Lighthouse shines on Kenosha history

The Southport Lighthouse has been in Kenosha for about 150 years.

The Great Lakes have devoured a great number of ships and lives throughout history. An estimated 6,000 boats and ships have been ravaged by the five lakes, taking up to 30,000 souls. The importance of lighthouses along the shorelines to help guide captains during their navigations was vital during the pre-GPS era.

Kenosha played a role, as it was the southernmost port in Wisconsin, alongside Lake Michigan. The city is home to the Southport Lighthouse, named for its location. The current lighthouse, built in 1866, is the third such facility at its spot.

Today, few lighthouses are operational, as GPS helps captains navigate their vessels. But, in its day, a lighthouse was critical to help guide ships near the shoreline. The Southport Lighthouse operated until 1906, when it was replaced by taller lighthouses to the north and south.

A view of Lake Michigan from the top of lighthouse.

The lighthouse is part of the Kenosha History Center. Visitors can climb the 72 steps to the top of the facility and get a beautiful view of Lake Michigan and the Kenosha area. On a clear day, we were told, people can see the Chicago skyline, which is about an hour train ride to the south.

Lighthouse keepers used to carry kerosene up these stairs to fuel the lights. Can you imagine how careful they had to be?

The lighthouse is a few steps from the lighthouse keeper’s house. The building, which was renovated in 2010, gives visitors a glimpse into life as a lighthouse keeper during the early 1900s. The first floor showcases a kitchen, while the second floor gives a view of the keeper’s bedroom. The Kenosha house actually had an addition built, so two lighthouse keepers and their families could live there.

Lighthouse keeper’s bedroom and office.

The house also features maps, models and artifacts related to the lighthouse and the Great Lakes. A model and life vest from the Wisconsin, a steamer that sank in 1929. Nine lives were lost.

Model of the steamer Wisconsin, which sank near Kenosha.

The lighthouse museum shares the grounds with the Kenosha History Center. The history museum allows visitors a chance to look back through the city’s early days, as well as examine the local industry, which churned out nationally known products.

The lighthouse complex was one of our favorite spots in Kenosha.

The History Center is divided into visitor-friendly galleries. You can take a walk through history in the Yesteryear gallery. Here, you’ll see the original oxcart used by the Upson family. The Connecticut residents relocated to the Wisconsin territory via barge and ship.

The original oxcart used by the Upson family during their move to Kenosha in the 1800s.

The gallery features old storefronts that would have been seen along the main street, including a barbershop and apothecary.

Apothecary was an early drug store.

We’re suckers for old-time school settings, such as one-room schoolhouses. Kenosha didn’t disappoint. The exhibit included a mannequin dressed as a teacher from the 1800s. We love the old desks and the chalkboards, which used real chalk (go figure, right?).

School’s in session.

The lobby gallery offers a look at old storefronts, including a general store, photography studio and clothing store.

The museum offers special exhibits. With 2016 a presidential election year, the museum takes a look at Wisconsin’s politics and the influence nationally.

Special exhibit during 2016.

If you love toys from your childhood, the History center doesn’t disappoint. They have a large collection of old toys and action figures. The exhibit – named Timeless Toys – shares only a portion of the owner’s collection. Wowza!

Toys, part of a larger collection on display.

The Rambler gallery takes a look at the city’s automobile history, as well as manufacturing. Did you know that Simmonds mattresses originated in Kenosha? Jockey clothing still has its headquarters in Kenosha. Peter Pirsch developed hand- and horsedrawn fire ladder carts. His company then created motorized ladder trucks for fire departments.


Early day firefighting equipment.

American Motors Company produced automobiles in Kenosha through the 1970s. The Rambler was produced in Kenosha. We had a Rambler when I was a kid. I remember playing in it. The Rambler was originally built by the Thomas Jeffery Company.

One of the first Ramblers built in Kenosha.

The Rambler was a unique car when it first hit the streets in the early 1900s. Jeffery used a steering wheel instead of the more traditional tiller (sticks to navigate). But, the public didn’t accept the style, so early Ramblers used tillers.

The Jeffery Company was sold to Nash Motors in 1916. Nash was later bought out by American Motors. The last United States Rambler rolled off the assembly line in 1969, ending the run of more than 4 million made in Kenosha.

An updated Rambler.

The Rambler gallery is home to a showcase of vehicles, ranging from a Hawkeye truck to a spiffy-looking Nash. The cars on display are loaned to the museum. The History center rotates automobile displays annually. The displays are accessorized with clothes and other items from their eras. It is an impressive auto display.

The auto gallery had some impressive vehicles.

The stories of Kenosha’s history are shared in an amazing manner at the History center. Combined with the lighthouse museum, it’s an interesting way to spend a couple of hours. We appreciated learning a brief history of the area.

For more information on the Southport Lighthouse Museum and History Center, please visit or

Disclaimer: Thank you to the History Center and Visit Kenosha for the complimentary tour. However, all opinions and views are ours.