By Megan Schmidt, Special to   Published May 05, 2008 at 5:08 AM

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Although its beam was once seen 23 miles out into Lake Michigan, the North Point Lighthouse has become something of a secret enveloped amid the trees of Lake Park.

"Even people born and raised here have no clue it's here," says Kathy Gingrass, a lighthouse volunteer.

Similarly, few seem to remember the city's maritime history. As one of Milwaukee's oldest structures, North Point was a beacon for generations of fisherman and shipping boats dating back Milwaukee's first industrial boom in the mid-1800s.

Nowadays, global positioning systems prevent ships being devoured by the jaws of Milwaukee's shoreline.

The lighthouse's globe was extinguished in 1994 by the Coast Guard, and the structure, along with the attached keeper's house, remained boarded-up until the nonprofit North Point Lighthouse Friends began rehabbing the tower.

In December 2007, the lighthouse opened to the public for tours. But only after a 10-year battle with area residents and the city.

"It was a struggling time," says Betty Moore, a lighthouse volunteer, who says some residents -- fearing increased traffic from visitors -- wanted the 1855 structure bulldozed rather than preserved.

The 74-ft. hexagonal, white tower rises in stark contrast against the trees in Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Lake Park.

"Progress is happening so fast that people aren't stopping to think about where their ancestors came from," said Ellen who, along with her husband Bernie, is a lighthouse volunteer. One of Bernie's own ancestors - a great-great uncle was one of the North Point Lighthouse keepers.

Michael Rotta maintained the North Point Lighthouse for years until his accidental death in 1953. A wooden platform Rotta stood on collapsed while painting the Breakwater Lighthouse, another Milwaukee beacon he managed.

Rotta was the only keeper who died in the line of duty, but another unique thread runs through the lighthouse's history.

Another interesting character in North Point history is Georgia Stebbins, the only woman -- and also the longest-serving -- keeper. Stebbins kept the globe lit for over 30 years. Stebbins was the daughter of a North Point Lighthouse keeper named D.K. Green.

There are pictures hanging inside the keeper's quarters documenting the lighthouse before the renovation. Its walls were crumbling, the linoleum was mangled, and the windows were sealed shut with plywood. It has come a long way.

While the City greenlighted the project, it offered no funding. In 2002 a $1.23 million grant from the Department of Transportation helped return the tower and its keeper's quarters to its 19th century glory. But more is needed.

The quarters inhabited by Stebbins, Rotta and their fellow keepers now houses empty glass display cases, which will house artifacts for a Great Lakes maritime museum. Dwindling funds have stalled that part of the project.

While the lighthouse no longer shines over Lake Michigan to save lives, it continues to remind us of an era when waterways connected Milwaukee to the world.