Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Lighthouses and Lifesaving

Underwater Archaeology

Lighthouses and Lifesaving | Underwater Archaeology | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargePhoto of lighthouse at Wind Point near Racine.

Photo of lighthouse at Wind Point, near Racine, by: Jon C. Bolton for Wisconsin Department of Tourism Wisconsin's Great Lakes Lighthouses

Lighthouses were created to protect the ships and sailors on the Great Lakes. All lighthouses were created under the U.S. Lighthouse and U.S. Lifesaving Services Departments.


How Lighthouses Protect Ships

Lighthouses help sailors by marking specific points of land that might be dangerous to ships:

  • Entrances to harbors
  • Shallow areas of water
  • Large rocks

At night, the bright revolving light on top of a lighthouse tower helps sailors avoid these dangerous areas.


EnlargeMap of Door County, Wisconsin, marking where lighthouses were built.

Map of Door County Lighthouses

Source: Lighthouse Friends

Wisconsin's Lighthouses

Today nearly 50 lighthouses can be found along Wisconsin's Great Lakes shores. They still light up the night, showing sailors the safe way into port.

  • Door County has more lighthouses than any other county in the United States
  • Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has more lighthouses than any other National Park in the United States

Exterior of boat house with crew.

U.S. Life Saving Station

Charlevoix, Michigan. This Great Lakes Live Saving Station housed boats and lifesaving crews, similar to a fire station today. View the original source document: WHI 75114

Lifesaving Crews

Although lighthouses prevented some accidents, the U.S. government realized it needed to provide people and lifesaving equipment to help rescue sailors when shipwrecks did occur.

  • To help sailors in a shipwreck, lifesaving stations were created. They had highly trained crews to watch for and rescue shipwrecks and sailors.
  • Lifesaving crews were very brave, made many daring rescues, and worked at great risk to their own personal safety.

Today, the lifesaving crews of the U.S. Lighthouse and U.S. Lifesaving Services have been replaced with the U.S. Coast Guard, who now patrols the Great Lakes. They are always ready to help ships and sailors in an emergency.

Learn More

See more images, essays, newspapers and records about lighthouses.

Learn about the Society's Maritime Preservation Program, which preserves Wisconsin's historic shipwrecks.

The Lucerne was a cargo ship that sailed Lake Superior in the 1800s. Find out more about the Lucerne and its final fate through this interactive resource, historical essay and slideshow.