Port Washington Breakwater Lighthouse

Port Washington, Wisconsin - 1935 (1935**)

Photo of the Port Washington Breakwater Lighthouse.

History of the Port Washington Breakwater Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2011-02-22.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Port Washington Pierhead Light1889 Wooden pierhead light (Courtesy Coast Guard)

With the creation of a pair of piers extending out from the mouth of the Sauk River into the lake, the federal government created the first artificial harbor on the Great Lakes. In 1889, a wooden pierhead light was constructed at the end of the north pier to enhance navigation in the area.

The keeper was responsible for both the original 1860 Port Washington Lighthouse on St. Mary's Hill, as well as the pierhead light. Although the pierhead light utilized an elevated catwalk to access the tower, it was still some distance away from the main harbor light. In 1903, the north pierhead was deemed adequate enough to handle lighting duties for the harbor, and the 1860 tower was extinguished. The 1860 lighthouse was still used as the keeper's residence for the pierhead light at this time.

In 1931, a major federal maritime project was approved for Port Washington as a WPA project. It would call for the construction of a new federal pier and a lighthouse, also approved for the area was a coal-burning electrical generation station. These projects easily turned Port Washington into one of the best ports on Lake Michigan.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Port Washington Pierhead Light with lantern.Pierhead Lighthouse with lantern room. (C.G.)

When the pier was finished in 1934, attention turned to construction of the lighthouse. The approved design was the "art deco" style which was popular in the 1930s as evidenced by the Huron Harbor Pierhead and the Conneaut West Breakwater lighthouses in Ohio. Another example of this style is the Gravelly Shoal Lighthouse in Michigan. It was powered via a submarine cable which ran back to the newly constructed electrical generator building behind the original lighthouse on St. Mary's Hill. Illumination was provided by a fourth order Fresnel lens.

While this lighthouse was in operation, the keepers were housed in the original 1860 Port Washington Lighthouse on St. Mary's Hill, which was a some distance away. Things got a little easier for the keepers when the tower was automated in 1975, which meant no more walking back and forth. Although the lantern room was removed at some point in favor of a modern plastic optic, the Coast Guard does have a picture of it with the lantern room on their website. The power for the lighthouse today is provided via solar panels and is still an active aid to navigation.


  1. Lighthouses of the Great Lakes: Your Ultimate Guide to the Region's Historic Lighthouses, Todd R. Berger and Daniel E. Dempster, 2002.
  2. Great Lakes Lighthouses Encyclopedia, Larry & Patricia Wright, 2011.
  3. Wisconsin Lighthouses: A Photographic & Historical Guide, Ken & Barb Wardius, 2003.
  4. Lighthouses of Lake Michigan: Past and Present, Wayne S. Sapulski, 2001.

Directions: There are several great viewing areas for this lighthouse. The first spot is the parking area at the end of North Franklin Street where it meets East Grand Street. The second spot is from the first parking area in Upper Lake Park. To get to Upper Lake Park, follow North Franklin Street, to East Jackson Street. Take East Jackson Street east towards the lake. Follow this to the end, which is North Lake Street. Take North Lake Street north to the first parking area. To get to the lighthouse, take East Jackson Street to the end, it will stop at a parking area, from here you can walk the pier out to the lighthouse. Be careful as the day I was there, it was very windy, and waves were breaking over the pier.

Access: Grounds closed. Tower closed.

View more Port Washington Breakwater Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 58.00'
Focal Plane: 78'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 43.38500 N
*Longitude: -87.85900 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.