Now in ruins, the once stately and well kept Green Island Lighthouse had a unique view of the Great Peshtigo Fire on the night of October 8, 1871. Built in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, and first lit on October 1st of that year, the Cream City (another name for Milwaukee) white cream brick, two and a half story building warned passing ships from it's light atop the forty foot tower.
Samuel P. Drew was appointed the first lighthouse keeper. Lard (whale) oil, wicks and cleaning agents were carried up the tower each day to prepare and fuel the Fresnel lens by night. This steady light could be seen for up to 12 miles and marked the dangerous shallow underwater shoals at each end of the nearly 100 acre island.
The Family Settles In
Samuel lived on the island with his wife, Mary, and Frank, one of their six children, was born in the lighthouse on March 11, 1864. The family was unusual for lighthouse keepers in that they also bought land surrounding the building complex and engaged in extensive seasonal farming production, which was sold on the mainland. A fire in the lighthouse and tower complex in 1864 extensively damaged the house and tower. A temporary light station was set up during the rebuilding and the tower and family residence was restored before winter set in.
A Sad Year
The year 1869 was
an unusually active one for the island family,
and Frank remembered the excitement of a crew arriving at the island in
the summer to paint the entire station. Samuel Drew was
in the care of his lighthouse. It was his home. In the late Fall of
year, their three month old daughter, Anna, became ill. Mary was 44
old when this youngest child was born and had been having children for
21 years. The nearest doctor was in Menominee, Michigan, 6 miles away
the waters of Green Bay. It was a continuously rough and stormy season,
much worse than most years and the family was completely unable to take
Anna to shore or to bring medical treatment to her. Before there was a
break in the weather, Anna died and her parents buried her next to a
bush on the island. The following year they brought in a carved
to mark the spot. The gravestone and Lilac remain today on the island.
Snug Little Group
In the 1870 census, the lighthouse group included Frank Drew age 46, Chief Lighthouse Keeper who was born in Vermont; Mary Drew age 45, who was born in Pennsylvania; Hellen (sic) Drew age 22, assistant lighthouse keeper who was born in New York; George Drew age 19, born in New York; Kate Drew age 14, born in Wisconsin; Mary Drew, age 10 born in Michigan; Frank Drew, age 5 born in Wisconsin; Mary Tuttle age 26, a teacher born in New York, and Chase Johnson age 24, a laborer born in Sweden.
Year from Hell
The year of 1871 was remembered in Green Bay, as it was the year of the Great Peshtigo Fire. Green Island was far enough from the shore to escape the actual fires of the night of Sunday October 8. However, the entire area all the way out to, and beyond, the island was completely enveloped in thick choking smoke off and on for weeks before the final blaze. There had been a terrible extended drought that year and the lake level was low, which further exposed the dangerous rocks at either end of Green Island. Samuel had kept the light burning 24 hours a day for weeks at a time in an attempt to keep vessels clear of the island shoals, for there was no fog horn at the complex. It was an exhausting job that was shared by all members of the lighthouse family. Lives depended on their duty. Mary was a deeply religious person. Each evening she gathered the children for prayer. On her trips that year to the mainland she had heard of the itinerant preachings of the coming end of the world from friends on shore. With smoke so thick that she and her husband needed the island light during the daytime just to find home, like many others Mary could not help but wonder.
The early evening of October 8th was quiet. The lake was still and there seemed to be a light breeze from the south, which afforded a bit of relief from the ever present smoke. Samuel and two others had hauled gallons of oil, cleaning rags, new wicks and water buckets up to the top of the tower and had finished renewing the light for the present. It was hot, and they ate dinner later than usual. As she was putting the younger children to bed on the second floor, after evening prayers, Mary thought she noticed an unusual orange glow on the very distant shoreline to the southwest. With the smoke, it was faint and occasional, so she thought at first it might be a reflection or mirage, but it was the first time she had seen such a thing. Not much later, the wind grew stronger and became hot. It stung the lungs of those outside tending to the last chores of the day and soon, all those awake were watching the crimson shore through breaks in the smoke.
The whole shoreline to the southwest was ablaze. Between the clouds of smoke, flames could now be seen leaping high into the sky and racing northward across the still unburned treetops at lightning speeds. Burning embers began filling the sky over the island and dropping onto the wooden shingles of the lighthouse and outbuildings. Mary woke the youngest and brought them down to the kitchen where they read the bible and prayed as the older ones doused the embers that fell upon their home and light tower. Mary wanted to ready them all for escape, but there was nowhere visible to go. By this time the entire shoreline was in flames and the roar of the searing winds could be easily heard inside the brick building. Tornadic winds swept over the island and smoke so thick it was almost impossible to breath. The burning ash was now large chucks of burning timber carried on the ferocious winds. Was the prophecy coming true? Mary had been assistant lighthouse keeper before the births of her youngest two children, and took over the care of the light at the top of the 40 foot tower with the youngest, whilst the others battled to save the buildings. From this vantage point the whole world surely did seem at an end.
In the midst of it all, the light was virtually invisible to boats in the Bay. At 9 p.m. that night, the three-masted schooner GEORGE L NEWMAN ran up on one of the sharp shoals off the island, tearing it's hull and taking on water in the now tempestuous waves. Samuel assisted the crew to safety in the blinding smoke, super heated winds and burning ash through the very height of the fire. All were rescued and given safer refuge at the lighthouse. Hours later, which seemed an almost endless eternity, the winds changed course, coming out of the north. The smoke lightened and the shower of burning embers gradually ended. Most of the island was scorched and small fires still burned in the brush, but the people and buildings were in tact. A cold rain began to fall, chilling the air and people, and causing steam to settle over the land. From the shore and on the Bay, the light in the tower could again be seen.
Sunrise brought an austere scene to the eyes of the island inhabitants and guests. What had been thick evergreen covered shoreline the day before was now low black stubble, with dots of crimson fires here and there below billowing black clouds of smoke. The surface of the lake was covered with undulating black ash and burned timber, to the point that the water was nearly impossible to see. The family boat had burned and everyone did their best while secluded in the Bay. While they salvaged everything of value that they could remove from the wreck, the sailors stayed at the lighthouse for a week. Young Frank Drew remembered the night well. He went on to become a lake ship captain and later a lighthouse keeper, eventually returning to keep the light on Green Island. Frank was honored in life and in death for the many heroic deeds he had accomplished in saving lives during his career on the upper Great Lakes. It would seem that he was destined to follow in the footsteps of his pioneering lighthouse parents.
Green Island was part of Oconto County, Wisconsin until the very large county was divided into several smaller ones in 1879 eight years after the Peshtigo Fire. To see photos and learn more about Green Island in Green Bay, Lake Michigan, the present state of the lighthouse, and a more complete history of the lighthouse and Drew family, click on the following link (it takes you to another site; please click "back" at the top of your page to return Oconto County WIGenWeb):