Although Native Americans certainly lived on St. Martin Island, little is known about their time there. White settlement began on the island in the mid-1800s, when Americans from New York, Ohio, and other eastern states arrived on the island and founded a year-round community that managed to sustain itself by fishing, salting its catch, and then shipping the catch to Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities. Although the residents established subsistence gardens and raised a few livestock, farming never took off on the island. Neither did large scale logging, although three small cabins were built on the island by loggers much later in the 1920s and 1930s.
At its peak, in the 1870s, the island’s population was estimated to be 102 and the Sheboygan Times printed a notice saying it was "A Model Community." The notice stated:
"[St. Martin Island] possesses the full average of wealth, sustains voluntarily a church and school, but it has never felt the need of any legal organization; and as they have no offices to give, office seekers are unknown, and our only hesitation in printing this notice is that it may lead to a large emigration to this Eutopia [sic]."
Fish populations began declining sharply in the late 1800s however and people began to vacate the island, many moving to what is now Fairport, Michigan, at the southern tip of Upper Michigan’s Garden Peninsula.
Following the completion of the Peninsula Railroad in Upper Michigan in 1864, maritime commerce in and out of Escanaba in northern Green Bay exploded. Ships routinely began making their way through the St. Martin Island and Poverty Island Passages to the north of St Martin Island. Since dangerous shoals were located in the area, the U.S. Lighthouse Board (a precursor to the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which eventually became part of the U.S. Coast Guard) requested the construction of a fourth order Fresnel light station and fog signal building on St. Martin Island in 1881, shortly after the Poverty Island Light was completed in 1875.
Construction of the St. Martin Island Lighthouse began in 1903 and was completed the following year. Although the two-story “Cream City” brick lightkeepers’ house was fashioned after the lightkeepers’ house built on Plum Island in 1987 and the fog signal building was fashioned after those constructed at Mackinac in 1890 (and on Beaver Island in 1891), the tower itself was---and remains---unique by design: 75ft tall, hexagonal in shape, and with a metal exoskeleton. To the north, a boat landing was also constructed, and an iron-tracked tramway was built between the landing and the light station to facilitate the transportation of supplies between the two.
The first keepers arrived to man the station in 1905 and it remained staffed until the early 1980s---one of the last seven Lake Michigan lighthouses to be manned.
Perhaps one of the more interesting stories to be found from life at the St. Martin Island Lighthouse comes from Herbert and Eva Fadel, who transferred from Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island to St. Martin Island in 1943. After spending a year on the island they traveled to Milwaukee for the winter. When they returned to the island at the beginning of the next season, ice forced the Coast Guard boat they were on to drop them off a quarter of a mile away from shore. Weighed down by all of their things, they had to carefully jump from ice floe to ice floe in order to safely reach land!
In the 1980s, the former chairman and CEO of Super Steel Products Corporation in Milwaukee, Fred Luber, began buying land on the island with the idea of developing it into an island resort. Ultimately, this never happened, and after many years of enjoying the island on family outings, the Lubers sold their land (about 94% of the island) to The Nature Conservancy in 2013. In 2015, The Nature Conservancy transferred that land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for inclusion into the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
NOTE: Visitors may not visit US Fish & Wildlife Service land on St. Martin Island! It is off-limits to the public. However, visitors are welcome to stop and stretch their legs at the 40-acre St. Martin Island Lighthouse property, which is owned by the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians. Please remember: take only photographs, leave only footprints. Overnight use is not allowed and---for your own safety---do not enter the buildings or use the dock.