Door County’s Maritime Historical Sites
Lake Michigan has long been a part of who people are up here, both professionally and personally. It’s been an integral part of the Door County identity as far back as 1855 when a local entrepreneur built the area’s first dock for ships and sailors to refuel on shore.
Since then, fishermen, ship captains, shipbuilders, marine engineers, divers, athletes and recreation seekers, and countless other lake-faring folks have worked and visited these waters. As a result, Door County has gained a reputation as a lakeside destination with a coastal, nautical feel to it with plenty of places to experience maritime culture and history.
If you're in need of a little edification for your upcoming trip, or you're taking an entire history-centric trip, add these nautically inspired attractions to your itinerary.
Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal & Pierhead Lighthouse
If you’re a maritime enthusiast, this should be your first stop.
The canal was constructed between 1872-1879 to allow ships to bypass the treacherous Death’s Door Strait between the mainland and Washington Island and instead cut across the peninsula to the Green Bay.
Not only is the ship canal one of the largest working symbols of our lake-faring past, it contains multiple attractions in one, including the canal itself, a nature preserve with a 2.5-mile trail, the Sherwood Point lighthouse, and the iconic red Pierhead Lighthouse.
Door County Maritime Museums
The DCMM oversees three historic properties: the Cana Island Lighthouse and the two maritime museums in Sturgeon Bay and Gills Rock. (Cana Island is its own fascinating maritime destination as well.)
Both locations feature their own unique exhibits, galleries, and events that celebrate Door County’s maritime roots.
The Sturgeon Bay location also features the Jim Kress Maritime Lighthouse Tower, the famous John Purves tugboat, and an annual boat-building class. The location in the fishing community of Gills Rock is home to a shipwrecks and scuba diving exhibit and the 45-foot wooden tugboat Hope, which visitors can explore inside and out.
Door County’s 11 lighthouses are the crown jewels of our shorelines and what have drawn countless people to our humble lakeside communities for decades. Some lighthouses offer tours to the public, some can only be revered from the outside, and some are only accessible by boat.
But, all 11 are gleaming, architecturally fascinating structures that represent a key part of local history. Visit them to reflect on the lives of the people who used and worked in them, snap photographs of the amazing structures, or make it a goal to see as many lighthouses in a single trip as you can.
Baileys Harbor Range Lights
The Range Lights are on the list of 11 lighthouses above, but these two are worth a trip all their own thanks to a unique history and the distinction of being one of the few lighthouses in the county still offering guidance to boats.
The iconic Range Lights still serve as functional alignment and navigational aids. They were used to help sailors and ship captains align their routes to shore and avoid reefs, rocks, and shallows.
According to The Ridges, a sailor got "on range" by “vertically aligning the white light in the Upper Range Light, which shone at a height of 39 feet above the water, with the Lower Range Light's red beacon, fixed at 22 feet above the water."
Today, visitors can hike to the lights at The Ridges Sanctuary or take a 30-minute guided tour to be reminded of a simpler maritime past and learn some history along the way.
The Winter Fleet & Shipyards
Each winter, the enormous ships and boats normally only seen on the horizon make their way to shore and into the Sturgeon Bay Canal.
The ships’ destination is the Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilders facility, located on the eastern side of the canal, where they’ll receive winterizing, repairs, and upgrades before debarking again in the spring. Fincantieri’s is open to the public for guided tours one day each September.
The arrival of the Winter Fleet is also a once-a-year opportunity. Coordinate your trip dates to align with the arrival of the fleet and see these behemoth ships up close and personal as they move down the canal. The Door County Maritime Museum posts the ships’ schedule on their website once it’s available.
Lake Michigan Shipwrecks
One of the coolest artifacts of the marine activity of Door County’s past are the hundreds of shipwrecks and shipwreck relics that lay at the bottom of Lake Michigan. More than 240 shipwrecks are among our shores, but only about 25 are explorable via kayak, boat, snorkeling equipment, or diving gear.
If you’re new to the water, many kayaking and boating companies offer shipwreck-themed tours, so they’ll do the legwork of getting you to the shore, locating the wrecks, and sharing the history behind them.
Explore Even More Maritime History
Planning a trip around local historical sites or looking to infuse your vacation with some edifying activities? Take this deeper dive into Door County’s lake-faring history and find even more places to visit.