Door County lighthouses preserve maritime history

Posted Online: July 12, 2014, 12:40 pm
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By Mary Lu Laffey
Travel literature about Door County, Wis., reads like a romance novel. Only the love affair is with the lifestyle that evolved from the lighthouses dotting the peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

In a long weekend, there's enough history in three places to paint a nautical picture of Door County. First stop? The Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay, the gateway to the Door.

The Door County Maritime Museum showcases the area's rich maritime roots. Inside the museum, stories of hard-working fishermen, brave ship captains, craftsmen, inventors and solitary lighthouse keepers are revealed in the galleries.

Volunteer tour guides tell how these maritime pioneers worked and what they made, and they should know. Most are third-generation ship builders, now retired. As we walked through the museum, our guide graciously pointed out his relatives in the group photos of workers, pointing out artifacts and furnishing a personal tale or two.

The tugboat John Purves is docked on the museum grounds, which is on Sturgeon Bay.

In December 1956, Roen Steamship Company of Sturgeon Bay bought the John Purves and put her to work on all five Great Lakes, taking on towing and salvage jobs.

Because of her strength and the experience of her crew, the Purves made a good living after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, rescuing many ships that ran aground in the channels of the Great Lakes.

There are 97 steps to the top of the Cana Island Lighthouse. Built in 1869 and subsequently automated in 1944, Cana Island Lighthouse near Baileys Harbor remains active. Thanks to photographers and plein air artists, it's one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the county.

Located on a small island just offshore, the grounds can be reached by walking across a gravel causeway. The keepers' house, oil house and tower are open for tours May through October.

Gil's Rock has a rich history of commercial fishing. It's the last stop for visitors crossing the narrow passage connecting Lake Michigan to Green Bay, commonly called "Porte des Morts" or "Death's Door," because of the many shipwrecks.

Gills Rock is also the location of the Gill's Rock Museum, another maritime treasure to explore. A recently added exhibit tells the tale of Captain Dan Seavey, the Great Lakes' only official pirate.

Local historians remind visitors that it wasn't so long ago that steamships and commercial fishing boats dominated the Door County shoreline.

Destination: Door County, Wis.
Tourism information: Door County's website is chock full of information about the county's lighthouses on the Wisconsin peninsula that makes up the eastern shore of Green Bay and shares the great Lake Michigan with the rest of Midwestern North America. Contact the Door County Visitors Bureau for a free 2014 Visitor Guide. It makes planning a summer visit to the Door as easy as pie (cherry, of course!). (800) 527-3529, and visit the Door County Facebook page.
Door County Maritime Museum: (920) 743-5958
Getting there: Summer cries out for a road tip, and Door County is an easy answer for a couples/girlfriends getaway or a family adventure. To the Door from the Quad-Cities, it is 368 miles.
Staying where: Eagle Harbor Inn features private, elegant rooms plus suites with lofts that can sleep two to six. Farm-to-table breakfast and walk to the beach and shops. Rainy day? Try the indoor pool. Lots of packages at this Green Wisconsin Certified inn. (800) 324-5427,
Dining, too: Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant and Butik in Sister Bay is famous for Swedish pancakes, Swedish meatballs and Swedish fruit soup. It is also famous for its goats, not on the menu, but on the roof. Goats are on roofside from mid-morning to late afternoon every day, "cutting the grass." Restaurant is open daily. (920) 854.2626,
Another Door County food institution, right up there with cherry pie, is the fish boil. The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek has bragging rights for this dining tradition. In short, boiled dinner of freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish and potatoes cooked rather dramatically over an open flame (fire pit), then served with cabbage slaw and a dessert. During peak season, restaurant often has two seatings. (888) 364-9542,

Optional side bar w/lighthouse image
Ahoy, lighthouses!
There are 11 lighthouses on the peninsula that comprises Door County. Some are working, others open for touring and a few that are open to the public only on very special occasions, like the Lighthouse Festival held each June. Don't miss seeing, photographing or painting one of these historic beauties.
Baileys Harbor Range lights, 1869, use two sets of lights to align to guide sailors into safe waters. Automated in 1972.
Cana Island Light house, 1869, is still active. Located on a small island, the grounds are reached by gravel causeway. Tours available May through October.
Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead Light, rebuilt in 1903 from the original of 1882, the current Light combines a tower and fog signal into one.
Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light, 1899 and automated in 1972, the station is operated by the Coast Guard and is opened during the Lighthouse Festival in June.
Chambers Island Lighthouse, 1858 and automated in 1962, open for tours on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day if arranged by private carrier; tours given during the Lighthouse Festival.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, 1868 and automated in 1926, is located in Peninsula State Park and is a living history museum. State park sticker required to enter the park; tours available in October.
Old Baileys Harbor or the Bird Cage Lighthouse, 1852 and closed in 1869 when Baileys Harbor Range Lights opened.
Pilot Island Light, 1858, automated in 1962, narrated boat tours pass this light during the Lighthouse Festival.
Plum Island Lighthouse, 1895 and automated in 1969, narrated boat tour passes the light during the Lighthouse Festival. Passenger ferrying to Washington island or on board the Island Clipper have good views of the Light.
Pottawatomie Lighthouse, 1836, is the oldest lighthouse in Door County; on Rock Island, it is reachable by ferry from Jackson Harbor on Washington Island.
Sherwood Point Lighthouse, 1883 and automated in 1983, the Sturgeon Bay lighthouse was the last manned lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Now use as a private retreat for Coast Cuard personnel. Grounds are open during the Lighthouse Festival.


Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, Aug. 20, the 232nd day of 2014. There are 133 days left in the year.
1864 -- 150 years ago: Quite a number of Negroes have lately been brought here by abolition offers returning from the army in violation of the laws of the state.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Miss Tillie Denkmann, of Rock Island, was making plans to accompany a Davenport family on a tour of Europe.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The German advance into Belgium was going apparently without serious check. The American ambassador at Berlin published a denial of the charge that Americans had been ill-treated in Germany.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Seventy-two members of Rock Island High School's 1939 graduating class are preparing to enter college — 34 of them at Augustana.
1964 -- 50 years ago: One of the oldest buildings in Milan, which for a number of years has housed the Milan Hotel, will be razed to make way for a modern, two-story office structure.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Some are blaming it on the sudden influx of insects and the extreme humidity. Still others say the invasion was inspired by a recent movie. But whatever the reason, the Quad-Cities is swarming with bats.

(More History)