Door County points into Lake Michigan, a long finger of bays, inlets, harbors and offshore islands. A beloved tourist destination, the peninsula is often referred to as “the Cape Cod of the Midwest,” though, unlike that famous Massachusetts vacation place, Door County is not burdened with gridlocked traffic or fast food chains.
It is, however, dotted with lighthouses, many of them built soon after the Civil War, when the federal government sought to make the Great Lakes safer for navigation. Eleven historic light stations encircle Door County and, while automated LED lights have replaced original Fresnel lenses, the buildings themselves are intact and open to visitors. Some even house overnight guests.
Active and retired military personnel can rent the Sherwood Point Lighthouse keeper's house for overnight stays.
The Sherwood Point Light, built in 1883 in conjunction with the construction of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, is available for nightly rentals to active and retired military personnel. The one and one-half-story brick house attached to the white lighthouse sleeps up to eight in a perch overlooking Green Bay.
While you can drive to the Sherwood Point Lighthouse, others are accessible by boat, like the Chambers Island Light. The “Quo Vadis,” a 53-foot steel hulled vessel, makes the 45-minute crossing to Chambers Island from Fish Creek. Passengers then hike across the island to the lighthouse.
Pottawatomie Light on Rock Island, Door County’s northern tip, is also accessible by boat and then a hike across the island. Built in 1836, it is the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin and on Lake Michigan. During the summer months, volunteers stay in the house, which has no electricity or plumbing, and give tours to visitors.
Also important and historic are the Baileys Harbor Range Lights. Built in 1869 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, the Upper Range Light and its companion Lower Range Light are the only lighthouses of this design that are still on range and function as navigational aids. From the water, sailors find their way into Baileys Harbor by vertically aligning the white upper light with the red lower light.
Nearby is the Cana Island Lighthouse, the most photographed of Door County’s lights. Tall and white, it celebrates its 150thbirthday this year. While it is normally accessible via a causeway, this years’ high water level in Lake Michigan has flooded the roadway; a haywagon pulled by a tractor takes visitors to and from the island.
Lights on Plum Island and Pilot Island mark the treacherous waters of Death’s Door, the aptly named passage between the mainland and its offshore islands.
For those who love personal stories, the lighthouse at Eagle Bluff in Peninsula State Park is a must. A rich archive of family photos, records of weather and water conditions and personal mementoes give a detailed picture of the lives of successive lighthouse keepers and their families. Like the house adjoining the Pottawatomie Light, the Eagle Bluff keeper’s house is furnished with period antiques.
The Door County Maritime Museum celebrates these lighthouses and offers land-based, boat and adventure tours; the adventure tours include kayaking and hiking. Each of the 11 lighthouses is worth the trip.
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I learned about historic houses from the best: owners who lovingly preserved and restored them, and preservationists who shared their knowledge. When I first began to w
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