Disclosure: The Kenosha Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Kenosha History Center facilitated our tour of Southport Lighthouse. However, all opinions are my own.
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!
Neato. Would love to check out Kenosha while I’m in the Midwest!
It’s such a hidden gem! Definitely worth a stop the next time you’re Wisconsin-bound. Thanks for reading!
I live about 15 miles from Kenosha and have never actually visited their lighthouse! Ours in Racine (between Milwaukee & Kenosha) is still lit every day! Love all of your pictures too
It’s definitely worth a visit! I didn’t have time to make a stop in Racine, but would love to go back and explore more of the lakefront. Thanks so much for the kind words!
Wisconsin is one of my favorite states! Beer, cheese, and lots of unique attractions—what more could you ask for!?
Lighthouses are always so fun to visit. I haven’t been to this one before. I have a few on my list to visit this summer. They always seem to contain so much history. I love how locals can use this for parties and such. 🙂
I couldn’t agree more! There’s something about lighthouse tours that I just can’t resist. Which ones are you planning on visiting this summer?
I love this!! A great look at an historic location. I love that you incorporated the history in, and your photos are very well done.
Thanks so much for your kind words, Meg! One of my favorite things about exploring a new place is its history so I love being able to share a bit of that with my readers. Southport Lighthouse really is a gem!
This is lovely! That’s so cool that you can pay to light it during special occasions. That would be a nice present.
Right!? I thought that was a really neat way to support the lighthouse and the community’s history as well.
I’d love to visit Wisconsin! This lighthouse is beautiful, great post!
Wisconsin is one of my favorite states! With beautiful views and all the beer and cheese you can imagine, there’s really nothing better. Thanks for reading!
While I’ve lived for many years in Chicago, I never made it to Kenosha. I’ve heard good things about the city and your post is a testament to that. I’d love to visit the lighthouse. I’ll look into it the next time I’m in the Midwest.
Kenosha is a great, easy day trip from Chicago! I definitely recommend planning a summer visit. You can even take the Amtrak from the city right into downtown Kenosha!
You absolutely should! Wisconsin is full of delicious food and hidden gems. Thanks for reading!
[…] 2. Southport Lighthouse […]
Definitely an excuse to go back! I’m sure it’s an incredible view. And you’re right—I was incredibly lucky to work with the wonderful Kenosha Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to facilitate our visits. They’re a great resource if you’re trying to plan a trip!
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