Not too many people would want to plan a trip through death’s door and back just for fun - unless, of course, they were at the northern tip of the Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin and wanted to spend the day exploring the Pottawatomie Islands’ Lights: Pilot Island Light, Plum Island Range Lights and Life-Saving Station, and Pottawatomie Light, also known as Rock Island Light.
Door County boasts eleven current lights, of which these three are only accessible by taking a boat trip across Porte des Mortes, more commonly known as Death’s Door. Many people think this strait linking Lake Michigan with Green Bay was named for the many shipwrecks that have occurred over the centuries, but the knowledgeable guides on the Door County Trolley tour are happy to set the record straight.
According to veteran guide Ed Schriner-Schmitt, the name actually stems from an Indian conflict that occurred in the 17th century. The passive Pottawatomie Indian tribe used to help provide safe passage through the treacherous waters between Washington Island and Gills Rock to travelers, trappers, and traders. They were heavily rewarded for their efforts, and when the neighboring more aggressive Winnebago Indians saw this, they wanted to cash in. They traveled northward and took the Pottawatomie entirely by surprise before they could launch a defense in their canoes from Gills Rock. The water in that area turned blood red that day.
The Winnebago Indians then attempted to paddle over to the main Pottawatomie village on Washington Island to wipe them all out, but when they got halfway across, the wind shifted and a storm blew in that sunk every one of their canoes. The Winnebago bodies washed up on the shores of Gills Rock for the next three months. When the French arrived, they saw the skeletons on the beaches and heard the stories of the witnesses from that day, so they named the area “Porte des Mortes.” When the British arrived a few years later, they translated that to mean “Death’s Door.” So, in a way, the treacherous waters did play into the naming of the place, and the many shipwrecks that occurred over the intervening centuries did not lessen the sentiments of how people looked upon Death’s Door.
Today, it is easy to travel across the strait, whether by ferry service, public cruises, or private boat charters from Gills Rock or Northport. There are many cruise companies that offer a variety of day excursions that include visits to the lighthouses in and around the strait. One of the most reputable is the Shoreline Scenic Cruises and Charters. Captain Jim Robinson offers several different cruise packages that will visit these lights.
In taking a lighthouse cruise, the first stop on the itinerary is normally Pilot Island Lighthouse. By the mid-1800s, it was felt that there needed to be a lighthouse in the area to guide ships safely through the strait. The first attempt was made on Plum Island, but when, after almost ten years, it was considered inadequate to safely guide ships into the passage due to its far westerly location, a lighthouse on Pilot Island was constructed in 1858 instead and a 4th order Fresnel lens was installed. In 1864, a fog signal building was added. The light was automated in 1962 and transferred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007. It is now part of the Green Bay Natural Wildlife Refuge. The Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands have been working over the past decade to preserve the lighthouse and fog signal building.
Pilot Island Lighthouse was said to have witnessed the most shipwrecks of any light on the Great Lakes. Head keeper Martin N. Knudsen took a reckoning in 1894 of the disasters that had happened in the area for the 30 years prior to that, and he counted 72 serious accidents, 26 of which happened directly on Pilot Island. He wrote the Door County Advocate newspaper in favor of having a life-saving station to be built on nearby Plum Island to help provide the means and equipment to perform the necessary life-saving tasks. The station was finally constructed in 1896.
The second stop on the cruise takes in both the Plum Island Life-Saving Station on the northeastern side of the island, as well as the Plum Island Rear Range Light and keeper’s house located on the west side of the island. The landing dock is part of the accompanying boathouse structure that was built in 1939. In 1990, the Coast Guard ceased operations at the station and moved over to Washington Island. In 2007, the station ownership was transferred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and is now a part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands have restored the porch structure of the station house, the exterior of the boathouse, as well as the landing dock to make it safely serviceable. They have also cleared and put benches and signage along the trails needed to cross the island to visit the rear range light, which is a short half mile trek. Their future plans include restoration of the keeper’s house next to the rear range light as well as the rest of the Plum Island Life-Saving Station house.
The Plum Island Range Lights were built as part of the Life-Saving Station in 1897 and are approximately 1650 feet apart. The rear light had a 4th order Fresnel lens that could act as both a range light and a separate lighthouse for those approaching the strait from another direction. Originally, there was also a brick fog signal building, boat house, and oil house on the site. Today, only the keeper’s house and original skeletal range light tower remain with the lens still intact. It is interesting to note that Keeper Martin N. Knudsen, who wrote the newspaper letter in 1894 asking for the Life-Saving Station to be built, was transferred from Pilot Island Lighthouse to the Plum Island Range Lights when it was finished in 1897, thus giving his support in person for the next few years.
While navigating through Death’s Door, you can also view a very fine shipwreck right from the boat. The wreck of the schooner, Grape Shot is clearly visible through eight feet of water where you can still see several parts of her starboard side and hull strewn over 160 feet of wreckage area. The schooner was constructed by Benjamin Biehl Jones, a master shipwright, in Buffalo, New York in 1855. Her purpose was to carry bulk cargo across the upper Great Lakes. In November 1867, she became stranded near the Plum Island Lifesaving Station, and she eventually sank.
From this point, if you are on a private charter or special lighthouse boat tour, you can go around Washington Island to visit Pottawatomie Island Lighthouse located on Rock Island as part of the Rock Island State Park. Another way to reach it is to take the public ferry from Washington Island. There is enough to see and do on Rock Island to spend several hours there. The State Park has ten miles of trails to hike and enjoy exceptional views and settings. There are picnicking areas and playing fields with some small equipment available for use. The historic boathouse has some very interesting displays.
Constructed out of blue limestone, the boathouse was built in 1929 for Chicago inventor and millionaire Chester Thordarson. He had purchased Rock Island in 1910 in order to create a hideaway vacation retreat that would be one with the natural surroundings. He had plans to build a 100-room hotel on the island, but they never materialized, so the boathouse is his only structural legacy. It is considered one of the most significant historical buildings in Wisconsin.
Thordarson called the upper level of the boathouse his “Jewel House of Art and Nature,” but its more common name is “the Viking Hall” because of the Nordic-looking 9-foot oak chandelier decorated with 20 buffalo horns, the rough latticed ceiling beam construction, and the rock fireplace that is large enough to roast a whole ox. One of the most interesting showpieces in the hall is the large oaken table and accompanying chairs that are decorated with scenes from Norse mythology carved into them, and there are descriptive binders on display that give the full tales of each scene. There are also exhibits on the history, flora, and fauna of the island, as well as information and photos of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse.
Leaving the boathouse, it is about a mile hike over some nice trails to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse located on the northern end of the island. The first lighthouse that was finished in 1837 was of poor quality and was replaced in 1858 with the present stone structure made of local rock. A 4th order Fresnel lens was set into a wood tower built on the north gable. The brick oil house was not added until 1904. In 1946, the keeper’s house was closed and wet-cell batteries were used to power the light. Then, in 1988, a steel skeleton tower was built by the Coast Guard to house the solar panel-run light.
The Friends of Rock Island State Park began working on a restoration of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse in 1994 and installed a new replica lantern in which a replica 4th order Fresnel lens was installed. The rooms of the lighthouse have been restored and furnished to create an early 1900s setting. Docent-led tours of the Rock Island Lighthouse Museum allow visitors to hear some wonderful stories of keeper history and lighthouse tales. The docent program allows for the volunteers to live at the lighthouse for week-long stints between Memorial Day and Columbus Day while giving tours of the property.
A group of visiting tourists in 1880 reported to the Advocate that their visit to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse was “one of the most agreeable days that has ever been spent on the island.” Likewise, visitors today can have an enjoyable excursion to spend time at Rock Island State Park and can make the same claim while visiting all the lighthouses that sit within the vicinity of Death’s Door. Maybe, since there have been so many lives saved over the years because of those lights, they should reconsider a name change after all these centuries.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 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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