Plum Island

Dustan Hoffman, back, a ranger with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and John Lauber, an architectural historian and historic preservation planner from Minneapolis, look over the keepers quarters house as they stand on an outside observation deck of the rear range light on Plum Island in Door County. The Fish & Wildlife Service and the Friends of Plum & Pilot Islands are working to restore historic structures on the two islands located near Washington Island. 

BARRY ADAMS, STATE JOURNAL

PLUM ISLAND—Martin Jauregui’s roofing job has turned into a camping trip.

When he was hired to replace the roofs of historic buildings on an uninhabited island off the tip of the Door County Peninsula, the Fish Creek contractor and owner of Martin Roofing Improvement knew of the challenging logistics of the job beyond the steeply pitched roofs of the buildings constructed in the 1890s.

A car ferry from the Washington Island Ferry Line was used to shuttle his trucks, a four-wheel lift, an enclosed equipment trailer, air guns, compressors, power saws, generators and even a dumpster to the 325-acre Plum Island dock 1.8 miles from the Northport Pier.

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Plum Island

Christian Jauegui, left, and Nelson Escobar of Martin Roofing Improvement in Fish Creek work on the roof of the former life saving station built in 1896 on Plum Island.

But when Jauregui and his crew lost a day of work to high winds that prevented their commute from nearby Washington Island, they quickly realized that to complete the job of replacing the roofs of the life saving station and the light keepers quarters they were going to need a tent, sleeping bags and air mattresses.

“Otherwise, I (was) never going to finish the job,” Jauregui, 43, said during a brief break last week. “The weather is unpredictable here. When you’re on the mainland and you need something you can go to the store. Here there’s nothing. We have to coordinate food, sleeping gear, working gear, everything.”

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Plum Island

The rear range light stands out on Plum Island and is seen here from the Washington Island Ferry as it departs Northport Pier off the tip of the Door County Peninsula.

Jauregui, his brother, Christian Jauregui, and Nelson Escobar, have pitched a dome tent inside the 1939 boathouse where they have coolers, a stash of food and more protection from the wind and cool evening temperatures. Outside they have a pair of portable toilets, a propane grill and stunning views of one of the most beautiful and historic regions of the state.

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Plum Island

A panoramic photo from the observation deck of the rear range light on Plum Island shows off the keepers quarters, left, the front range light in the distance and the tip of the Door County Peninsula.

The roofing job is part of what ultimately could be nearly $7 million in improvements through a joint effort by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Friends of Plum & Pilot Islands (FOPPI). The goal is to preserve the structures on both islands that are part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge and create a visitor center, museum and research facility on Plum Island.

“We’re just kind of taking things a step at a time,” said Tim Sweet, past president of FOPPI, who was on Plum Island last week. “Lots of things need to be done.”

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Plum Island

John Lauber, an architectural historian and historic preservation planner checks out the light and Fresnel lens of the rear range light on Plum Island. The light is used in concert with the front range light 1,650-feet away and allows sailors t coordinate their position through the Death's Door Passage. The range lights have been used since 1897.

In 2008, a new roof was put on the Pilot Island lighthouse that was built in 1858. However, the 3.7-acre island is a sanctuary for nesting double–crested cormorants, herons, great egrets, gulls and white pelicans and is off limits to visitors.

Plum Island includes a network of hiking trails and, on its northwest side, a former U.S. Coast Guard boathouse and the only remaining Duluth-style rescue station quarters on the Great Lakes. On the southwest side of the island are the keepers quarters, a fog signal building and a pair of range lights that since 1897 have guided sailors through the Death’s Door Passage, one of the most treacherous spots on the Great Lakes due to its strong currents and shallow water.

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Plum Island

The former life saving station constructed in 1896 on Plum Island in Door County is getting a new roof but needs more upgrades, including a paint job. The boathouse in the background was built in 1939 and painted in 2010 by the friends of Plum & Pilot Islands. Officials say they would like the structures, constructed to be used as a visitor center, museum and research facility. The U.S. Coast Guard last used the property in 1990. Washington Island can be seen in the background.

The boathouse was repainted in 2010 followed by the renovation of the porch of the life saving station, the repair of the dock and the construction of an informational kiosk. The projects, including the $40,000 roof for the keepers quarters, were paid for by FOPPI. The nonprofit was formed in 2007 and has spent about $250,000 on projects. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is paying for the $75,000 roof on the life saving station and for about $25,000 in wall repairs to the building scheduled for next spring.

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Plum Island

This view of the U.S. Coast Guard life saving station on Plum Island shows what the facility looked like in 1916. Built in 1896, the facility included an attached boathouse. A separate boathouse was added in 1939.

Steven Lenz, project leader at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and whose agency oversees Plum and Pilot islands, said no government money has been earmarked for further projects but he is submitting a proposal that would remove lead paint from the life saving station.

“I’ll know by next spring if my proposal is a winner,” Lenz said. “You’ve got to play a lot of different widgets when you put the puzzle together on this. We would not be able to function without volunteers and the assistance from FOPPI.”

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Plum Island

An alarm bell remains on the back of the former life saving station on Plum Island. The U.S. Coast Guard last used the facility in 1990 and are now based during the boating season on Washington Island.

Because of funding, it could take years or even decades to complete all of the work but Lenz said he would ideally like to see Plum Island become something similar to the state-owned Rock Island State Park where docents spend the summer living in the lighthouse, giving tours and taking care of the grounds. Lenz also envisions quarters in the Plum Island life saving station for academia to conduct bird and pollinator surveys and to study other wildlife and foliage of the area.

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Plum Island

Dustan Hoffman, left, a ranger with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pilots a boat and speaks with Tim Sweet, past president of the Friends of Plum & Pilot Islands as they make their to Plum Island last week.

Sweet, 59, lives in Appleton and is a retired reading specialist from the Clintonville School District. He had been a volunteer with the Friends of Rock Island and helped restore the island’s lighthouse before joining FOPPI, an organization with over 200 members who logged 3,766 hours of sweat equity this year.

“I’m being rewarded today,” Sweet said as he watched Jauregui’s crew work on the roof of the life saving station, a job that should be completed by this week. “If this one doesn’t get saved, it’s gone forever. This is very thrilling.”

Getting to Plum Island is a trek.

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Plum Island

The view from the top of the rear range light on Plum Island offers views of Death's Door Passage and the Door County Peninsula.

The Northport Pier, where passengers and motorists can catch the ferry, is about a four-hour drive from Madison and about a one-hour drive from Sturgeon Bay if you take Highway 57 to Highway 42 in Sister Bay.

For those taking the scenic route via Highway 42 along the peninsula’s west coast, budget at least 90 minutes from Sturgeon Bay and maybe more depending on the time of the year and the degree of traffic congestion in Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay and Ellison Bay.

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Plum Island

This 1913 photo of the rear range light shows off the keepers quarters, far right, but the other structures and piers have been removed. The Plum Island facility was built in 1896. The range light was automated in 1955. 

Once to the landing, it’s a 30- to 40-minute ride on the car ferry to Washington Island where passengers get a good view of Plum Island. However, to access the island, visitors need to either rent a kayak, use their own power boat or take a private charter. Shoreline Scenic Cruises & Charters in Gills Rock also offers narrated tours around the island but drops customers off on the island only two weekends a year.

“We want people to come out here and enjoy the cultural heritage of Wisconsin,” said Dustan Hoffman, a ranger with the Fish & Wildlife Service. “We want them to understand that the roots of Wisconsin came down these island chains. A lot of the shipwrecks in this area were hauling goods to Milwaukee and Chicago. So there’s a lot of ties with the local communities here with the larger cities.”

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Plum Island

Some of the 73 interior stairs of the rear range light on Plum Island allow access to the top of the tower on the southwest side of the island.

One of the most photographed parts of Plum Island is the rear range light that stands 65 feet tall and works in concert with the front range light, 1,650 feet to the southwest.

The front range light was originally mounted on a two-story wooden structure but was replaced with a steel skeletal tower in 1964. The rear range light is the most prominent and holds a Fresnel lens that allows the red light to be seen up to 13 miles away.

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Plum Island

The rear range light on Plum Island stands 65 feet high and is used with the front range light in the distance for sailors to align their vessels in the Death's Door Passage.

In 1895, Congress, under the recommendation of the U.S. Life Saving Service, agreed to fund the construction of the range lights, a combination life saving station and boat house and a keepers quarters for the range lights that became active in May 1897. The Life Saving Service was open initially for the shipping season with a crew of about 10 people and became the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. Plum Island was staffed with a Coast Guard crew and boats until 1990, when the operation was moved to Washington Island where it is staffed seasonally.

The staff for the range lights was in place until 1955 when the lights were automated, said John Lauber, an architectural historian and historic preservation planner from Minneapolis. He has spent the last four years documenting and studying the structures on the island and was part of a tour last week that included climbing the 73 interior steps of the rear range light.

“A ship captain would see the light on Pilot Island and then could immediately make a turn and start to align these two lights to plot the course through the Door passage,” Lauber said. “I took every element of the buildings, described what they’re made of, described their condition and eventually made recommendations for rehab along with some cost information. We’re starting from the top down.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.