The North Point Lighthouse in Milwaukee's Lake Park neighborhood is a treasure trove of maritime history set off the beaten path of Milwaukee tourist destinations.
Many of the world’s lighthouses are naturally located on seacoasts, where ships in the pre-GPS era needed to be warned of imminent land, sandbars, and dangerous rocks – anything that could potentially cause a ship to run aground, be disabled, or to sink.
Because the Great Lakes are essentially inland, freshwater seas, there are plenty of lighthouses along their coasts as well. There is still a working one – with a foghorn you can hear if you live along the lakeshore – near the entrance to the port of Milwaukee.
But one of the first lighthouse here, the North Point Lighthouse, is now a museum dedicated to lighthouses and their keepers. Located in Lake Park, the lighthouse is the northernmost member of the Milwaukee Museum Mile.
Kevin Walzak, who sits on the North Point Lighthouse’s Board of Directors, says the Lighthouse evolved from an undervalued relic of maritime past into a thriving exhibition of living history.
"It’s one of those museums and locations that people think they know about, maybe have heard about, but are not truly aware of," he says.
First lit in 1855, the North Point Lighthouse has grown from a modest 28 feet to a towering 74 feet tall and remained in active use until 1994, when the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned it. Between 2003 and 2007, Walzak says the Lighthouse was restored “not to what it once was” as a functioning lighthouse, “but to where it could become a useful public place.”
In 2007, the Lighthouse opened to the public as a museum, showcasing exhibits of Lake Michigan’s maritime past and elucidating the Lighthouse’s long and varied history. Walzak calls it “a living, breathing place that people can experience,” and visitors of all ages can both explore the exhibits and climb up the tower itself.
The North Point Lighthouse welcomed nearly 7,000 visitors over the past year, and Walzak expects that number to grow with each coming season. Through a variety of outreach programs, geared toward everything from school groups to scout troops to senior centers, the Lighthouse aims to increase public awareness of Lake Michigan’s storied maritime history and all the educational opportunities the Lake Park neighborhood has to offer.
The Lighthouse is offering free admission today as part of National Lighthouse Day.