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Federal government offering Superior lighthouse free of charge to nonprofits, government agencies

Despite 2019 reports of 56 foot structure on Lake Superior being auctioned off to California tech executive, the sale never closed

Wisconsin Point Lighthouse. Sharon Mollerus (CC BY 2.0)

The federal government is once again offering a lighthouse first lit on Superior’s Wisconsin Point in 1913 to nonprofits, government agencies or educational groups free of charge.

The Superior Entry Lighthouse is a 56-foot tall structure of concrete and steel that has guided mariners from the tumultuous waters of Lake Superior into the city’s harbor for more than 110 years.

Jon Winter of the Douglas County Historical Society told WPR the lighthouse has been a longtime landmark for the city.

“I’ve been out there when I was younger,” Winter said. “I know some daredevils would jump off into the lake there too, which was not a brilliant thing to do.

The General Services Administration has posted a notice of availability for what is officially known as the Superior Harbor South Breakwater Light. That means the federal government is offering the lighthouse to government agencies, nonprofits or educational entities at no charge, so long as they’re willing and able to maintain it in perpetuity. 

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“You’re getting it for free to preserve it, and the idea is the public must still have a chance to enjoy the light,” GSA Realty Specialist Kris Mendez told WPR. “Different lights have different amounts of access. There are lights that are meticulously maintained and beautiful on the inside, they open up to the public a few times a year.”

The Superior lighthouse is somewhat different.

“I’ve been in this light several times,” Mendez sid. “It is bare. It’s concrete and steel.”

This isn’t the first time the federal government has offered up the prominent structure. It was deemed excess inventory for the U.S. Coast Guard in 2013 and went through the GSA notice of availability process. Mendez said there were some interested parties, but none followed through.

In 2019, the lighthouse was placed on the auction block and a tech industry executive from San Francisco made a winning bid of $159,000. But Mendez said the sale was never completed because of a disagreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about public access and liability.

“He wanted to have some more control over who could get down there,” Mendez said. “The Army Corps of Engineers was open to a possibility, but they couldn’t come to an agreement.”

Mendez said if no organizations are approved as caretakers for the lighthouse, it could go back to auction next year. 

“It is a complicated site,” Mendez said. “The Coast Guard and the Army Corps all have their opinions on how things should go in the long term, what access and such things like that. So, we may offer it next year. It sort of depends on how this process goes and what we think is best for the light moving forward.” 

Douglas County Board Chair Mark Liebaert told WPR members of his family helped the Army Corps pick stones from the North Shore of Minnesota that made up the original breakwater for Superior in the early 1900s. As a kid, he said the lighthouse was “a prime fishing spot for pike.”

“We would fish off off of the end of it, we’d go out there early morning with my grandpa,” Liebaert said. “It’s actually probably where I learned to start fishing as a young boy.”

He said he’d like to see the county team up with a nonprofit to preserve the lighthouse into the future, but it would be unfeasible due to the costs and government red tape.

“The problem is that, at least the requirements that I’ve seen and the guarantees that the county would have to provide forever, it would be an impossible thing for the county to step up,” Liebaert said.

Mendez said there’s an allure to lighthouses that is unique among other buildings. 

“Lighthouses just give a sense of exploration without moving anywhere,” Mendez said. “The idea of being on your own, fending for yourself, that seems attractive to people, and I think that’s just the inherent interest towards lighthouses. They’re something special.”

Lighthouses just give a sense of exploration without moving anywhere.

General Services Administration Realty Specialist Kris Mendez

Eligible nonprofits, agencies and educational groups have until Aug. 5 to submit a letter of intent for a chance to become the newest steward of the historic structure standing watch over the westernmost reaches of the mighty Gitche Gumee.