Exploring The Lighthouses Of Door County With Journalist, Marie Bartlett
There’s something about the siren call of lighthouses, the
mournful sound of a fog horn and the charm of a cottage station that housed
the lighthouse keepers, which somehow keeps us connected to these age-old
icons of the sea. Maybe it’s the sheer romance of what they symbolize –
security, safety, peace, isolation and reliability – a literal harbor in a
storm. Or maybe we just like their history and aesthetics.
Though seafaring nations throughout the world have always had lighthouses they were not commonly part of the American coastal landscape until the latter half of the 18th century when the newly formed Congress provided for the transfer of the first 12 U.S. lighthouses from individual states to federal government. The first lighthouse was established off the Boston Harbor in 1716, and the first keeper, George Worthylake, drowned along with his wife and daughter while returning to the island.
Today, there are an estimated 680 lighthouses standing guard along America’s coastal waters, with many remaining for historical purposes only, according to the United States Lighthouse Society. In other words, with today’s technology, we no longer have an urgent need for the iconic strength and sturdiness of a lighthouse. Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t adore them. In fact, there’s an entire website “I Love Lighthouses” devoted to why we, as a people, remain so intrigued by these “keepers of the water.”
“To me, they represent the light in the darkness that helps you find your way back home,” wrote one contributor. Another mused about their hypnotic beauty, “Just standing on a rock and watching that beacon go round. It’s lovely. I’ve always been fascinated, but have never set foot in one.” Others write of their fantasy of being a lighthouse keeper, or have special memories of growing up near a lighthouse. One woman said her mother painted nothing but lighthouses, so after her death, the woman gained comfort from her mother’s connection to the tall structures.
The U.S. Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit historical and education organization for those who care deeply about the restoration and preservation of our nation’s lighthouses, has numerous volunteers around the country working hard to restore, reopen and maintain lighthouses in danger of crumbling from neglect or disappearing from public view.
The 300- mile perimeter Door County Peninsula, in northern Wisconsin, and its surrounding islands, claim among the largest number of lighthouses in any one county within the U.S., each with their own distinctive story to tell. Some have been carefully restored; others are in need of attention. They are all well worth a visit.
From the south tip of the peninsula, make your first stop at the Sherwood Point Lighthouse, located on the west side of the north entrance to Sturgeon Bay. As the city grew in the 1870s into a port and commercial center, it was clear a lighthouse was needed, especially since the next nearest lighthouse was 14 miles to the north. A site was selected in 1880 on a 30-foot limestone bluff. Its purpose: to illuminate the mouth of the bay in a rapidly expanding port.
Now used as a recreational rental for the U.S. Coast Guard, it can only be publically toured when Guard personnel are not using the property. Among the most popular lighthouses in Door County is the Cana Island Lighthouse, set on an 8.7 acre island, with an 89-foot-tall tower light. Once home to the lighthouse keeper and his family, you can still climb the 97-step spiral staircase to the gallery deck and enjoy a sweeping view of Lake Michigan and the peninsula.
Perched on a bluff about 76-feet above Green Bay waters, the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse has been lovingly restored to its former glory, with an onsite museum that pays tribute to the courageous keepers who kept the light burning on dark, dangerous nights when the winds howled and the waters raged. The keeper, his wife and seven sons all lived on the property at one time. Many of their personal keepsakes remain in the house, including their musical instruments.
Avoiding the choppy waters of the infamous “Death’s Door” passage, which separates Washington Island from the mainland, was the goal of many a sailor who watched for the lighthouses at the northern end of the peninsula where Plum and Pilot Island are located. Plum Island Lighthouse and the Pottawatomie Lighthouse, which is the oldest of Door County lighthouses, protected passages north and south.
Both Plum and Pilot Island are part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge System, so its wildlife and plants are permanently protected, but the lighthouse stations themselves are in need of renovation and protection, particularly Plum Island’s historic 1896 life-saving station.
In conjunction with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, spend time and resources explaining why the preservation of these remote islands and their lighthouses are so important. Pilot Island Lighthouse, built 1858. Here, a lighthouse keeper reportedly committed suicide over a lost love.
Now-automated, Pilot Island Lighthouse sits eerily alone, jokingly described by one tour guide as “Alfred Hitchcock’s vacation home.” Situated west of Death Door’s Passage, its isolation is particularly haunting when the fog settles in and the birds circle overhead. The creep factor rises when visitors are told of the depressed, Civil War veteran assistant keeper who killed himself on the island in 1880 over “a lost love.”
Among the smaller, older Door County lighthouses is Bailey’s Harbor, a structure set back in the woods that faintly resembles a school-house. Built in 1869, its tower, or lantern room, houses the lens for Range Lights, considered an effective way to keep ships off the treacherous reefs and shallows at the entrance to Bailey’s Harbor.
Did You Know? - The first was built by ancient Egyptians 2,000 years ago.
By Marie Bartlett
FFor a complete list of lighthouse tours, boat rental and charter fishing companies in Door County, visit www.DoorCounty.com.