Algoma History

historyThe small lakeshore community of Algoma wasn’t always known by that particular name. In fact, Algoma is a relatively new name for the city. Discovered in 1834 by Joseph McCormick of Manitowoc, the first settlement, established in 1851 by Irish and English pioneers was called Wolf River. This was a loose translation from the Indian An-Ne-Pe which meant “land of the great gray wolf” a legendary animal in stories told by local Indians. Those early settlers had a friendly relationship with their Native American neighbors–the Potawatomi, who passed on the legend through word of mouth storytelling.

The flow of immigrants to the area continued in the mid 1800’s as peoples from Germany, Bohemia, Scandinavian countries and Belgium began to settle along the lake. Earliest businesses include a sawmill, general store and churches. By 1855, a school house was built, but the lack of a doctor in growing community was a concern. Folk medicine from the “old country” was used along with the knowledge of Indian Joe, a local expert on herbs. The spelling of the name of the community eventually changed to Ahnapee and the city continued to flourish, attracting new residents and new businesses.

The city was spared, for the most part, the 1871 fire that swept from Green Bay, destroying thousands of acres of land. Local residents prepared for the worst–waiting beside boats on the lakefront with their valuables, planning on venturing out into the lake to avoid the approaching flames, but torrential rains doused the fire at the last minute and saved Ahnapee. A few years later, in 1879, the city was formally renamed Algoma, another Indian name, this one meaning “park of flowers”. By that time, the commercial fishing fleet located in Algoma was the largest on Lake Michigan and the city’s ties with the water were irrevocably made.

There is still commercial fishing in Algoma these days along with lumber operations–throw backs to the earliest industries–but most of the fishing today is sport fishing. Known as the salmon and trout capital of the Midwest, Algoma boasts a strong and vital charter fishing industry along with manufacturing plants that produce everything from hammocks to labels, doors to mops.

The tourism industry has grown tremendously since 1980, capitalizing on the fantastic fishing and the natural beauty of the lake. A new marina project, new Visitor Information Center, beachfront boardwalk and downtown redevelopment projects have brought a renewed spark to the historic community. Ethnic food is prevalent in local restaurants and bakery, family festivals featuring the traditions of the many cultural groups represented in Algoma are common and the small town friendliness has become legendary in its own right.

Algoma’s current population is about 3400. Visitors to Algoma are amazed by the diversity of the options offered to them. Lodging options include everything from campgrounds to cottages, bed & breakfasts to condos, motels to hotels. Algoma boasts two properties on both the state and national Historic Register of Historic Sites including the von Steihl Winery, Wisconsin’s oldest (offering tasting and tours) and the Art Dettman Fish Shanty, one of the last 1920’s era original fish shanties on Lake Michigan.

The Lighthouse

Original Algoma Pierhead Lighthouse

Original Algoma Pierhead Lighthouse. US Coast Guard Image

On June 18 and 19, 1993, Algoma celebrated Heritage Days giving special emphasis to the Centennial of our lighthouse. The first lighthouse was a square, pyramidal wooden tower painted white, surmounted by a black, hexagonal iron lantern. The upper part was enclosed for a watch room. This lighthouse did not have a fog horn until 1910. It had a fixed red lens lantern illuminating toward the lake.

The light was operated manually twice daily. Ole Hansen was the first keeper of the light in 1893. In 1896 Charles E, Young took over and Young was relieved by Nelson Knudsen in 1899. Justavus Umberham became the keeper in 1901. A fog signal was installed in 1910 when Louis R. Braemer was appointed first assistant. Those first sailors must have had some frustrating times finding the harbor on extreme foggy days before the fog horn came in use.

Braemer stayed on until 1939. Eugene Kimball was appointed keeper in 1913, C.J. Graan, 1923 and E.C. Anderson in 1938. Since 1938 the U.S. Coast Guard by decree from the President of the United States operates all light hours. Between 1930 and 1932, the cutting down and repair of the North Pier and light tower was completed. It cost about 100,000 dollars.

The present lighthouse is still in operation. The steel tower lighthouse came from Muskegon, Michigan; the rock came from Sturgeon Bay; and sand came from Green Island. The work needed 50 men (half of them were from Algoma).

General Douglas MacArthur helped design the pier as an engineer. Since 1932, the same lighthouse and pier have not changed much. In 1973, the Coast Guard automated the lights and later a civilian was employed to operate the fog signal when needed. In 1974, an automatic green light was placed on the South Pier head. Now all lights operate 24 hours a day and the fog horn goes on automatically when needed. As far as records have been kept, there has been no known tragedies involved with the lighthouse.

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