karfi" passenger-only ferry. The 15 trip takes you to Rock Island State Park, where the Pottawatomie Light is located.

The light is atop a bluff a little over a mile from the ferry dock. The path thru the woods is well marked, as are several other walking paths around the historic island. Take any desired drinks or food with you to Rock Island. There are no concessions and only backpack camping is permitted.

There are relatively limited overnight accommodations are on Washington Island, so this trip will take some forward planning. Additional information about the Rock Island ferry can be found at http://wisferry.com/rock-island-ferry/. Information about lodging, dining and sight-seeing on Washington Island is available at http://wisferry.com/plan-trip/.

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