Plum Island Open for Business

Ferry passengers and visitors to Northport often mistake the white tower on Plum Island for a lighthouse but it's actually the rear range light of the Plum Island Range Lights.

Ferry passengers on their way to Washington Island often mistake the white tower on Plum Island for a lighthouse but it’s actually the rear range light of the Plum Island Range Lights.

Today Mary and I paddled the Death’s Door crossing from the northernmost mainland of Wisconsin’s Door County to Plum Island. There we viewed restoration work on the Plum Island lifesaving station, which began operations April 1, 1896, serving the Portes des Morts Passage (more commonly called “Death’s Door”) at the entrance to Green Bay. The nearby boathouse was added in 1939 at the end of a 200-foot pier. In 1990 the U.S. Coast Guard abandoned the station and moved the crew to nearby Washington Island. The island fell under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, which decided in 2007 that control should fall under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before the USFWS obtained ownership, the USCG conducted a cleanup of lead and fuel contamination at a cost of $863,000. The station received little if any maintenance during the 17-year management by the BLM. Plum Island is now part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, whose comprehensive plan for preservation was approved in January 2013. The plan calls for public access to Plum Island in addition to preserving the natural resources there.

The exterior of the 1939 boathouse has been recently restored and work was performed on the 200-foot pier so supplies and materials can be landed at the station safely.

The exterior of the 1939 boathouse has been recently restored and work performed on the 200-foot pier so supplies and materials can be landed at the station safely. Those are mosquitoes in the foreground. Luckily they were not biting.

Built in 1896, the Plum Island Life-Saving and Light Stations helped ships navigate the Porte des Morte (Death’s Door) passage, a treacherous passage named for the high number of shipwrecks that occurred on its rocky shoals.

Built in 1896, the Plum Island Life-Saving and Light Stations helped ships navigate the Porte des Morte (Death’s Door) passage, a treacherous passage named for the high number of shipwrecks that occurred on its rocky shoals.

A nonprofit corporation, the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, was formed in 2008 to establish a partnership with USFWS to help preserve the historic structures on the islands. Through volunteer efforts, several projects are completed. The 1939 Roosevelt-type boathouse’s exterior has been recently restored along with work on the 200-foot long pier so supplies and materials can be landed at the station safely. The porch of the station has also been completely restored.

Progress continues on restoration of the porch of the Plum Island lifesaving station.

Progress continues on restoration of the Plum Island lifesaving station. The steps and porch appear to be completed.

Several projects were completed by Friends volunteers in 2014. Protective coverings over the windows of the life-saving station and an Information kiosk, a condition required to open the island to public use, was completed and installed at the dock site. Trails around the island are ready for hikers, complete with trail signs. Roof repairs were performed by a contractor last fall. The Friends group has a current fundraising goal of $300,000 by the end of 2017 to further stabilize the historic structures on Plum Island.

Mary poses near one of the recently installed trail signs on Plum Island.

Mary poses near one of the recently installed trail signs on Plum Island.

With the exception of two Saturdays in August of 2014, the island has not been open for public access until this year. In 2015 the island is open for daytime recreation from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

Long term, the Friends group plans to stabilize all buildings, restore the exteriors and then the interiors, as funding permits. The hope is to use the boathouse as the visitor’s center for the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, housing interpretive and educational displays on the island’s history and wildlife.

The Plum Island station is the last of 15 Duluth-type stations remaining on the Great Lakes. Both the station and the boathouse were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

Note: Paddling to Plum Island should only be attempted by trained, experienced coastal sea kayakers with appropriate gear and safety equipment and after checking the latest marine forecast.

Friends of Plum and Pilot Island’s website: www.plumandpilot.org/

Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge website: www.fws.gov/refuge/green_bay/

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