Door County Maritime Museum

Hi everyone,

Rain was in the forecast. We thought our clean-up rounds in the campground would be cut short. While eating breakfast, we made plans for “indoor” sightseeing at the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay. In our many visits to the Door peninsula, we’d driven by the museum complex countless times that is situated on the west bank of the Sturgeon Bay Shipping Canal.

The fact is, the rain bypassed us. We made morning rounds through the campground deciding to take some of the afternoon off. It was one of the few “slow” days in the campground during our month-long gig. After a quick lunch, we made the five-mile drive into Sturgeon Bay to the museum.

Upon entering the museum’s well-appointed lobby, we noted a group of folks gathering to go on a tour of the John Purves tug boat moored in the canal just outside the museum doors. At the ticket desk, we learned the tug tours were sold out for that day even though it was the middle of the week. It was after all the height of the summer tourist season in Door County. We paid the standard admission fee sans the tug tour; $12  each minus a $2 discount for being of a certain age! This included a timed admission to the recently opened ten-story Jim Kress Maritime Lighthouse Tower. More on that later.

The museum has three main galleries, all focused on water craft, the ship building industry in Door County, and the lighthouses of Door County. Did you know that Door County has the longest shoreline of any county in the United States? They claim they do, with 298 miles along Lake Michigan and the Bay of Green Bay. It’s no wonder that shipping, boats, and lighthouses are so prevalent in the history of the area.

We had some time before entering the tower so took a look around the Asher Gallery on the first floor. There we saw the small craft workshop where wooden boat building continues. I liked the display of vintage boat motors from Evinrude to Johnson to Mercury and everything in-between. All made to take the hard work of paddling or sailing a  boat on the waters of Lake Michigan. These contrasted to the large diesel engines that power the larger vessels like tugs, commercial fishing boats, and freighters. I can’t even image the size of the motors that power modern day shipping vessels, they must be huge to carry all that cargo.

Soon it was time for admission to the tower. The number of visitors allowed at one time is currently limited to fifteen by order of the city Fire Marshal. I assume that will change once the tower is fully occupied. The tower opened in May after a year of construction. Only the tenth floor with views of the waterfront and the rooftop observation deck are open at the current time. Eventually, all the remaining floors will be filled with exhibits on Door County maritime history.

We were asked to gather in a hallway and respect social distancing. While masks were optional in the museum, my Traveling Partner and I complied with the recommendation while indoors. We were ushered into a theatre where we watched a thirteen-minute video presentation about the maritime history of the area and what to expect when ascending the tower. The video was informative and entertaining, well worth watching even if not riding the elevator to the tenth floor.

The elevator opened to a stunning 360 degree views of east and west Sturgeon Bay separated by the Bay of Sturgeon Bay and the shipping canal. As we moved around the room, we were impressed by the interactive displays that described what we were seeing in front of us. After ten minutes or so, we noted that most of our fellow travelers in this time slot had already departed. I was just getting started. After a lovely chat with Carol, the volunteer docent on duty, we took the stairs to the rooftop outdoor observation deck. The views were even better.

In the photos below the “old bridge” on Michigan Street crosses the bay to central Sturgeon Bay. In the top photo is the John Purves tug. In the second photo is the marina and behind it across the bay is the Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding complex, a major employer in Door County. They build and rehab vessels that ply the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

In this photograph, note the twin Gothic spires of St. Joseph Church just below the water tower in the background. Forerunners of the present day church have been in Sturgeon Bay since the 1860s. Just behind the old bridge on the waterfront is the Stone Harbor Resort and Conference Center. They always seem to have something going over there, it’s busy.

Here’s a short video of the view of Sturgeon Bay and the shipping canal from the tower. The wind noise is loud so turn down your sound before playing.


We enjoyed our time in the tower and wondered if it was open at night. The answer is not at the present, but look for special events in the future for a night time view over the harbor. After our elevator trip down to the main lobby, we checked out the two other galleries in the museum. I was interested in the history of Shipping Canal that connects the Bay of Sturgeon Bay with Lake Michigan to the southeast. I didn’t realize it was built in the 1870s and 80s. It sounds like it was quite a feat of engineering for that time. Also in this gallery was a replica of a ship’s pilot house complete with a simulation of navigating through the three draw bridges connecting Southern Door to Northern Door. The second photo was snapped by my Traveling Partner when I took the big wheel to guide the vessel. I made it through without hitting anything. In reality, I’m sure it’s not that easy but it was fun.

In a photo earlier in this post, I mentioned the “old bridge” aka the Michigan Street Bridge or the Sturgeon Bay Bridge. There is something about that bridge that I admire. I prefer using that bridge rather then the more modern bridges nearby. It was interesting to learn some of the history of this bridge and what it meant to the residents and visitors to Door County.

This stained glass window with it’s nautical theme is located on the stairway landing between the first and second levels of the museum. 

This photo was shot from the second level of the display of watercraft and lifts on the level below.

We enjoyed our couple hour visit to Door County Maritime Museum. If you are interested in the history of the Great Lakes, shipping, or lighthouses, a visit here won’t disappoint. The Door County Maritime Museum also operates two other locations, the Cana Island Lighthouse near Bailey Harbor and the Death’s Door Maritime Museum at Gill’s Rock at the tip top of the county. I wrote about the Cana Island Light a few blog posts ago, click here for photos and see what I said. To learn more about the museum check out their website at

I’ll end with this photo of the tower, tug, and museum taken from the Michigan Street Bridge as the sun was setting in the west.  It’s one of my favorites, hope you like it too.

Until next week, happy travels.