Wisconsin county a beauty spot with 11 historic lighthouses

Cormorants have created an eerie scene on Pilot Island, which was once home to a keeper and lush...

Cormorants have created an eerie scene on Pilot Island, which was once home to a keeper and lush with vegetation. WAYNE NEWTON/Special to QMI Agency

WAYNE NEWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:19 AM ET

It seems unfair that such a pretty part of the United States takes its name from tragedy and death.

But that's how it is in Wisconsin's scenic Door County. The county, and similarly named peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, got its name in the 1800s from French explorers and trappers who called the dangerous place where the waters of Green Bay meet Lake Michigan "Porte des Morts" or in English, Death's Door.

Since the beginning of nautical travel, the area has claimed scores of shipwrecks from the Frank O'Connor, a coal freighter that sank in 1918, to various schooners that went down in the 1800s.

Navigation became much safer when a series of lighthouses were built and technology known as "range lights" was developed to guide mariners through thick fog and away from shallow channels and rocks.

The keepers are long gone, replaced by automation, but 11 restored historic lighthouses remain and now collectively create the region's most famous tourist draw.


Whitefish portions from Lake Michigan arrive for the nightís fish boil at Rowleys Bay. Fish and vegetables and boiled outside on an open flame, then served at the restaurantís buffet table. WAYNE NEWTON/Special to QMI Agency

Door County is now among the top lighthouse destinations in the world.

Three are easily reached by car, with the 27-metre tall Cana Island Light reached by a pedestrian causeway. Visitors can climb its 102-step cast iron circular staircase for a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. On the day I visited, an artists' group from Chicago was spread out on the grounds to capture the beauty of the place in oils and watercolours.

Inside Peninsula State Park, Eagle Bluff lighthouse overlooks Green Bay.

The Canal Station Pierhead Light on Sturgeon Bay is the most unusual structure. Painted bright red and built on a pier jutting out into the lake, it's next door to an active U.S. Coast Guard station.

But the best discoveries require a boat and a guided excursion to Plum, Rock, and the creepy Pilot islands.

An abandoned rescue station on Plum Island is in the process of being restored.

Charter boats ($40 from Gills Rock at the tip of Door County) dock at the station, then visitors walk through a lush, fern-filled clearing to climb to the top of the Plum Island lighthouse, perhaps the most pivotal of all lighthouses in guiding sailors through Death's Door.

One of the prettiest restored lighthouses requires both a boat ride and a 30-minute hike over hills and through woods to Pottawatomie lighthouse on Rock Island. Completed in 1836, it's the oldest in Door County. Visitors dock at the doorstep of an ornate boathouse built by Chester Thordarson, a Chicago inventor who once owned Rock Island as a vacation retreat.

The beauty of Rock Island is contrasted by nearby Pilot Island, which was compared to a Civil War prison by one former lighthouse keeper. Its first assistant keeper committed suicide there in 1880.

Today, its vegetation and buildings have been ruined the thousands of cormorants who have taken over the island, creating an Alfred Hitchcock-meets-Tim-Burton scene.

NEED TO KNOW

-- Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, near the waterfront in Ephraim, started as an ice-cream shop in 1906. Ice cream is still on the menu, but it's just as famous now for its home-brewed draft root beer and cheeseburgers.

-- Rowleys Bay Restaurant, 1041 County Rd. ZZ in Ellison Bay, is famous for its fresh whitefish and pecan rolls from Grandma's Swedish Bakery.

-- Fred & Fuzzy's Waterfront Grill in Sister Bay, a high-spirited waterfront bar known for its Door County cherry-juice margaritas and grilled cheese sandwiches made with Wisconsin cheddar, Swiss and provolone.


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