While I grew up along the shores of Lake Michigan, I haven’t spent much time on the Wisconsin side of the lake. On a recent trip to Milwaukee, I had the pleasure of spending the day in the charming, quickly changing city of Kenosha, Wisconsin. And this small community blew me away.
As one of the Midwest’s early industrial communities, Kenosha has a rich history that includes some truly beautiful historic buildings. Of all of them, one of my favorites was Kenosha’s Southport Lighthouse. Even though the lighthouse and museum weren’t technically open for the season yet, we were lucky enough to get a tour of the property from Chris Allen, executive director of the Kenosha History Center.
The lighthouse gets its name from the city’s founding Pike Creek settlement, which became Southport in the 1830s. The area got its name because it was the southern-most port in the Wisconsin territory on Lake Michigan. Standing 55 feet above the ground, the lighthouse has 72 spiral steps to reach the tower room. After climbing the tower once, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a lighthouse keeper. Making the summit multiple times a day, especially in the dark, sounds both exhausting and slightly terrifying.
Originally, a fourth order Fresnel lens sat atop the tower. Its light was the first navigational station sailors would see when traveling from Chicago to Wisconsin. It was fairly cloudy when we visited, but on a clear day, Chris told us that visitors can see glimpses of the Chicago skyline across the lake. Even when weather conditions aren’t ideal, the view from the Southport Lighthouse is worth the climb.
After exploring the tower we toured the restored keeper’s residence, which is now a maritime museum. The museum is full of interesting facts not only about Kenosha’s history but also about the families responsible for the care and upkeep of the city’s lighthouses. I enjoyed exploring the historic home to see how its occupants might have lived in early days of Kenosha.
A bit of history about the Southport Lighthouse
The Southport Lighthouse is the third tower to be constructed on its current site on Simmons Island. Kenosha’s original lighthouse was built in 1848, but without the proper structural supports began to lean and sink into the ground. A second tower, erected in 1858, had similar problems.
In 1866, builders constructed the Southport Lighthouse using the famous Milwaukee Cream City brick. This light yellow brick was made from clay found along the western banks of Lake Michigan, and was especially popular in the mid- to late 19th century. Once you know about this unique architectural trait, you’ll start seeing it everywhere in this part of Wisconsin.
In 1906 the lighthouse was decommissioned when newer stations were built along the lakefront. However, the keeper’s home remained in use for many years. The lantern room was removed entirely from the structure by 1913. Instead it was replaced with a 25-foot mast to display storm warning flags and lights. In the 1960s, the weather signal tower was removed and the lighthouse was boarded up. For decades the lighthouse sat vacant.
In the late 1980s, the community decided to restore the property, and on May 7, 1994 they added a replica of the lantern room to the tower, completing the first stage of the renovations. Efforts to restore the adjacent keeper’s home began in the late ’90s with the vision of turning the space into a maritime museum. After extensive renovations, the 1867 lighthouse keeper’s residence opened to the public in May 2010.
If you visit Southport Lighthouse
If you find yourself in Kenosha, the light station museum is a unique way to get to know the area’s history. Discover the maritime history of the Lake Michigan coastline before climbing the 72 steps to the top of the lighthouse. That said, if you’re afraid of heights or small spaces, you may want to sit this one out.
The museum and lighthouse are open to visitors from May through October. The museum inside the lighthouse keeper’s home is free, though the requested donation is $2 per person. However, there is a fee to climb the station’s historic tower. If you’re visiting with children they must be at least 8 years old to climb the lighthouse.
Fun Fact: Local organizations or individuals can pay to light the lighthouse for a day to honor special occasions, birthdays, or celebrations.
Seasonal Hours: Thursday – Saturday: 10 am – 4 pm / Sunday: Noon – 4 pm
Lighthouse Climb Cost: $10 adults / $5 children (ages 8 – 12)
Southport Light Station Museum, 5117 4th Avenue in Kenosha, Wisconsin
A huge thank you to the Kenosha Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Kenosha History Center for making our visit to Southport Lighthouse possible!