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Plum Island Timeline

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1848:  Congress appropriates $3500 to build a lighthouse on the Porte des Morts passage.(1)
President James Polk reserves Plum Island from the public domain for lighthouse purposes.(2)


1849:  The first lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling are built on Plum Island and known as the Port du Mort Light Station.(3)


1858:  The light on Plum is determined to be too far west to aid shipping, the current Pilot Island Lighthouse is built. The 1849 Plum Island Lighthouse is abandoned.(4)


1890:  Due to increasing shipping traffic in the Port des Morts, and prompted by a number of wrecks in the passage, the Lighthouse Board requests a $21,000 congressional appropriation to establish a pair of range lights on Plum Island.(5)


1893:  Congress passes Act of February 15 authorizing requested funds to establish the range lights, but fails to make the necessary appropriation.(6)

1895:  Congress appropriates the necessary funds on March 15th(7) and The United States Life Saving Service hires Marinette contractor C.J. Olson(8) to build a “Duluth style” life saving station on the north-eastern side of Plum Island.


1896:  Materials and workers are transported to the island in August. The land is clear-cut, and the range lights, steam siren fog signal, brick keeper’s dwelling, and other structures are built.  Work is completed and crew leaves on December 4th, 1896.(9)


1897:  The range lights are placed in operation on May 1.(10)


1898:  Twenty seven foot well drilled at north side of fog signal.(11)


1903:  Steam siren changed to 10” steam whistle, and submarine telephone cable laid from mainland to Plum Island and thence to Washington Island and thence to Pottowatamie Light on Rock Island.(12)

1914: The schooner Resumption wrecks on Plum Island, almost directly off the front range light. It's eventually stripped and abandoned. Pieces of the keel can occasionally be seen in shallow water, amidst the shifting sand. (Resumption shipwreck profile)

1915: The US Lifesaving Service and the US Revenue Cutter Service merge to form the US Coast Guard


1921:  Submarine telephone cable laid between Plum and Pilot islands.(14)


1929:  The original boat bays of the life saving station, made unusable by changing lake levels, larger boats, and additional equipment, are closed and converted into additional sleeping quarters and storage.  This requires rescue boats to be stored outdoors, exposed to the elements.(15)


1931:  The range lights are electrified, and steam whistles replaced by an electrically operated Tyfon air horn.(16)


1939:  The United States Lighthouse Service is absorbed by the USCG, which then assumes responsibility for all lighthouse and life-saving operations on Plum Island.(17)  The piers and boathouse near the range lights on the west side of the island are removed, and the pier and breakwater near the life saving station, are expanded.(18)

A new boathouse is built there to house rescue vessels.  This 46’ by 62’, one-and-one-half story, rectangular, wood-frame structure is clad in white-painted wood shingles applied in a coursed pattern.  The boathouse exhibits Colonial Revival design elements such as arched and multi-pane windows, corner pilasters, friezes, and detailed door surrounds.  The overall symmetry, balance, and proportions also reflect Colonial Revival style.  The boathouse is architecturally significant as an intact example of a “Roosevelt-type” boathouse designed by US Coast Guard engineers.  Of the approximately fifty that were originally built, only twenty-four survive.  Four of these are located on Lake Michigan.  Plum Island’s boathouse is the only example of the style in Wisconsin.(19)


1964:  The front range light’s wooden structure is replaced by a skeletal steel tower.(20)


1969:  The range lights are automated.(21)


1973:  Budget cuts lead the USCG to consider closing the Plum Island Life-Saving Station.  Local protest results in a compromise:  the Station will operate only during summer months and be staffed by reservists.(22)


1984:  The rear range light is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.(23)


1991:*  The location of the search and rescue facility is shifted to Washington Island.24  The last “Coastie” is transferred off of Plum and the buildings are boarded up and abandoned.(25)  The USCG continues to maintain the range lights as navigational aids.(26)


1999:  The US Coast Guard submits Notices of Intent to relinquish custody, accountability and control of Plum Island to the Bureau of Land Management.(27)


2000:  The Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation places the Plum Island Light Station on its list of the State's “Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties.”(28)
Plum Island is featured as one of the destinations during the Door County Lighthouse Festival.


2002:  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service successfully submits a petition/application for the transfer of Plum and Pilots Islands to protect migratory bird breeding/ stopover habitat and threatened and endangered species habitat to be managed as part of the Green Bay Islands National Wildlife Refuge.(29)


2006:  The USCG completes an $863,000 cleanup of lead paint and fuel contaminated soil from Plum Island, clearing the way for the island’s transfer to the USFWS.(30)


2007:  Spearheaded by Tim Sweet, the non-profit organization The Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands is chartered to work in partnership with USFWS to restore, preserve, and manage the island’s historic and cultural resources.  The USFWS team graciously welcomes the volunteer organization as together they create a long-term plan for the rehabilitation and future of the islands.(31)
The Public Land Order revoking two Executive Orders that reserved Plum and Pilot Islands for lighthouse purposes and transferring the islands to the USFWS is published in the Federal Register.(32)
The Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge is expa
nded to include Plum and Pilot islands.(33)


2008:  The ceremony to celebrate the jurisdiction transfer is attended by federal and state officials, volunteers, and members of the community.(34)
FOPPI receives a grant from The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Jeffris Family Endowed Preservation fund, to create a Building Stabilization Plan to restore and preserve existing historic structures on Plum and Pilot islands.  Phase Two of this plan is the lead paint abatement and repainting of the boathouse.(35)
USFWS purchases supplies to replace rotting portions of the pier deck.  Volunteers board up windows, clear brush from walkways and foundations, and remove accumulated trash.(36)


2009:  Volunteers install decking materials and repair Plum Island pier.(37)
Phase I of the Building Stabilization Plan is put into effect.  Minor repairs are made to the Plum Island Lifesaving Station roof, and Pilot Island Lighthouse’s roof is replaced.(38)
Door Islands Bird Festival brings two groups of visitors to Plum Island, the first members of the public to visit the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge.


2010:  The boathouse is submitted as a candidate for the NTHP’s “This Place Matters” campaign.  Thanks to the hard work and networking of the USFWS and many volunteers, the boathouse comes in second with 12.8% of the vote.(39)
The boathouse and “all buildings and structures of substantial size and scale” on Plum Island are included in the National Register of Historic Places.  The nomination approval process, made possible by the extensive work of Sarah Zaske, took three years.(40)
Phase II of the Building Stabilization Plan is put into effect and boathouse restoration begins.(41)
Using the specifications outlined by the National Park Service, Jeff Hagen and his crew use hand-held spray bottles to dampen workable areas with water and then scrape off the old lead paint.(42)
A temporary platform is built along the west side of the boathouse to facilitate work and protect the lake environment during the renovation process.(43)
The chips are captured on a tarp, collected, and stored in a drum-type barrel for proper EPA disposal along with the wash water used in the process.(44)
The building is then hand-washed with a cleaning solution and let dry before applying an oil-based primer and two finish coats.(45)
Boathouse window sashes are taken down, putty and panes removed, the wood is wet-sanded primed, painted, and then the sashes are re-glazed before being remounted.(46)
For the first time in many years, the Door County Maritime Museum coordinates a tour to Plum Island during the DC Lighthouse Festival.


2011: A hemlock found on Plum Island set a new county record for size of this species.


2012: Front porch of Life Saving Station stabilized.
A Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) developed by USFWS for the Islands in the Great Lakes is released for review and public feedback. This plan will set wildlife, habitat, and public use priorities and guide management activities for the next 15 years.


2013: Washington Island contractor, Jeff McDonald begins restoration of the Life-Saving Station’s front porch.
The ruins of the original Port des Morts lighthouse are cleared by members of Women In Preservation, in preparation for a dig conducted by archeology students from Hamline University in MN.

2014: Public access to Plum Island is officially announced for August 16 and 23rd and the island is open to the public those two days.
The GBNWR Information Kiosk is built and installed.
For the first time, the wreck of the Grapeshot—in the waters off Plum Island—was officially documented by Wisconsin State Historical archaeologists working with WIP.
An archaeological site sign was erected near the ruins of the old lighthouse.
A boot brush was built and installed to help prevent the spread of invasive species by people traveling to the island.


2015: Restoration of Plum Island Dock.
Reconstruction of Life Saving Station porch is completed.
Plum Island is open to the public during daylight hours from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day weekend. Visitors can access the island by kayak or by mooring offshore and rowing in.


2016: Plum Island Pier, Breakwall, and Ferry Landing work completed, paid for by FoPPI


2017: The HSR (Historic Structures Report) is completed, paid for by FOPPI funds. a published HSR will provide the basis for restoration and preservation of the historical structures on Plum and Pilot Islands and establish a long term programmatic agreement with the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). A SHPO approved HSR will identify a significant historical period, which all future preservation activities and plans will be based upon. The HSR is critical to saving the facilities on both islands.
FOPPI funds of $32,000 pay for a new roof on the Plum Island Lighthouse Keepers’ Dwelling. 


2018: Two Plum Island audio tours posted online. Power brought to Plum Island for buildings and USCG aids to navigation (range lights.) Tuckpointing of Pilot Island lighthouse chimney and the chimneys on the Plum Island boat house, life-saving station and lighthouse keepers’ quarters. Historic gutters reproduced and mounted on lighthouse keepers’ quarters. North wall of the life-saving station rebuilt in conjunction with UWFWS. Plum Island pier renovated. FOPPI Strategic Plan developed. FOPPI accepted into the US Fish & Wildlife Service ‘Friends Mentorship’ program.
$5,000 matching grant received from CoBank. Pier repaired after ice and wave damage over the winter. Contractors removed lead-based paint and repaired rotted wood on the former U.S. Life-Saving Station (LSS) on Plum Island, the “paint shed” behind the LSS building and wood trim on the lighthouse keepers’ quarters. Students from the Washington Island School District aided in tagging monarch butterflies. Women in Preservation constructed picnic tables.


2020: The ferry landing was refurbished after being damaged by high water


2021: New metal roof was installed on the Pilot Island Lighthouse summer kitchen, complete with gutters and downspouts. The Plum Island fog signal building roof was replaced with help from a $2000 grant from the Railbrook Foundation, and the windows from the Lifesaving station were refurbished by the National Park Service and will be reinstalled in 2022.
Thanks to a $200,000 grant from the David & Rita Nelson family fund, the front range light and the upper half of the rear range light were sandblasted and painted and the fogged plexiglass lantern panels were replaced with high quality glass.


2022: Thanks to a member donation, we purchased The Shoreline boat. After careful restoration, 42 windows were reinstalled in the crews quarters on Plum Island. Restored/repaired the 4 corner pilasters on the boathouse. Installed a temporary repair to the deck surrounding the lantern room on the Pilot Island lighthouse. Vault toilets installed behind LSS Crew's Quarters thanks to US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Footnotes Lighthouse Friends Plum Island Rear Range Light webpage 2.“Saving the U.S. Life-Saving Station on Plum Island” By Matt Foss 3.Terry Pepper (email 11/30/10) 4.Door County Maritime Museum Pilot Island Lighthouse webpage 5.Seeing the Light Plum Island Range Lights webpage 6.ibid 7.ibid 8.Matt Foss (quoted in email from Tim Sweet 11/18/10) 9.Seeing the Light Plum Island Range Lights webpage 10.ibid 11. Keepers of the Light by Steven Karges 12.Terry Pepper (email 11/30/10) 13.US Life-Saving Heritage Association webpage 14.Terry Pepper (email 11/30/10) 15.National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Plum Island Life-Saving and Light Stations, as completed by Sarah Zaske 16.Terry Pepper (email 11/30/10) 17.Wikipedia United States Lighthouse Service webpage 18.National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Plum Island Life-Saving and Light Stations, as completed by Sarah Zaske ibid Door County Maritime Museum Plum Island Lighthouse webpage ibid 22.“Saving the U.S. Life-Saving Station on Plum Island” By Matt Foss 23.National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Plum Island Life-Saving and Light Stations, as completed by Sarah Zaske *date is point to verify.  Lighthouses & Range Lights by Peter Bosman lists this date as 1991; Guarding Door County Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations by Stacy and Virginia Thomas specifies 1990. 24.FoPPI Spring Newsletter 2010, and Richard Purinton 25.This has ALWAYS been conjecture.  I’ve never been able to find a definitive source to pinpoint exactly when the last of the Coasties left and the buildings were boarded up, but the best guess seems to be either 1990 or 1991. 26.FoPPI Forum Spring 2011 newsletter 27.Marcia Sieckman, Bureau of Land Management (email  11/18/10) 28.The Chippewa Herald, Wisconsin Briefs 4/17/00 29. Marcia Sieckman, Bureau of Land Management (email  11/18/10) 30.Lighthouse Digest 2/2005 31.FoPPI Forum Spring 2011 newsletter 32.Marcia Sieckman, Bureau of Land Management (email  11/18/10) 33.US Fish & Wildlife Service Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge webpage 34.Door County Magazine 35.Lighthouse Digest 2/2009 36.Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands blog 8/23/08 37.Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands blog 6/27/09 38.Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands blog 4/26/09 39.National Trust for Historic Preservation “This Place Matters” website 40.Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands blog 7/15/10 41.Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands blog 5/21/10 42.ibid 43.Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands blog 7/10/10 44.Door County Advocate October 20, 2010 “Plum Island Boathouse Work Completed” 45.ibid 46.Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands blog 6/2/10 47.Door County Advocate October 20, 2010 “Plum Island Boathouse Work Completed”

Plum Island Lifesaving Service Keepers

17 FEB 1896 - 29 JUN 1901 - Ingar Olsen
29 JUN 1901 - 27 MAY 1902 - Charles Crawford
14 MAY 1902 - 9 MAR 1905 - Frank E. Johnson
18 JAN 1905 - 4 MAR 1908 - Michael Egle
10 FEB 1908 - 5 DEC 1910 - John P. Whelan
15 NOV 1910 - 22 SEP 1912 - George C. Robinson
12 SEP 1912 - 1914 - William Robinson
1914 - 1915 - Fredrick M. Staal
1915 - ? - John Chrestensen

Click on the button below to to read about formation of FOPPI and the efforts that went into opening Plum Island to the public (.doc)
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