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Road Trip! Destination: Lighthouses, Wisconsin

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 8:18 p.m.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park, Wisconsin
Door County Visitor Bureau
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park, Wisconsin

The “sheer romance of the sea” (in this case, Lake Michigan) might be at the heart of the fascination people have with lighthouses, Jon Jarosh says.

He's the director of communications and public relations for Door County Visitor Bureau in Wisconsin. In the northeastern part of the state, it's about an 11-hour, 700-mile drive from Pittsburgh.

Door's 11 lighthouses put it in the Top 5 in the United States in terms of the number of lighthouses in one county.

Its 300 miles of shoreline, much of it rocky, presented a need for lighthouses so that 19th- and early 20th-century sailors could safely navigate the lake and bay waters around the Door Peninsula and surrounding islands.

The French named the dangerous waters separating Washington Island from the mainland “Portes des Morts” or “Door of Death.” Hence, Door County.

The Door County Maritime Museum (, Sturgeon Bay, showcases the area's rich maritime roots.For more information on any of these lighthouses, visit

Baileys Harbor Range Lights

Built in 1869 at a cost of $6,000, the Baileys Harbor Range Lights were part of six similar range lights erected on the Great Lakes at the time. Today, the buildings in Baileys Harbor are the only ones of their style and class still standing in their original positions.

At the time they were built, the range lights were considered a more effective way to keep ships off the treacherous reefs and shallows at the entrance to Baileys Harbor.

The upper range light is a seven-room house with a rectangular tower on the south gable, directly above the front door. The tower, or lantern room, that houses the lens gives the building a schoolhouse appearance.

Cana Island Lighthouse

One of Door County's most popular, Cana Island Lighthouse has been standing watch on the shores of Lake Michigan for more than 140 years. Visitors can investigate the entire 8.7-acre island that includes the 89-foot-tall light tower, the original home of the lighthouse keeper and his family, and the oil house where fuel for the light was stored.

The highlight for many visitors is climbing the tower's 97 steps to reach the gallery deck, where a sweeping view of Lake Michigan and the peninsula awaits. The lighthouse keeper had to trudge up and down the steps nightly, carrying heated lard to keep the light burning.

Eagle Bluff Lighthouse at Peninsula State Park

When it became operational in 1868, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, whose lamp has remained constant for the past 145 years, immediately gained status as an important navigational aid for ships passing through the Strawberry Channel, a narrow route populated by four islands. Congested with ships delivering people and cargo to and from the villages on the coastline, the lighthouse gave safe passage.

Eagle Bluff's light is visible nightly throughout the year. Summer boaters identify their position in the water by an assigned code.

The restored Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum is a tribute to the keepers who kept the lamp lit on many dark and stormy nights.

Plum Island Lighthouse and Range Lights

Plum Island, the largest lighthouse station in the county, stretches more than a half-mile along the south and west sides of the island. It was the original location of the Port des Morts light before it was relocated to Pilot Island in 1858.

Ferry passengers and visitors to Northport often mistake the white tower on Plum Island for a lighthouse, but it is actually the rear range lights on Plum Island. Today, the lights still guide sailors through Death's Door.

Pilot Island Lighthouse

The original Port des Morts light was built on Plum Island in 1846, but maritime interests complained that it was too far west into the Death's Door Passage and that light further east and south would be more useful. In 1858, the Port des Morts Lighthouse was rebuilt on Pilot Island as a two-story rectangular, cream-colored brick dwelling. A square tower projected from the roof at the western gable of the house and was topped with a 10-sided cast-iron lantern.

Pilot Island was viewed by some as a bleak, isolated, fog-shrouded spot, although records show the fog signals at the Sturgeon Bay Canal Light operated more frequently than at Pilot Island.

Victor Rohn, a Civil War veteran who was keeper from 1866 to 1876, once compared it with Libby Prison, the infamous Civil War prison. The fog siren was so intense, one keeper wrote, “that no chicken can be hatched on the island, as the vibration kills them in the egg, and it causes milk to curdle in a few minutes.”

Pottawatomie Lighthouse

The Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island is the oldest of Door County's lighthouses, completed in 1836. This lighthouse protects the passage from Rock Island in the south to St. Martins Island in the north. This passage acted as the early gateway to Green Bay from Lake Michigan.

After the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the thriving trade between Green Bay and the cities of the eastern Great Lakes got even better. In response to this increase, Detroit merchants and ship owners petitioned Congress, in 1834, to build a lighthouse on Rock Island to assist ships through the Rock Island Passage.

Sherwood Point Lighthouse

The Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Ship Canal and Harbor Co. was formed in the early 1870s to create a canal from Sturgeon Bay to Lake Michigan in hopes of reducing the length of the shipping route into Green Bay.

As the city of Sturgeon Bay began to grow as a port and commercial center, it became clear that a lighthouse was needed to illuminate the mouth of the bay, especially since the canal was nearing completion and the closest lighthouse was 14 miles to the north. Sherwood Point, with its 30-foot limestone bluff, was a logical location for a lighthouse and was selected as the site in 1880.

The Sherwood Point Lighthouse was officially established in 1883 and is situated on the west side of the north entrance to Sturgeon Bay. It serves as a recreational rental property available to Coast Guard personnel.

Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse and North Pierhead Light

The Sturgeon Bay Canal Pierhead Lighthouse, just off the coastline of Lake Michigan, was constructed on a pier at the eastern end of the canal in late 1881. It guided ships into the entrance of the canal that provides a shortcut to the southern end of Green Bay, enabling ships to avoid the dangerous Death's Door passage.

As boat traffic increased, complaints were received that the Pierhead light was inadequate. Its replacement, the Ship Canal Lighthouse, was completed in 1898.

It was soon apparent that the tower had serious design issues. The wind caused the tower to vibrate so violently that the clockwork mechanism was unable to rotate the lens at a consistent rate. Notwithstanding its issues, the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse became officially operational on March 17, 1899. The light was designed to be seen up to a distance of 18 12 miles, although there were reports that the flashing signal could be seen up to 50 miles away.

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or

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