Digest>Archives> August 2001

Doomsday List Lighthouse: Old Bailey’s Harbor Light

By Terry Pepper


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Old Bailey’s Harbor Lighthouse, Wisconsin is ...
Photo by: Wayne Sapulski

Our lasting impression of our visit to Bailey’s Harbor old lighthouse in September of 2000 can be summed up in the word ... “unfortunate.”

It was unfortunate that Lighthouse Island, on which the station is located, is private property, and thus the structure can only be seen from across the water, and it is unfortunate that unless action is taken soon, the tower’s rare birdcage-style lantern will likely decay and crumble into oblivion.

The old Bailey’s Harbor light is situated in a protected bay on the east coast of the Door Peninsula, a long, thin finger of land, which juts north into Lake Michigan. French voyagers experiencing violent seas in the passage between the peninsula and Washington Island long ago named the passage “Porte des Mort” which translates as “Door of the Dead.” When deciding on a name for a new county to include the entire peninsula in 1851, the Wisconsin Legislature decided to drop the latter part of the name, and settled on Door County.

In the fall of 1848, Captain Justice Bailey encountered a fierce October storm while traversing the eastern shore of the peninsula. Carrying a full complement of passengers, he decided to seek shelter from the worsening storm. Pulling into a sheltered bay, and dropping anchor to ride out the storm, the Captain took the opportunity to explore some of the shore. Finding limestone, pine, maple and beech trees, Bailey reported his discovery to Mr. Alison Sweet, the owner of the Milwaukee shipping company for whom Bailey was employed.

Realizing the potential that the natural harbor represented, Sweet sent a crew to the bay the following year to construct a pier, sawmill, quarry and a number of houses for his workers. That following winter, Sweet’s crew shipped 2,500 cords of lumber from the harbor. A consummate politician, Sweet convinced the state legislature that the area was destined for growth, and thus Bailey’s Harbor was named as the County Seat.

Sweet and a number of other vessel owners then petitioned Congress for the construction of a lighthouse to assist vessels making their way into the harbor. Congress not only responded favorably to Sweet’s memorials, but also awarded Sweet the construction contract for the light.

Selecting a one thousand foot by two hundred and fifty foot island as the best location for the tower, Sweet’s crew began construction in 1852. With lake levels extremely low that year, they were able to transport all the building materials directly to the island without boats. Built of native rubble stone from Sweet’s quarry, the fifty-two foot tower was capped with a birdcage-style lantern, and equipped with a fixed white light exhibited from a sixth order Fresnel lens. As was usual in lantern rooms of this style, the lens was supported in the center of the tower with no platform or catwalk surrounding the lantern room. The lens was later upgraded to a fifth order Fresnel in 1858.

In its 1866 annual report, the Lighthouse Board stated that the station was “found to be in very defective condition, requiring rebuilding.” Realizing that the station’s location within the bay prevented it from serving as either an effective coast-light or as a guide to vessels entering the safety of the harbor, the Board proposed that the new station be constructed on Cana Island, a mile to the north, supported by a pair of range lights to light the way into the harbor.

Congress appropriated a total of $23,000 for both projects, and during the summer of 1869, two construction crews worked simultaneously on both the range lights and at Cana Island. With work on both fronts completed late that fall, it was determined that the new stations would not be activated until the following spring. Thus, the old Baileys Harbor Light was displayed for the last time at the end of the season of navigation on December 1, 1869.

Today, the island is privately owned, and the tower and dwelling serve as a summer cottage. While recent close-up photographs taken by Ken and Barb Wardius in their book Wisconsin Lighthouses: a Photographic and Historical Guide show that the tower and dwelling appear to be in good condition, the lantern is in a sorry state, with most of its vertical supports broken, and its upper dome peppered with holes. Sadly, today there are only two other examples of birdcage-style lanterns in existence in all the Great Lakes, at Waugoshance at the western entrance to the Straits of Mackinac, and at Selkirk at the entrance to the Salmon River on Lake Ontario. Of these two, only Selkirk’s lantern has been restored, and that at Waugoshance has deteriorated even further than Bailey’s Harbor.

We sincerely hope that some combination of commercial and private support can be arranged to allow the restoration of the historic Bailey’s Harbor lantern.

While the station’s private ownership may forever preclude close-up views of the structure; our nations maritime heritage would be better served knowing that this historic station is capped by the lantern it deserves.

This story appeared in the August 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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