What does Missing Mean?

When confronted with the words “Missing Ship” we usually conjure up the dramatic mental image of a ship trying to make its way through a terrific storm only to eventually be overcome by the seas and plunge to the bottom never to be seen again. In the case of LV-95, the ship is not missing due to heavy seas, its missing due to human absentmindedness. LV-95 was last mentioned in historical records in 1966 leaving a vague idea as to what her final disposition is and this author has been on a search for her for the past two years. I have written about this vessel in two other blog posts Cape May’s Missing Lightship WAL-519 and The Continuing Search For The Lost Lightship LV-95/WAL-519 . I wanted to write a blog post focusing on the history of the ship itself rather than focusing on what finally became of it. LV-95 was slated to become a museum ship and for whatever reason, this never came to fruition.


roman lightship resuced
Roman Lightship and Coast Guard. The Art Journal.

A lightship is a vessel that is essentially a mobile lighthouse sent to places where it was either too expensive or too impractical to build a standing lighthouse structure. These vessels could be sent to mark hazards out at sea far from shore. Lightships were vital for the safety of maritime commerce and that’s the history of these vessels, they did their jobs. Reportedly the first rudimentary lightships were first utilized by the Romans, who would have galleys loaded with troops with large signal fires built atop them and they would patrol up and down the coast as a strategy to deter pirates. The first lightship used to mark a hazard to navigation was the lightship Nore used to mark the Nore sands at the entrance of the Thames River in 1731.

nore 1730
Lightship Nore 1731

The first American lightship was authorized by an act of Congress in 1819 and constructed in 1820 by John Poole in Hampton, Virginia. At which point the American lightship exploded. Initially, lightships were old hulks outfitted with lamps to mark hazards but eventually evolved into their own standardized hull designs adapted for staying anchored in one place out at sea for long periods of time. There are currently 15 lightships on display as museums in the United States.

Milwaukee lighthouses

In 1882 efforts had begun to improve the harbor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Lake Michigan. Throughout the construction process, there was the continued issue of marking the harbor entrance and procuring funding for building a permanent lighthouse. In 1898 there was a privately funded lightship marking the southern end of Milwaukee’s then short breakwater which was the aged schooner Surprise built in 1856 in Milan, Ohio that marked the harbor entrance with two lanterns marking white and red. The Surprise was removed from its station and was listed as abandoned by 1900. It was removed with the promise that arrangements were being made for the construction of a lighthouse on the southern pierhead.

Schooner Surprise. Historical Collections of the Great Lakes Bowling Green University.

During this time the newly rebuilt North Point lighthouse was sufficient to mark the entrance to Milwaukee harbor, but as time went by tree growth began to obscure the lamp to mariners. It took nearly a decade of repeated requests for a permanent structure until 27 May 1908 where an act of Congress appropriated $75,000 for the lighthouse board to construct a lightship. Therefore the construction of a permanent pier lighthouse for the Milwaukee breakwater was no longer pursued. Although as the construction of the breakwater continued a small light was built to mark the entrance into Milwaukee Harbor.

Former Milwaukee Breakwater light postcard.

Racine-Truscott-Shell-Lake Boat Company

The contract to construct the lightship for Milwaukee fell to the Racine-Truscott-Shell-Lake-Boat Company. The shipbuilding company was an attempt to merge several small boat building firms located between Wisconsin and Michigan into one massive shipbuilding conglomerate. This proved to be an ill-fated plan as most of the companies were too small or too financially weak. The costs of mergers and the takeover of each of the company’s mortgages proved to be too much and the creditors eventually accused the board of directors of gross fraud. The contract to build lightships for the lighthouse service was the only business keeping the company afloat. After numerous court battles, the Racine-Truscott-Shell-Lake Boat Company ended in 1915 after the delivery of its final lightship LV-98. The lightship Milwaukee or LV-95 was the third in a series of six lightships constructed by the shipbuilding company for the lighthouse service.

LV-95 Milwaukee

Although Congress had appropriated the funds for the lightship in 1908, construction of LV-95 did not begin until 14 June 1910. It was constructed through 1911 when on 26 December the nearly complete LV-95 sunk at its dock in Muskegon, Michigan most likely due to the combination of wind and waves. LV-95 wasn’t raised until 20 February 1912.

LV-95 sunk at its pier. U.S. Coast Guard

The unfinished vessel was delivered to the US Lighthouse Board in June and final fitting out and construction was completed on 27 September 1912. It was completed at a cost of $74,558. By 30 November 1912, the LV-95 was on station three miles out from Milwaukee in Lake Michigan. LV-95 was steel-hulled, 108 feet long with a 23-foot beam and a draft of 11 feet, 368 Gross Tons. LV-95 was powered by a 200 HP steam engine;

“One inverted, vertical direct acting non-condensing engine, having a cylinder of 18 inches in diameter by 20-inch stroke, driving a cast iron propeller 7 feet in diameter by 9 feet 10 inches pitch and supplied with steam under pressure of 110 pounds per square inch by two Scotch Boilers…”

The raised LV-95. A History of U.S. Lightships

LV-95 was also rigged for sail however, the sail was not for propulsion but was rather a riding sail which is used to keep the ship pointed into the wind while at anchor. The vessel was lit with a large diameter lantern housing with a revolving parabolic reflector and an electric incandescent lamp. The lantern mast was hollow with an enclosed ladder to allow the crew to service the lamp in heavy weather. The light had a focal plane 52 feet above the water and gave two flashes every ten seconds.  LV-95 was also equipped with a 12-inch steam-powered chime whistle and a fog bell. The crew complement aboard was four officers and five crew. The officer’s quarters, mess pantry and chart room were located aft. Crew quarters and galley were located under the pilothouse forward of the machinery. Lightships built for use on the Great Lakes had a different hull design than their seagoing counterparts with a sharper and shorter hull to better cope with the short wave intervals on the Great Lakes and to help with icing during the winter months.

Lightship LV-95 on station. U.S. Coast Guard.

LV-95 was first moored three miles from the foot of Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee.

LV-95 First Mooring.jpg
LV-95’s initial mooring. Google Maps

When LV-95 was taken off station in the winter months, the vessel would be moored at the Lighthouse Service Depot located on the Kinnickinnic River. Generally, LV-95 would be on station for 10 months out of the year.

LV-95 In Port Spirit of The Lakes.jpg
LV-95 moored at the Milwaukee Lighthouse Service Depot. Spirit of the Lakes

In 1916 LV-95 had its light upgraded to a duplex 375mm electric lens lantern and the distinctive lantern house was removed. LV-95 had its mooring adjusted slightly as later it was moored three miles in a direct line from the Milwaukee Pierhead lighthouse.

LV-95 Second Mooring.jpg
LV-95’s second mooring. Google Maps.

LV-95 would serve on the Milwaukee station for 20 years until 1932 and was one of the last ships to spot the S.S. Milwaukee rolling and pitching through mountainous seas on 22 October 1929. Throughout LV-95’s Milwaukee career improvements to the Milwaukee harbor continued with the southern shore of Milwaukee Bay and the extension of the north breakwater by another 10,000 feet thus completing the Milwaukee harbor. At some point during the vessel’s career in Milwaukee, it had received a wooden addition to its pilothouse giving it it’s double stacked appearance however this was not permanent as later images would show.

LV-95 Spirit Of The Lakes.jpg
LV-95 with its pilothouse. Spirit of the Lakes

After many requests, the Milwaukee breakwater lighthouse was finally constructed and lit in 1926 and for six years the two marked the harbor in tandem. LV-95 was replaced by a shore controlled radio beacon system within the Milwaukee pierhead light, which was cheaper and easier to operate. Although many veteran seamen did not trust the new technology. From 1933-1934 LV-95 served as a Relief lightship for the Great Lakes district relieving LV-75 the Lake St. Clair lightship.

LV-95 as the Relief Lightship for the 11th District. Historical Collections of the Great Lakes Bowling Green University

In 1935 LV-95 was transferred to the East Coast to what would become the Coast Guard fourth district (Delaware Bay) and was based variously at Edgemoor, Delaware, Staten Island, New York, and Cape May, New Jersey. The vessel would continue as a relief lightship relieving the lightships stationed at Barnegat, Five Fathom, Overfalls and Delaware. Like any ship, lightships would periodically have to return to base for routine maintenance and relief lightships would anchor in their place to take over beacon duty.  A year later LV-95 was repowered with a 6-cylinder 200 HP diesel engine with a new four foot six propeller. When the U.S. Lighthouse service merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, LV-95 received its new Coast Guard designation of WAL-519 (or WLH),

WAL-519 Relief

Apparently, the T2 tanker USNS Paoli (T-A0-157)had collided with LV-95 in 1944 and the vessel was laid up for two years while repairs were undertaken this may have been the time where both the hull and pilothouse were modified giving LV-95 its unique “double-stacked” appearance. It was equipped with an upgraded Leslie 17-inch typhoon air diaphragm horn. LV-95 was eventually equipped with a CR-103 radar and had the Coast Guard radio callsign NNGX. Its lantern mast was also upgraded.

LV-95 as a Relief Lightship. U.S. Coast Guard.

According to later Coast Guard crews, LV-95  was cramped and leaky. The crew still cooked from an oil-fired stove. It took two crew to steer LV-95 at its top speed of 6 knots as the vessel was still chain driven with chains attached directly from the rudder to the helm. Despite these apparent shortcomings, it was regarded as being very seaworthy, having weathered Hurricane Edith in 1963. While the larger, more modern lightships dragged anchor, LV-95 remained on station. LV-95 was used as a relief lightship until its decommissioning on 15 January 1965 where it was placed “Out of commission special.” and kept temporarily at its base in Cape May, New Jersey. On 21 May 1966, LV-95 was donated to the Victorian Village Development Corporation to be put on display as a museum ship in Cape May. After this, there is apparently no further written record of LV-95. 

What Happened to LV-95?

LV-95 Relief. U.S. Coast Guard. 

For whatever the reason, the plan to preserve and display LV-95 as a museum ship never came to fruition. When the historical records regarding a ship run out, all one is left with is rumors. I had contacted every historical society and library I could in New Jersey and no one had any records of the Victorian Village Development Corporation (It does not exist anymore) or LV-95. Some people I have contacted remember there being a lightship moored in Cape May “by the bridge.” I had contacted the U.S. Lightship Sailor’s Association to find any information they might have or perhaps be put into contact with any surviving crew members. They too have had difficulty finding out what LV-95’s final disposition was. Though they offered a tantalizing scenario from a former Yard Manager at the Coast Guard Yard located in Curtis Bay, Maryland just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. This man, who has long hence “crossed the bar” suggested two possible scenarios for LV-95. The first was that LV-95 was towed to the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard and deemed too unsafe to be made into a museum ship and was subsequently scrapped at Curtis Bay. This gentleman also offered a more tantalizing scenario that LV-95 was sunk on purpose or accidentally somewhere between Cape May, New Jersey and Curtis Bay, Maryland. I attempted to research two possible vessels that may have towed LV-95 to its final destination. There are two possibilities the USCGC Sauk (WYTM-99) which appears in a photograph with LV-95. The other possibility is the USCG Messenger (WYT-85009) which was the yard tug for the Curtis Bay shipyard. In searching the deck logs of the Sauk it was found that she put in for repairs at Curtis Bay in 1963 at the same time that LV-95 also put in for routine maintenance. Which gives a year for this image, part of me had hoped that this image came from the Sauk towing LV-95 to its scrapping at Curtis Bay. The vessels happened to be pictured in the same place at the same time, although Sauk had previously towed LV-95 for routine maintenance in 1961.


LV-95 with the USCG Sauk at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard circa 1963. U.S. Coast Guard


USCG Messenger remains a possibility although deck logs for the years 1965-1966 still remain elusive.


USCG Messenger at Curtis Bay. CG Tug History

LV-95 has simply disappeared, no records state what ultimately became of the vessel. Its fate remains unknown if she was scrapped, sunk, or is sitting in the back of a boatyard somewhere. All scenarios are equally plausible and therein lies the mystery. Previous historians have gone as far finding that LV-95 was decommissioned and donated for use as a museum but stopped there. In my opinion, that is insufficient when it comes to a piece of lost history and I feel like we aren’t doing our jobs as historians and archaeologists if we dismiss history just because the research became vague and therefore challenging. 1966 was not even that long ago and well within the historical record yet, we have forgotten what has become of a government-owned vessel. The question of this vessel’s mysterious fate is what continues to drive this research because the former LV-95 may still be extant somewhere waiting to be found. The next step in this research is to look through the records of the Curtis Bay Coast Guard yard to discover whether or not a lightship was scrapped in 1966. The search continues.

Sources & Resources

Archaeology 365. Milwaukee’s Lightship LV-95 


Ciesielczyk, Jordan. Milwaukee’s Missing Lightship LV-95. Wisconsin’s Underwater Heritage. Vol. 27. No. 2


Ciesielczyk, Jordan. The Missing Lightship LV-95. The Deck Log. Vol 20. No.1


Delgado, James. The Development of the American Lightship. United States Lighthouse Society.


Flint, Willard. A History of U.S. Lightships 

Flint, Willard. Lightships of the U.S. Government Reference Notes

Lighthouse Friends. Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse, WI


Lighthouse Friends. Milwaukee Pierhead Lighthouse, WI


Lighthouse Friends. North Point Lighthouse, WI


North Point Lighthouse and Museum


Peters, Scott. Making Waves: Michigan’s Boat-Building Industry 1865-2000

U.S. Coast Guard. Deck Logs of USCGC Sauk (WYTM-99) 1960-1966

U.S. Coast Guard. Deck Logs of Lightship LV-95 1960-1965

U.S. Coast Guard. History of Lightship WLV-519 Relief

U.S. Coast Guard. Lightship WLV-519

U.S. Coast Guard. Operation Plan Order, USCG Relief Lightship (WLV-519); decommissioning and storage of;

USCGC Lightship Sailors


USCGC Lightship Sailors. A History of Lightships


Wisconsin Shipwrecks SS Milwaukee


Wisconsin News. Lightship Hoists Anchor Today to Quit 20-Year Post. September 29, 1932.

Wright, Larry & Patricia. Lightships of the Great Lakes



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