With over 275 shipwrecks, the waters of Door County offer amazing historical sites and stories. Known for taking lives and many vessels, it’s a wonder why the waters dubbed “Death’s Door” remain such a popular maritime passageway. While traveling through this area does present its own challenges for boaters, the tragic stories of shipwrecks are now more the stuff of legends than reality.
Located between the northern tip of the peninsula and Washington, Pilot, Plum and Detroit Islands, is the passage known as Death’s Door. On any given occasion, boaters and sailors can run into challenging conditions like strong currents, unpredictable winds, hidden shoals, sandbars, and rocky shores, all elements that make navigating the waters even more difficult. And all reasons why many boats have lost their way.
The origin of the name traces back to the Native Americans inhabitants who referred to the passage as the Door of Death after losing many men and canoes in a battle against the Winnebago tribe. The French adopted the name and began to label their maps Port des Morts, which roughly translates to Death’s Door in English. The name stuck and inspired the title for the entire county.
Native inhabitants and early settlers crossed the treacherous waters on canoes, while larger boats followed, but the rough waters made it difficult to maneuver, sinking schooners and sail boats during storms. Some ships sank, some were run aground and others have seemingly disappeared altogether.
While tragic, these rough waters have led to a rich maritime history in Door County. Baileys Harbor was discovered by Captain Justice Bailey in 1848 after having to pull into a harbor for safety. Lighthouses were erected as early as 1848 throughout the area to mark land and guide ships safely. But despite the addition of lighthouses, the number of shipwrecks continued to escalate due to the increasing amount of shipping lumber through the lake. In the fall of 1872, over 100 large vessels were stranded or damaged in Death’s Door.
Due to the high number of wrecks, the government, U.S. Coast Guard, and more organizations were created to help protect ships on the Great Lakes. With today’s modern boats, weather forecasting, and mapping systems, boaters can safely travel the waters of Death’s Door. The Washington Island Ferry does so numerous times a day. Test the waters on a boat tour and see some of the fascinating shipwrecks from the 1800s.
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