The Port lighthouse beacon, flashing red every 2.5 seconds, and fog horn, sounding twice every 30 seconds, brought them home
No stories are more compelling than adventure stories. The stories of the role of the Port Washington lighthouse in the lives of the community’s mariners are true adventure tales that federal government officials should surely find compelling enough to help them decide, once and for all, that the lighthouse belongs to this city.
As part of the energetic campaign he is leading to persuade the General Services Administration to transfer ownership of the lighthouse to the city, rather than a private Michigan group that covets it, Mayor Tom Mlada has invited residents to share their own lighthouse stories.
There have been reminiscences about romance, fishing and inspiring lake views experienced in the vaulted space beneath the lighthouse tower at the end of the north breakwater. These are warm memories that help illustrate the place the structure occupies in community life, but they are really only decorative footnotes to the Port Washington lighthouse stories that matter most.
Those are the stories of the commercial fishermen for whom the lighthouse was an essential aid to survival—the survival of their livelihoods, the survival of their very lives.
The lighthouse was built—in 1935—during the heyday of the Port Washington fishing industry. The harbor then was home to a fleet of fishing vessels that ventured daily out onto Lake Michigan. Some of the boats tended trap nets near shore, but others steamed for hours offshore to the middle reaches of the lake where the fishing crews set and lifted gill nets on what they called Northeast Reef.
This was year-round seafaring. The fisherman plied their dangerous trade in the gales of November and December, the snowstorms of January and February, the blinding rainstorms of spring and fall, the violent squalls of summer and on any given day in nearly opaque fog, at times in dangerous sea conditions with ocean-size waves.
As aids to returning safely to their home port at a time when GPS was not yet even a science fiction fantasy, they had only a compass and the lighthouse. The fishermen were masters at the dead-reckoning form of navigation, but finding the harbor entrance in low visibility without a visual or aural beacon to home in on was more a matter of luck than skill.
The lighthouse fog horn, before it was toned down near the end of the 20th century (currently it operates at the command of boaters with a radio signal), was a deep baritone blast, so loud it rattled windows downtown. Some shore dwellers found it annoying, especially when it would sound for days on end during foggy stretches, but it was music to the ears of fishermen.
For many years in the life of the lighthouse, the freighters that brought coal to Port Washington and the tankers that brought oil and gasoline had no more sophisticated navigational devices than the fishermen. Dead-reckoning and the lighthouse with its beacon and its horn guided them here too.
The fish tugs, coal boats and oil tankers are gone. The ubiquitous satellite navigation wonder of GPS has replaced dead-reckoning. Yet sophisticated electronic devices are vulnerable to failure, and the lighthouse remains needed by the sport fishermen and recreational boaters who pass it on their way into and out of the Port Washington harbor. Their stories of a working lighthouse are still being written.
The lighthouse is a pleasing subject of photos, paintings and memories, a tourist attraction and a fitting civic symbol, but its meaning to Port Washington is much more than any of that. It is stored in this seafaring community’s DNA. It is as much a part of its maritime history as are the fishing families—the Bosslers, Nagrockis, Cayners, Deckers, Wildhagens, Smiths, Ewigs and others—for whom the lighthouse was an essential part of a way of life.
That makes it Port Washington’s lighthouse—and no one else’s.