Door County Compass
emagazine covering Door Co
Find A Grave
listing of the county's cemetery and partial burials
The Political Graveyard
where politicians are known to have been buried 
Government statistics
agriculture, population, demographics, and more
Rootsweb's Door County Resources
genealogy sites and stats
The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871
the worst forest fire in North American history
Cyndi's List
genealogy sites on the internet covering Door county
The Wisconsin Mosaic (1848-1905)
chronology based on the Frautschi letters

Wisconsin Stories
Wisconsin history one town at a time
Door RickNet Door county's ISP
Door County Maritime Museum
nautical history of Door county
Egg Harbor Business Association
visitor center
Door county Chamber of Commerce
official website



Door County has a shoreline of 200 miles, not counting the innumerable bays and inlets which indent its shores. This shoreline is faced with reefs and headlands and along its front are scores of hidden shoals and many dangerous passages. For many years quite as much of Door County's history was enacted on the water as on land. The many hundred fishermen daily watched the vagaries of the sea and the sea captains, traveling in these waters with their cargoes of forest products, learned to respect the sudden gales on Green Bay, the treacherous squalls in the Door and the big storms of Lake Michigan.


The passage through the Door was particularly dreaded. To lose a deckload in making the passage was so ordinary an event as not to be worthy of mention. I have before me the diary of the lighthouse keeper of Pilot Island, kept from 1872 to 1889. It appears from the entries in this journal that their daily diet consisted of winds and roaring seas with a shipwreck at least twice a week as a piece de resistance. It seemed the regular thing in those days of many sails to ground on a shoal, throw off the deckload and then work loose. Frequently the keeper or one of his assistants leaves the station to get the mail from Washington Harbor and is unable to return for three weeks.


Owing to the extremely exposed position of this little rock in the sea it is practically inaccessible in any storm. In the fall of 1872 he reports eight large vessels stranded or shipwrecked in the Door in one week. The preceding year, 1871, almost one hundred vessels were lost or seriously damaged in passing through the Door.


The greatest storm of present memory occurred October 16, 1880. It started to blow from the southeast on the evening of October 13th and continued for three days. The waves ran so high that at the Cana Island Lighthouse, then kept by William A. Sanderson, the sea frequently broke over the house. The lantern at a height of eighty eiqht feet was at times completely covered with spray from the huge waves.


This storm did immense damage to shipping. At the Door twelve vessels were driven on the rocky beaches of Plum Island and Detroit Island and were seriously damaged, many of them being a total loss. At Baileys Harbor seven large vessels were stranded, two being a total loss. In North Bay a large fleet had sought refuge from the storm. The vessels were mostly of the larger class and were either bound for Buffalo with grain or were on their way from that port to Chicago with coal and other supplies.


About fifty of these vessels crowded into the little harbor during the storm. Some of them made the harbor safely and anchored. As the storm continued to increase in violence many of these dragged their anchors and were driven ashore. Here the waves washed over them and it was necessary to jettison the cargoes to keep the decks from bursting. As more and more vessels came in there were a number of collisions and several large vessels were total wrecks and were abandoned.


The crew from one of these vessels was rescued in such a daring manner by one of the fishermen on shore that mention must here be made of it.


At 5 o'clock in the afternoon a large schooner named Two Friends attempted to enter the bay. A part of her canvas having blown away she could not be kept on her course but drifted on the outer point where she struck the limestone ledge in twelve feet of water, there being twenty four feet of water on her seaward side. The first sea that swept over her after she grounded tore her yawlboat from its davits and carried it away.

The crew attached lines to fenders and tried to send them to the shore but the current was so strong past the point that the plan failed. The tremendous sea soon broke up the deck and sent the main and mizzen masts overboard, whereupon the crew of seven men took refuge in the forward rigging which still held firm. Their cries for help were plainly heard on shore but the sea was running so high that none of the men assembled on the shore dared to launch a boat in the face of such immense breakers.

There was one man, however, upon whom the appeals for assistance made so strong an impression that he determined to risk his life in an attempt to rescue the doomed crew. This was James Larson. He obtained a light skiff from William Marshall and a line long enough to reach to the vessel which was about six hundred feet from the shore. By the time his preparations were made it was nearly 11 o'clock, but the moon was giving sufficient light to direct his course.

The weather had grown very cold and it was evident that if the rescue was delayed until morning it would be too late. With the assistance of two men the boat was launched through the breakers whereupon Mr. Larson with intense (…text missing…)







(…text missing…) be hatched on the island, as the vibration kills them in the egg, and it causes milk to curdle in a few minutes. Visitors at the lighthouse on foggy nights sit up in bed when the siren begins its lay and look around for their resurrection robes.


"The Pilot Island Lighthouse is famous for having witnessed more shipwrecks than any other lighthouse on the Great Lakes. If their number could be told it would be a legion. On this little crag and its nearby rocks and shoals scores of proud vessels hare been irresistibly driven to be quickly pounded to pieces by the thundering seas. Many times the crew of the lighthouse have been called upon at the risk of their lives to save the imperiled crews.


A notable example of this was the heroic rescue of the crew of the A. P. Nichols on November 9, 1892, by the keeper of the light, Martin Knudson. The Nichols was bound from Chicago to Escanaba without cargo and was caught in a big storm. Her big anchor was no match for the gale and the schooner drifted on the rocks of  Pilot Island. When she struck the waves washed clean over her. Martin Knudson, the keeper of the light was familiar with every rock around his storm-beaten island, and knowing the location of a shoal leading to the stranded vessel he waded out, although it was exceedingly risky to wade out over the slippery stones in the face of the big waves that came crashing in.


Moreover it was 8 o'clock at night and intensely dark. However he succeeded in almost reaching the vessel. Standing in water up to his shoulders, he finally made himself heard above the terrific roar of the sea and ordered the captain and his men to jump, one by one, and he would catch them. It seemed like suicide to jump into that foaming caldron, but in order to see if rescue was possible Captain Clow jumped first. He went in far over his head but Knudson caught him before he was sucked away by the undertow.


Captain Clow remained on the shoal while Knudson rescued the next one in the same way. In this manner the entire crew of six mere rescued, including a female cook and the captain's aged father, old Captain David Clow, who had suffered shipwreck about on the same spot twenty years before. When the last one had left the vessel the lighthouse man piloted them all ashore along the narrow and crowded ridge of the shoal.Speaking of this rescue Captain Clow said later:


"It is a wonder to me how Martin Knudson found his way along that ledge of rocks in the darkness of the night. He is about the bravest man I have ever seen. How he managed to keep his bearings after rescuing the crew, has been a wonder to me ever since. A single misstep and we would all have fallen off the rocks into deep water and undoubtedly been drowned." 


The schooner J. C. Gilmore had stranded on the island a week before and her crew was still at the lighthouse. The addition of the crew of the Nichols made sixteen persons to feed, and for a while it looked to the men as if they had escaped drowning only to die by starvation. For a week the storms prevented any one from leaving the island. However, after a little a lull in the storm enabled the lighthouse crew to obtain some provisions from the Nichols which soon afterward went to pieces.

The Baileys Harbor Lighthouse was erected in 1852 through the activity of Alanson Sweet, a Milwaukee vessel owner who had platted a village at Baileys Harbor and caused it to be selected as the county seat. A light was therefore needed to guide the commerce which he hoped would soon flow in and out of the new metropolis. It originally was placed on the east side of the harbor near the point. This was abandoned in 1870 when two range lights were built at the head of the harbor.

The old white tower of the former light, built in 1859, is still standing. The Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, three miles north of Fish Creek, was built in 1868. The first keeper was Henry Stanley, who served until 1883. He was succeeded by William Duclon who is still at the post, having served about thirty-five years. This lighthouse was erected to mark the east passage of Green Bay. The Chambers Island Lighthouse was built in 1868. The record is incomplete. Lewis Williams, Peder Knudson and Charles E. Young were the respective keepers up to 1893.

Soren Christianson was keeper from 1895 to 1900, Joseph Napeizinski from 1900 to 1906 and Jens J. Rollefson since that time. This lighthouse was erected to mark the west passage of Green Bay.The Cana Island Lighthouse, four miles north of Bailey Harbor, was built in 1869 on a stony island of nine acres. A driveway to the mainland has now been built. The tower is eighty-eight feet high and the light can be seen eighteen miles. It is in a very exposed position. The keepers of this station have been the following:

William Jackson  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1870-1871

Julius Warren   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1872-1875

William T. Sanderson . . . . . . . . . . . .   1875-1891

Jesse T. Brown . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1891-1913

Conrad A. Strahn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  1913— 


On the southeast side the water is deep right up to the shoal while on the opposite side it shelves gradually off into deep water. On quiet days the water flows placidly over this submerged ridge of limestone and the surface gives no indication of the danger that is lurking there. In stormy weather, however, particularly when the wind is from the northeast, the sea froths and roars over it in a terrific manner. In the early days, before the bay was properly charted and danger spots marked, this submerged reef was the cause of many a marine disaster.

To the credit of Whaleback Shoal it must be told that once it was the means of saving lives instead of destroying them. Two Norwegian fishermen from Ephraim by the names of Anton Olson and Anton Amundson were fishing on the ice near Chambers Island early in the spring of 1890. Suddenly they found that the ice had broken up and was carrying them slowly but irresistibly toward Lake Michigan. The floe on which they were marooned was many miles in extent and for a time they had hopes of making connections with Elison Bay point or Door Bluff.

In this they were disappointed, as the floe kept a course several miles distant from land. As the floe was breaking up they knew that sure death awaited them if they were carried out into Lake Michigan. After spending a night and day of fading hopes and weariness on the ice floe they toward the close of the second day found themselves close to Whaleback Shoal. Covered with huge cakes of ice which had stranded there it now lay like a huge, sinister serpent of ice. It had one virtue, however: it was not moving toward sure death. With their ice picks they broke off a small cake of ice and by means of this ferry reached the shoal.

Here they found the ice heaped up in the greatest confusion, making strange caves and crevices. They crowded into one of these though with little hope. They were too far from land to be seen and they knew that no vessel would venture out for many days. Moreover, the shoal was such a dangerous place that mariners gave it a wide berth. For two days and nights they sat in their cages of ice, exposed to the freezing cold of early April nights without food. Then they noticed that the wind which had shifted was bringing the ice back. For hours they stared anxiously until they saw quite a large cake of ice come near the shoal.

Hastily they launched another cake of ice, paddled across the intervening space of water and embarked. Not many hours afterward they were safely back on land with their ice sleds. They had been four days and three nights among the icebergs.