Cana Island  Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

In the late 1860's, the wooden Baileys Harbor Lighthouse was deteriorating significantly, and the decision was made to replace the aging structure. Rather than building in the same location, the Lighthouse Board chose to build the new structure on a nine-acre spit of land protruding into Lake Michigan known as Cana Island. "Cana Island " is somewhat a misnomer, since it is only an island when the lake levels are high. The majority of the time, there is an exposed rocky sinew of land which connects to the mainland.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress appropriated funds for construction the spring of 1869 and a crew immediately undertook the task of clearing a three-acre station site. Leveling a rock foundation, a buff-colored cream city brick tower began to take shape. Eighteen feet in diameter at the base, the tower rose sixty-five feet, gently tapering to a diameter of sixteen feet at its' uppermost. A forty-two foot by twenty-foot keepers dwelling was constructed beside the tower attached to the tower by a ten-foot covered walkway, designed to help shield the keepers from the elements when tending the light. Spiraling within the tower is a gracefully spiraling set of cast iron stairs, with 102 stairs.

Click to view enlarged imageThe cast iron lantern atop the tower was likely prefabricated at the Milwaukee Lighthouse Depot and transported to the site by Lighthouse tender. Equipped with a Third Order Fresnel lens with the focal center of the lens situated approximately seventy-five feet above the tower bottom, the lens boasted a focal plane of eighty-two feet above mean lake level.

The station's first keeper, William Jackson displayed the light for the first time on the evening of January 24, 1870.

By virtue of its location, Cana Island is particularly vulnerable to severe storms. The station was subject to a number of severe storms in the 1870's and 80's, flooding the area around the station. During the infamous Alpena Gale of October 1880, the seas were so bad that waves swept through the house. To help solve the flooding problem, the Lighthouse Board filled almost an acre of land around the station.

Click to view enlarged imageThe combination of wind driven-water and the soft cream city brick caused a rapid deterioration in the condition of the tower's brick exterior. In 1902, the entire exterior of the tower was encased in steel plates to prevent further degradation. Thereafter, the tower was given a coat of white paint, the color that remains to this day.

In a pea soup fog on the afternoon of October 8, 1928 the three hundred and fifty-two-foot steamer Bartelme ran aground on the south side of Cana Island. Pounded by wave action, her bottom plates ripped apart, hopes of her ever being re-floated dimmed.

Representatives of the T. L. Durocher Wrecking Company of Detour, Mich., arrived at the wreck with the tug General to survey the wreck's salvage potential. Determining the costs of salvage to likely be higher than the worth of the spoils, it appeared that the Bartelme was destined to rot in place.

Click to view enlarged imageThe wreck was obviously of some interest to local residents. On October 12 1928, the Door County Advocate reported that the island "was the destination of nearly 200 automobiles last Sunday and Keeper Sanderson scarcely had parking space for the large number of cars that gathered there during certain hours of the day."

In 1930, the tug Lotus arrived at the wreck, and removed the boilers, fitting and other valuables, towing them to the Leathem D. Smith shipyard in two lighters, but leaving the hill carcass laying on the island.

Click to view enlarged imageFinally, in the September 14, 1933 issue of the Door County Advocate it was reported that "John Mandarich and Fred Riefschnider of Milwaukee came this week to look after the contract, which they have for removal of the steel from the old freighter. The gentlemen stated that they have sixteen men engaged in cutting the steel at the present time, removing the plates in 6 x 18 strips, which will be loaded on barges and towed to Sturgeon Bay and load here aboard a freight for shipment to Cleveland, Ohio."

Thus, almost exactly five years after the steamer ran aground, she left Cana Island in pieces, and giving the island back to the keepers.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter automation in 1945, the Cana Island station no longer received the constant care of its' keeper, and the station sadly deteriorated. The Door County Maritime Museum leased the property in the 1970's in order to preserve this important part of Door County's maritime heritage, and opened the island to the public.

Now illuminated by a 500-watt electric lamp, the Third Order Fresnel still casts its' light eighteen miles into the darkness, warning and guiding mariners as it has in three centuries.

Keepers of this light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Cana Island Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

Head north out of Bailey's Harbor on Hwy 57. Turn east on County Q. Follow the Cana Island Lighthouse signs. You will make one right turn approximately 3 1/2 miles after turning onto Hwy Q, but it is well signed. Follow the road to its' end, and walk the causeway to the island. There is a small welcome center on the right in the trees approximately three hundred feet after setting foot on the island proper.

The Keeper's dwelling is open daily from May 8 to October 29 from 10 am-5 pm, daily, and there is a $3.50 admission charge for adults, and $1.00 for children. Call (920) 743-5958 for information.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 
Door County Maritime Museum, website
Wisconsin Lighthouses, A photographic & Historical Guide, Ken & Barb Wardius, 2000
Door County Advocate, 10/12/1928, 11/2/1928, 11/9/1928, 8/9/1929, 6/6/1930, 7/22/1932 & 09/14/1933.
Keepers of the Lights, Steven Karges, 2000
Lighthouses and Range Lights of Door County, Peter Bosman, 2000
Wisconsin Handbook, Thomas Huhti, 1997
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Personal observation at Cana Island, 09/11/2000.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 01/29/2007

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