Poverty Island Lighthouse was completed in 1875 to mark the northernmost passage, and in 1891, the Lighthouse Board decided it was time to mark the fourth passage: “The passage between St. Martin and Little Gull Islands, if marked by lights and fog signals, would be much safer than Poverty Island Passage, as the entrance is capacious and unobstructed. A fourth-order light and a fog signal should be established on the northwest end of St Martin Island. It is estimated that they can be built for $15,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made for that purpose.”
Congress approved the project on February 15, 1893, but did not provide the requested $15,000 until July 1, 1898. Authorities visited the island in September 1898 to select a site, and a forty-two acre parcel was subsequently purchased for the station. When plans and estimates for the required buildings were drawn up and bids solicited, it was discovered that another $14,000 was needed. All bids were therefore rejected, and a petition was sent to Congress for additional funds. Congress provided $10,000 more on January 28, 1902, and bids were invited in February 1903 for providing a metal tower, boilers for the fog signal, and construction materials for the dwelling, boathouse, and fog signal building.
After materials were transported to the island from Milwaukee, work commenced on the station in the spring of 1903. By July, sites had been cleared for the various buildings, and the boathouse was finished. In addition, the brickwork up to the second-story window sills of the dwelling was done, excavations were made for the tower’s foundation, and concrete footings for the fog signal building were in place.
The fog signal boilers and metalwork for the tower were completed under contract in early September 1903, and by June 25, 1904, all the station’s buildings, “consisting of a metal tower, a brick dwelling, a brick fog-signal house, a brick oil house, a frame boathouse with boatways, landing and tramway from the boathouse to the house, some 800 running feet,” were ready for service. There was just one problem. The Lighthouse Board had no funds to hire keepers! The station was left in charge of custodians until a new appropriation allowed keepers to active the light and fog signal at the opening of navigation in the spring of 1905. Bernhard Pizzalar, who had previously served as first assistant and second assistant at Poverty Island Lighthouse, was appointed the station’s first head keeper, with Christian E. Christensen as first assistant and Niels P. Jensen as second assistant.
The hexagonal metal tower on St. Martin Island stands seventy-five feet tall, and its fourth-order Barbier, Benard, & Turenne Fresnel lens originally produced alternate red and white flashes, spaced by five seconds. Six steel buttresses run the length of the tower and then fan out at the ground, where their latticed bases attach to a massive concrete foundation. The station’s ten-inch steam whistle sounded a three-second blast every thirty seconds during periods of reduced visibility.
The intensity of the light was increased to 24,000 candlepower on April 17, 1916, when the use of an incandescent oil vapor lamp was introduced. A submarine telephone line was run to St. Martin Island and Poverty Island in 1926, connecting the remote stations to the exchange in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. At the opening of navigation in 1931, a radiobeacon was established on St. Martin Island. The island’s fog signal was upgraded to an air tyfon in 1933, and in 1940 the radiobeacon and fog signal were synchronized so they could be used for distance finding.
Life of a lighthouse keeper’s wife wasn’t all bad. Eva developed a keen interest in birds after spotting an eagle’s nest near Pottawatomie Lighthouse, and on St. Martin Island, she canned thirty quarts of wild blackberries one summer. Following their time on St. Martin, the Fadels spent eight years at Waukegan and eleven at Wind Point Lighthouse.
After having served as one of the last civilian keeper of Pottawatomie Lighthouse, Ernest Lockhart was transferred to St. Martin Island in 1946. In 1966, Admiral Charles Tighe of the U.S. Coast Guard presented Keeper Lockhart with a thirty-year service pin, and in May 1969, the Wisconsin Legislature issued a certificate of commendation to Ernest Lockhart upon his retirement as keeper of St. Martin Island Lighthouse after thirty-four years of service.
St. Martin Island Lighthouse was one of just seven staffed lighthouses on Lake Michigan in 1979, but its days were numbered as all the remaining lights had been automated by 1983. St. Martin Island Lighthouse was automated in 1980. Even after the removal of its Fresnel lens, St. Martin Lighthouse maintains its original characteristic of alternating red and white flashes.
The Nature Conservancy acquired nearly 1,244 acres, or ninety-four percent, of St. Martin Island from the Fred Luber family of Milwaukee in 2013, and another thirty-six acres the following year from David Uihlein, Jr., also of Milwaukee. The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians own the remainder of the island, which includes the automated light station. In 2015, St. Martin Island, which provides critical stopover habitat for migrating birds, became part of Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge.