Grassy Island Range Lights still shine after 150 years
By Janelle Fisher
GREEN BAY — Once a guiding light for ships coming into the Port of Green Bay, the Grassy Island Range Lights still stand — thanks to a little help from some friends — 150 years after they were built.
Lighthouse Keeper Wayne Dunbar, who has been with the Grassy Island Range Lights since 2001, was among many who first saved and then helped to restore the lighthouses to their former glory.
Built in 1872, the Grassy Island Range Lights originally guided sailing ships through the sandbars of the lower Bay into the safety of the Fox River, Dunbar said.
“As range lights, a captain will align his ship with the two lights, which will assure the ship is in the center of the channel leading into the mouth of the Fox River and the Green Bay harbor.”
After almost a century of guiding chips into the harbor, Dunbar said plans to expand the shipping channel in the 1960s nearly marked the end of the lighthouses’ existence.
“The Corp of Engineers needed to widen the channel into the harbor,” Dunbar said. “Because the range lights were deactivated, the intent was to destroy the lights.”
Dunbar said the Green Bay Yachting Club (GBYC), located at the mouth of the Fox River, offered a new home for the lighthouses, allowing them to avoid destruction.
“At that time, members of the Green Bay Yachting Club were concerned because they had boated past them for decades,” he said. “The GBYC was able to acquire the lighthouses, and the Corps moved them to the North side of the Club’s harbor.”
Dunbar said the lighthouses faced trouble once again as they began to show their age.
“In the late ‘90’s the GBYC board realized they were in poor shape and thought they should be destroyed,” he said.
But once again, members of the community rallied behind the lighthouses and moved them to their third and present location to be restored.
“At that time David L. Nelson and Merlin J. Baenen discussed moving the lighthouses to their present location and restoring them,” he said. “Thus began the volunteer lighthouse keepers’ project to restore them. Over a period of several years, the lights were moved, rotten timbers replaced, new cedar shake siding applied, and they were dedicated in 2005 after receiving designation on both the State and National Registration of Historical Places.”
Dunbar said the community support did not end there, though.
“Over time, the dike upon which they were placed was crumbling and the light houses were moving on their bases,” he said. “It was realized that the dike needed to be rebuilt if the light houses were to remain standing. With the passing of David L Nelson, a fund in his and Rita E. Nelson’s names was created with the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. The Grassy Island Range Lights were the first major recipient of monies to fund the rebuilding of the dike upon which they stand, now known as the David L and Rita E Nelson Memorial Lighthouse Park.”
Dunbar said Saturday’s official dedication of the park will coincide with the 150th anniversary of the lighthouses.
The lighthouses will be open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. with a ceremony at 11 a.m.
Merlin Baenen will give a short talk about the project.
“The Governor’s Proclamation will be presented in recognition of the lighthouses’ 150 years and the dedication of the park,” Dunbar said. “Other notables may be asked to speak.”
With 150 years under their belt, Dunbar said the Grassy Island Range Lights will continue to be a reminder of the city’s maritime history for years to come.
“Long term, the lighthouse keepers will continue to maintain the lights,” he said. “The lighthouses will be open for tours. In addition to this celebration, they will be open and part of the Door County Festival of Lights Sept. 30 thru Oct. 2.”