It’s hard to argue the importance of Door County’s maritime history — the peninsula is, after all, essentially an island.
And lighthouses are an integral part of that history — the mighty sentinels that dot the shoreline have guided ships for hundreds of years. Many were built in the 1800s, with the oft-photographed Cana Island Lighthouse in Baileys Harbor, which marks its 150th anniversary this year.
“We see every day how passionate people are about maritime stuff, whether it’s the lighthouses, the tugboats, the freighters,” says Kevin Osgood, executive director of the Door County Maritime Museum and Lighthouse Preservation Society. “People absolutely are engaged with and passionate about the maritime culture and history of this community.”
The society’s work dates to the early 1970s, when it began working with the Coast Guard to preserve Cana Island Lighthouse — one of DCMM’s three venues on the peninsula.
“That’s evolved over the years. The island is now a county park. We’re licensed to operate and manage the lighthouse,” says DCMM Deputy Director/Development Manager Sam Perlman.
To preserve the culture, the Lighthouse Preservation Society has multitier efforts underway, including a plan to build an interpretive center at Cana Island and restore the keeper’s quarters at the site.
Perlman says he hopes the interpretive center will open this summer, with the highlight being the 3,500-pound Fresnel lens inside the lighthouse.
Now “the only protection it has from the elements is UV protection,” says Perlman. But moving such a heavy and rare piece of history is no small or cheap endeavor.
“A small number of people have the title of certified lampist — approved by the Coast Guard — and the training and insurance required to move these antiques,” says Perlman. “These restoration efforts are not inexpensive.”
During the 19th century, only two companies in France made these lighthouse lenses, which are more than 150 years old. “The Coast Guard wants to preserve them as best they can,” says Perlman, who noted that lighthouse lenses are now being replaced with more modern LED lenses.
Electricity now runs all the lighthouse lenses. In the past, Perlman recalls, lighthouse tenders toted buckets of lard up and down the steps to fuel the lanterns.
While the Lighthouse Preservation Society focuses primarily on Cana Island, friends groups fundraise and focus on nine other lighthouses, including Eagle Bluff, Sherwood Point, Plum Island Range Lights, Pilot Island, Chambers Island, Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead, Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, Baileys Harbor Range Lights and Pottawatomie on Rock Island. One county lighthouse — Old Baileys Harbor — is now in private hands.
While some may think lighthouses only belong to the past, Perlman disagrees.
“There are 275 shipwrecks in the region that can attest to the importance of these lighthouses,” which in an age of GPS are still relevant to navigators, he says.
“The relationship of everyone who’s ever lived in Door County is affected by their relationship to the water,” Perlman says. “Whether they came by boat, fished, recreated, shipbuilding … almost everything that happens has some connection to the water. Lighthouses are the most visible connection to the water.”
DCMM teams up with other groups to offer lighthouse hours each year. This year, they will be held June 7-9 and Oct. 12-13. For more information and schedules, visit dcmm.org.
“Lighting the Door”
This summer, a documentary about Door County’s 11 lighthouses will be released by Quarter Deck Media, a local production company led by owner and producer Jake Heffernan.
Crews shot footage at all 11 lighthouses, working closely and gaining access with the help of the Lighthouse Preservation Society.
In the film, Rosie and Louie Janda, caretakers of the Cana Island Lighthouse for 30 years, share their experience and family photos. In addition, the family of Eldred Ellefson shares photos and experience from their years at the Pilot Island Lighthouse.
The film also will include footage of areas of the lighthouses not open to the public, presenting a true trip into Door County’s maritime past.
To view the trailer, visit quarterdeckmedia.com/lighting-the-door.