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Life on the Islands

Plum and Pilot Islands provided temporary homes for dozens of US government personnel and their families throughout the combined 206 years the two islands were occupied.

What were the lives like of those who lived here?

Years of Manned Operation

Plum Island Lighthouse

U.S. Lighthouse Establishment
1849 - 1852
U.S. Lighthouse Service

Pilot Island Lighthouse

U.S. Lighthouse Service
U.S. Coast Guard

Plum Island Range Lights

U.S. Lighthouse Service

Operated by Lifesaving Station Personnel (USCG) after 1939

Plum Island Lifesaving Station

U.S. Lifesaving Service
U.S. Coast Guard

Arriving here on a sunny and calm day, one might never imagine this apparent haven of beauty and natural peace also boasts some of the most treacherous water on the Great Lakes.

What was life like for the young surfmen at the Lifesaving Station on Plum Island?
Where did their families live while they were assigned here? What did they do to train? What did they do for fun? What did they eat?

How about at the crew at the Range Light station across the island?
And how could ANYONE live on little Pilot Island during a November storm?! Wouldn't they be afraid they'd be washed away?

Read on for some fascinating answers to these and some questions you may not have ever asked yourself!


The First Plum Island Lighthouse (1849 - 1858) 

In 1849, newly appointed light keeper William Riggins moved into a brand new lighthouse on Plum Island with his wife and 3 children.

William Riggins served on Plum Island for 8 years, departing the station just one year before its closure.

The light apparatus consisted of a series of ten  oil lamps with a 10" diameter mirrored reflector set behind each lamp. The reflectors directed light that would normally be lost to the rear of the lamp out towards the water.

Those lamps and reflectors were arranged in a semi-circle so the resulting light beam shines out towards the lake. 

This was an incredibly labor-intensive task as the keeper needed to keep all ten oil lamps burning cleanly and brightly at once. During the day, the entire lantern room needed to be cleaned of soot.  The silvered reflectors were to be polished so to make best use of all available light.

At the time of the construction of the Plum Island Lighthouse, the only other lighthouse in the region was the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on nearby Rock Island - 10 miles to the Northeast "as the crow flies."

Wisconsin had achieved statehood only one year prior, and what would become the city of Sturgeon Bay was nothing but untamed woodland and marsh, with a couple of log cabins. 

The US Government was still quite young as well and money was tight. In these early days of US Lighthouses, little professional thought was put into the exact location of lighthouses, and there was a massive lack of oversight on construction on top of it.

The results spoke for themselves: poorly located, sometimes useless lighthouses that were literally falling apart.

The light on Plum Island was quickly found to be located too far west in order to help ships through the Death's Door Passage. As a result, it abandoned in 1858, after the lighthouse on Pilot Island was built.


By the time humans returned to Plum Island less than 40 years later, all that was left of the old, stone lighthouse were a couple walls.

When the ruins were rediscovered in the early 2000s, they were unrecognizable.

The 1848 construction contract describes a lighthouse nearly identical to the Old Point Loma lighthouse in California (photo)

When an archeological dig was conducted on the ruins in ____, it was found the lighthouse was actually built far smaller than the contract specified and was missing key features that were promised, such as the excavated basement.

When the Lighthouse Establishment was replaced with the Lighthouse Board in 1852, engineers and ship captains began to receive a louder voice in lighthouse site selection.

Standards for construction were strictly enforced as well. Work not completed to proper standard was rejected by Lighthouse Service inspectors and expected to be redone.

In 1855 William's son, Royal Riggins, was appointed Assistant Keeper under his father. 

In 1857, William Riggins moved off Plum Island, replaced by William Shurtleff. Royal Riggins remained on Plum Island as Assistant Keeper.

When the new Pilot Island Lighthouse was completed the following year, William Shurtleff and Royal Riggins were transferred, and the Plum Island lighthouse abandoned to nature.

Pilot Island Lighthouse (1858 - 1962)

The keepers of Plum Island looked across Death's Door Passage at tiny Pilot Island every day. It must have been quite an adjustment to leave Plum Island for the tiny island across the water.

Due to the rocky shoals that extend out several miles from the mainland Door County tip, Pilot Island was found to be a far better location to guide ships safely into the passage. 

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