On Oct. 15, 1868, the light beamed from the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse tower for the first time. Located in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, the lovely lighthouse honorably served sailors and ships as they navigated the treacherous waters of the Great Lakes.
When modern technology made the lighthouse obsolete, it shut down in 1926. For decades, the lighthouse sat empty and neglected.
Then a strange thing happened. In 1960, The Door County Historical Society received permission to restore and operate the facility as a museum. Thus began a two-and-a-half-year loving restoration to return the lighthouse to its past glory. And one day, an elderly volunteer showed up to help.
Not only did the man named Walter Duclon offer assistance, he also quietly noted that he had once lived in the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. In addition, he still had family heirlooms from the time his father had been the lighthouse keeper from 1883 to 1918.
“His father was Civil War veteran Capt. William Duclon and his tenure here at the lighthouse was a remarkable 35 years,” says Linda Faust, site manager for the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum.
“William Duclon and his wife Julia had seven sons,” Linda says. “Our volunteer, Walter Duclon, was one of those sons and came here when he was one year old. So he spent all his growing-up years here at the lighthouse and had very valuable memories and artifacts to help us.”
Opened as a museum in 1963, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse possesses an authenticity and charm that Walter Duclon helped inspire. “He offered great assistance by recreating what the lighthouse looked like when he was a boy,” Linda says. “He and several family members donated many original pieces to the museum and helped to locate antique furnishings that Walter said were just like his Mom’s.”
Constructed of Milwaukee Cream City brick, the two-story lighthouse perched on a bluff 33 feet above Green Bay. The three-bedroom dwelling included a dining room, parlor and office. A 12-by-20-foot kitchen was built several steps below the level of the main house. The lighthouse was warmed by four fireplaces. A full basement provided ample storage space for the staples supplied once a year by the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
Lighthouse known for its strong light
A spiral cast-iron stairway of 55 steps from basement to lantern deck led to the lighthouse tower. Built at a height of 43 feet, the completed tower rose about 76 feet above the water’s edge. Visitors are allowed to climb the original cast iron spiral staircase to take a peek at the beautiful 5th order Fresnel lens and the panoramic view.
“Originally, they used pig fat to fuel the light. In 1882, they switched to kerosene,” Linda says. “Eagle Bluff was known as the lighthouse with the strong light. It would shine for seven miles. Sailors said they were blinded by the light so it was a really important warning signal.”
Among his other chores, the light keeper was required to observe and record daily weather conditions in a log book. Captain’s log book is on display in the lighthouse museum. On the very day he noted the gale force winds swirling around the lighthouse on Oct. 3, 1903, the Erie L. Hackley, a ship providing transportation service, was returning from Menominee, Michigan.
Caught in the fierce storm, the ship was struck full force by the waves and sank from view. One of the most tragic episodes in Green Bay’s maritime history, 11 of the 19 crew and passengers perished on that stormy night.
In total, the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse had only three light keepers – Henry Stanley (1868-1883), William Duclon (1883-1918) and Peter Coughlin (1918-1926).
“Many other lighthouse were isolated so life there was very lonely. But not here,” Linda says. “This was a popular gathering spot. They would have parties and potluck dinners. Guests would spend the night.”
Only three miles from the villages of Fish Creek in one direction and Ephraim in the other, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was easy to reach. Friends, family and visitors would come from as far away as Chicago.
And the Duclon family had an important element for happy social gatherings – a family band. The seven boys were homeschooled by their mother and read books that arrived courtesy of passing ships. Julia also taught her sons to play the piano.
“William paid $50 for that beautiful Rosewood piano,” Linda says, gesturing to the original piano in the lighthouse. “That was a month’s pay back then.”
Musically inclined, the Duclon boys were favorite entertainers in the area. “They would remove the legs from the piano to get it out of the house and take it with them when they played,” Linda says. A well-worn guitar near the piano was played by Walter.
Lighthouse life often difficult
Life at the lighthouse wasn’t easy, however. There was no running water so the boys had to “run” down 77 steep steps to the lake to fetch water each day. Their father fashioned a wooden yoke for each of his sons– Walter’s is now displayed in the lighthouse museum – to make carrying the water buckets easier.
“The older you got, the larger your bucket would get so the more water you could carry,” Linda says, adding that the family also raised cows, chickens and pigs and tended a big garden.
“When we started working on the lighthouse, we found over 80 coats of paint. Walter said that his Dad had a rule – any boy who was naughty had to paint the lighthouse,” Linda says with a laugh. “Those seven boys must have been quite a handful.”
The Duclon boys loved the water and during the early spring of 1887, they helped their father catch more than 2,000 pounds of lake trout through the ice near the lighthouse. Several of the sons would later become successful fishermen.
Keeping the lighthouse, the light, the lens and grounds in good shape and updating the keeper’s log books was a constant job, especially since the Duclons never knew when a US. Lighthouse Board inspector would arrive. The inspector visited annually, often arriving unannounced. A less-than-stellar job on any aspects and the keeper could be unemployed.
The Captain must have done an excellent job. The couple retired from the lighthouse in 1918. William died Sept. 2, 1926. He is buried next to his wife in a cemetery a few miles south of the lighthouse.
Today, the Eagle Bluff light is powered by the sun and a storage battery. The solar light provides guidance for commercial ships and pleasure boaters just as it did for more than 150 years. Installed in the mid 1980s, the light is a coded signal: one second on, six seconds off.
“If the Duclon family were to return, I think they would see the lighthouse looking much as it did when they lived here,” Linda says. “I think they would be very pleased that visitors are able to enjoy the historic site that they once called home.”
- Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
Cover photo: Eagle Bluff Light was activated in 1868.
A yoke by the dining room door was used by Walter Duclon to carry water.
The cast iron spiral staircase has 55 steps to the lighthouse tower.
Linda Faust stands by the Rosewood piano used by the Duclon brothers in their family band.
A trundle bed stored under another bed enlarged sleeping quarters.