For the true lighthouse aficionado, few days can be spent more pleasurably than climbing a lighthouse tower to a lofty height to take in a view of scenic water expanse, or studying the myriad of prism reflections of light cast through a historic Fresnel lens. And perhaps no one else would understand the appreciation derived through hearing a humorous tale or two of lighthouse family lore as told by a seasoned docent, or relate to the feeling of respect that comes from looking into the eyes in a historic photograph of a stalwart lighthouse keeper who served for over 40 years in isolated locations.
A visit to the Door County Maritime Museum’s venues provides these types of experiences and even more that is not to be missed. A good start to the day is in taking the short walk across a causeway out to Cana Island Lighthouse. The museum’s first site since the early 1970s, Cana Island Light was built in 1869 due to the original Bailey’s Harbor Light not being situated in the right location to serve as both a coast and harbor light. So, a climb to the top of its 89 foot tower height affords a wonderful view of Moonlight Bay as well as the coastline of the Door County peninsula.
The 3rd order Fresnel lens is still in use today, making it one of the diminishing numbers of lights that have their original lens functioning as an active aid to navigation. Down below in the attached keeper’s house, exhibits are displayed in each room, showcasing the part that the lighthouse played in local maritime history. Besides historic photos, explanations of how a lighthouse operates, the duties of keepers, and some specific history of Cana’s keeper past, there are also excepts from the log books, written almost 140 years ago, that give a small glimpse into the daily life there including details of storms, wrecks, and rescues.
There are also knowledgeable docents available to answer questions and add more stories to what is displayed of Cana’s colorful past. It takes at least a couple of hours to experience all that the island and lighthouse have to offer.
Then, just up the road about 45 minutes away, is the main Door County Maritime Museum campus in Sturgeon Bay nestled next to the historic steel bridge. The Museum has had this facility since 1997 and, in addition to multiple galleries, exhibition space, offices, and gift shop, it also offers tours of the John Purves, a restored 1960s Great Lakes tugboat, permanently moored along the dock in front.
Of special interest to those of lighthouse persuasion are two exhibits, the main one being in the Baumgartner Gallery where an entire room is specifically devoted to Sentinels of the Shore: Lighthouses of Door County. Central to this exhibit is the original 4th order Fresnel lens that was removed from the Sherwood Point Lighthouse in 2004. Its welcoming beams of light from within a lantern room replica greet the visitors as they enter the gallery and take a stroll through multiple displays which focus on each of Door County’s eleven current lighthouses, as well as the former Dunlap Reef Lighthouse and range lights that once stood in Sturgeon Bay. There is a model of this particular lighthouse displayed in front of a beautiful Lake Michigan wall mural that runs the entire length of the room.
Many historic photos gathered from descendants’ donations tell of the various keepers and their families at these lights, and there is one case containing the hat and uniform buttons of keeper Conrad Stram, who served at multiple Door County lighthouses for over 40 years. Beyond other artifacts of the United States Lighthouse Service (including the infamous brass pieces that keepers spent their lives polishing), there are two very nice interactive displays.
One is a light panel board which shows a hydrographic survey map of the Door County peninsula’s surrounding waters that will light up each lighthouse’s range when it is selected. Another very fun hands-on display shows how range lights work; visitors can line up the two lights so that the large ore carrying vessels will not be in danger of hitting the rocks or bottoming out in shallow water.
Another great interactive display is found downstairs in the Peterson Gallery. It accompanies two historic photos of the United States Life Saving station at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal. There is a game console monitor set up where a visitor can be a surfman who shoots a Lyle Gun from the shore over the ship in order to perform a rescue using a breeches buoy. There are different levels of play for kids of all ages. The game was designed specifically for the museum; a demo of it is available on YouTube.
As for the future, the museum has a major expansion project in the works starting in 2017 that will include construction of an 11-story maritime tower that will offer many more interactive, state-of-the-art exhibits. The tower will somewhat resemble a lighthouse with a lantern room on top, featuring the Green Bay Entrance Lighthouse 4th order Fresnel lens that was removed in 2013 and is currently displayed in the museum lobby. What better way to preserve its history than to let it shine once again at the Door County Maritime Museum? It will be yet another reason to return in the future to celebrate all things lighthouse in Door County, Wisconsin.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2017 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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