By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Feb 09, 2021 at 9:02 AM

Fans of Milwaukee – and Great Lakes – history who haven't signed up for the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society's mailing list are missing out. To join the list, send an email to

The group – headquartered at Milwaukee Public Library, which I featured in this story a few years back – is very active in terms of collecting and archiving documents and photos and objects and also hosts numerous events each year.

The newsletter is an easy way to find a cool old photo in your inbox every week (sometimes more). And, because these folks are history buffs like the rest of us, there's always a story behind the photo and the WMHS folks share that story.

This story from the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society was researched and written by respected lighthouse experts Ken and Barb andWardius:

A lightship is a vessel that acts as a lighthouse. Sometimes called a floating lighthouse, lightvessel, or lightboat, the lightship was located primarily in an area where it was difficult or impractical to economically construct a traditional lighthouse.

Lightships served as an alternative to brick and mortar lighthouses and generally marked hazardous shallows, shoals, or sometimes dangers in deeper waters. In addition to their nighttime duties, lightships were used during the day as well, serving as navigational guides called a daymark. As lighthouse construction technology improved, permanent lighthouses ironically forced the demise of their mobile counterparts. Large, automated buoys replaced lightships.

English Lightship - A drawing of an English lightship with lanterns hanging from either side of the mast. Credit: Lightships of the Great Lakes by Larry and Patricia Wright.

Mariners have been guided by lightships for centuries. Records exist of simple fire beacons being placed on ships in Roman times. The first true modern lightvessel was at the mouth of the River Thames in England in the 1730s, a modest wooden boat. Later most lightships were constructed of iron or steel. Many early vessels oftentimes lacked propulsion of their own, making it necessary to tow them to a site to be anchored.

Additional improvements ultimately included steam driven, later diesel powered, self-propelled ships.

Drifting off station was a frequent problem early on and a huge disadvantage of using a lightship versus a permanent lighthouse. Huge anchors eventually rectified this situation for the most part.

Many early lightships were quite unstable. Excessive rolling and pitching was commonplace. Not an assignment for a person with a weak stomach, lightvessels contended with many a stormy sea. Even experienced sailors would sometimes become seasick. Later changes in hull design made most lightships more stable.

Lightship duty was considered one of the most hazardous assignments in the United States Lighthouse Service and later the Coast Guard. Severe weather, including the Great Lakes storm of 1913, as well as hurricanes or collisions with other vessels, sank several lightships with loss of life. And lightship pay was not excessive by any means. In the 1850s for example, lightship crew members were paid 20 cents a day.

Working on a lightship was lonely. Lightship crews in the United States initially consisted of two to four men. Monotony was commonplace. Stints on lightships could be two to four months. Meals were basic and boring. Later these conditions improved somewhat with larger crews, more time off, better stability of vessels, improved meals and other amenities to pass the time including reading books and listening to the radio. Despite many hardships, lightship crews were a brave and very dedicated group.

The heart of the lightship was the beacon. Originally weak and inadequate, some early lightships had oil fueled lanterns with wicks. More powerful lamps, reflectors and electricity followed. Lastly, some lightships incorporated the Fresnel lens, the same powerful optic used in traditional lighthouses. With these improvements in lighting technology, the lanterns on lightships served their purpose well. In addition to the light, lightships were equipped with fog whistles, sirens, foghorns or fog bells. Some of the apparatus was so loud it caused hearing problems and affected a good night’s sleep.

Great Lakes commerce relied heavily on lightships. Canada had its first lightship in the early 1800s on the St. Lawrence River and another on Lake Erie in 1840. Besides the United States, many other countries employed lightships including the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Australia, and Ireland among others.

The first lightship in the United States was placed in the Chesapeake Bay in 1820. Eventually the federal government had nearly one-hundred and eighty lightships built that served at over one-hundred locations nationwide. The last lightship in the United States was decommissioned in 1970.

Lake Michigan’s First Lightship

The inaugural U.S. Great Lakes lightship was a wooden vessel, placed in northern Lake Michigan just west of the Straits of Mackinac at Waugoshance Shoal in 1832. Several of the earliest lightships on the Great Lakes were in hazardous northern Lake Michigan. Ultimately there were approximately three dozen lightship locations on the Great Lakes involving about 75 different vessels. Lakes Erie and St. Clair as well as Lake Michigan had the most lightship locations and ships. Lake Superior had the fewest.

On the Great Lakes, one drawback lightships faced was their inability to be on station early in the shipping season because of ice or unfavorable weather as well as the opposite, having to be removed late in the shipping season. Many times permanent lighthouses eventually replaced lightships because of this shortcoming.

By 1925 there were only 11 lightships left in service on the Great Lakes. At the beginning of World War II in 1939 most lightships on the Great Lakes had vanished.

Two lightships played significant roles in guiding sailors along the Badger State, one at Peshtigo, the other at Milwaukee.

Peshtigo’s Rocky Ridge

Peshtigo Lightship
Peshtigo Reef Lightship No. 77 - Built in 1905-1906, the lightship guarded Wisconsin's Peshtigo Reef, a rocky ledge that extends four miles into the bay of Green Bay from Peshtigo Point. The vessel's lantern mast exhibited a daymarker when the light was not in use. A trio of oil-fueled lanterns illuminated the area at night with a steady white light that could be seen thirteen miles in clear weather. Credit: Courtesy Peshtigo Historical Society.

Peshtigo is doubtless best known in Wisconsin history for the fiery hell that descended upon the city on the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871. Known as the Great Peshtigo Fire, the inferno claimed eight hundred lives.

Another bit of Peshtigo’s story, albeit considerably less well known, deals with the rocky ledge known as the Peshtigo Reef that extends four miles into the bay of Green Bay from Peshtigo Point. Lying in treacherously shallow waters, with depths of only one to six feet, the shoal routinely snared boats over the years before navigational aids were built.

One tale that illustrates the hazard of Peshtigo Reef involved the sailing vessel WISCONSIN. It ran aground on the reef in December 1838 en route to Green Bay during a heavy gale and snowstorm. With frozen rigging and floating ice all around, the captain ordered his crew to disembark for fear that large blocks of ice would crush the ship. In a letter of protest, Master John Beagie described being “driven upon the bar at Peshatico [sic] Point.” Perhaps this event and others convinced authorities to consider navigational help off this dangerous location.

Prior to the building of a lighthouse at Peshtigo Reef, the shoal was guarded by PESHTIGO REEF LIGHTSHIP NO. 77. Built in Michigan in 1905–1906 for about $14,000, this steel-hulled 155-ton vessel was 75 feet long and almost 22 feet wide, with a draft of 9 feet.

Its ship number and the words Peshtigo Reef were painted in three-foot-tall white letters amidships on both the port and starboard sides. The rear of the ship featured a wooden flag mast proudly displaying Old Glory. The lantern mast was a steel tube that exhibited a daymarker when the light was not in use.

A trio of oil-fueled lanterns illuminated the area at night with a steady white light that could be seen a maximum distance of thirteen miles in clear weather.

A metal hand-operated fog signal bell was attached near the bow. Later a chime whistle served as the fog alert. Lacking its own means of propulsion, the boat had to be towed to its station by a lighthouse supply vessel called a tender.

The lightship was first placed near the reef on April 28, 1906, and stood guard there seasonally, typically from March or April to late November or early December. In winter the lightship laid up in Sturgeon Bay for any necessary repairs. August 26, 1935, was the lightship’s final day of service off Peshtigo. Showing signs of wear and tear, it was no longer necessary after the PESHTIGO REEF LIGHTHOUSE began operation. The lightship’s role then changed to that of a relief light vessel on the Great Lakes. The boat was eventually retired, decommissioned and sold in 1940. What ultimately happened to the ship is not known.                        

Milwaukee’s Lightship Anchored Three Miles Out

Unknown to most Milwaukee maritime enthusiasts, prior to the building of the Breakwater Lighthouse, the city had its own lightship, MILWAUKEE LIGHTSHIP NO. 95. Constructed from 1910 to 1912 in Muskegon, Michigan, at a cost of $75,000, its specifications included a length of 108 feet, a 23 foot beam, a draft of 11 and 1/2 feet, and a weight of 368 tons.

This boat possessed its own propulsion, incorporating a high pressure steam engine that was eventually improved to a more powerful diesel engine. The boat was also rigged with a sail that helped to position it facing the direction of the wind.

The Milwaukee lightship’s beginnings started off less than ideal. During a severe storm in 1911 the boat sank during building and had to be refloated and repaired. Ultimately, the sinking had no permanent effect on the ability of the ship to function properly.

Commencing in November 1912 for nearly two decades it served to guide innumerable ships to Milwaukee. Anchored nearly three miles from the harbor in the open lake, lonely crews gladly welcomed visitors who would come out to visit the strange-looking steel vessel.

A tubular mast amidships supported the large beacon perched atop. The lighting apparatus was more sophisticated than earlier technology, having a larger diameter revolving white-flashing parabolic reflector with an electric incandescent lamp. This was later improved with an electric lens lantern that could be seen fifteen miles in good weather. If conditions became foggy, the boat employed both a manual brass fog bell and steam chime whistle. During the winter, Lightship 95 was located at the U.S. Lighthouse Service Depot near the turning basin on the Kinnickinnic River.

This lightship became redundant after the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse and its radio beacon came online in 1926. The Milwaukee lightship coexisted in tandem with the lighthouse for a few more years but was removed in 1932 and became a relief vessel on the Great Lakes as well as the east coast of the United States. She was finally decommissioned in 1965. Plans to convert this ship into a museum in New Jersey never materialized. Her ultimate fate is unknown.

MILWAUKEE LIGHTSHIP NO. 95 was not the only lightvessel in Milwaukee’s rich maritime history. A few historical records exist that contain brief mentions of a three-masted schooner off the south breakwater in the harbor named SURPRISE. Probably a privately financed lightship, it served in that role from 1898-1899. It is uncertain why this vessel had such a short career as a lightship in Milwaukee. Most likely it was replaced by a pier or breakwater lighthouse in the area.

Very few lightships are still in existence today. Most have been scrapped. Permanent lighthouses and buoys eventually replaced nearly all of them including the lightships at Peshtigo Reef and the Milwaukee Harbor.

Huron Lightship’s Now a Floating Museum

Huron Lightship
HURON NO. 103 was the last of the Great Lakes lightships, now restored and preserved as a museum on the St. Clair River at the city of Port Huron, Michigan. She was first placed into service in 1921 and was the last lightship working on the Great Lakes after 1940, being decommissioned in 1970. The floating museum opened to visitors in 1990. Credit: Ken and Barb Wardius Collection.

Today only one Great Lakes lightship, HURON NO. 103, remains and has been restored and preserved as a wonderful museum. She was first placed into service in 1921 and was the last lightship working on the Great Lakes after 1940. She served till she was finally decommissioned in 1970. Ultimately restored and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, the lightship resides in the city of Port Huron, Michigan, on the St. Clair River.

The floating museum opened to visitors in 1990. This vessel is a must see for any maritime history enthusiast.

Like their land or pier-based counterparts, lightships were an integral part of maritime safety and commerce in Wisconsin, on the Great Lakes, in the United States, as well as worldwide. Their contributions were immeasurable. Many a mariner relied on these vital, mobile lighthouses for their well-being. It is amazing to realize that an idea as simple as a ship with a bright light complimented other safety measures utilized by thousands of sailors and their ships.

These vessels and all those who served aboard them are often overlooked in nautical history. Their unique service to the maritime industry should not be forgotten.

PHOTO CREDIT: Milwaukee Lightship No. 95 - Before the building of the Breakwater Lighthouse at the entrance to Milwaukee's harbor, the city had its own MILWAUKEE LIGHTSHIP NO. 95. Commencing in 1912, and for nearly two decades, it guided ships to Milwaukee. Anchored nearly three miles from the harbor in open water, lonely crews gladly welcomed visitors who would come out to visit the strange-looking steel vessel. Credit: Courtesy United States Coast Guard.

Ken and Barb Wardius are the authors of "Wisconsin Lighthouses, A Photographic & Historical Guide." They have also written books on the Cana Island Lighthouse, the Wind Point Lighthouse and the North Point Milwaukee Lighthouse. They live in Glendale, and are members of the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society. Visit their website,

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.