In this week’s adventure, I’ll take you on a trolley tour of three lighthouses in Door County, Wisconsin. As I wrote last week, we are spending the month in one of the most scenic places in the Midwest, Door County. In a 1969 article in the National Geographic, Door County was dubbed “the Cape Cod of the Midwest.” While I haven’t been to Cape Cod, I can only image the beauty and serenity. If that’s the case, Door County measures up and attracts millions of visitors every year to the many small, bucolic villages that dot the coastline on Lake Michigan and the Bay of Green Bay.
The only downsides I see is the weekend traffic during the warm months and the long waits at the many locally owned restaurants. In my view, a place can hardly get more perfect than Door County.
Early in our stay, The Eldest and Son-in-law spent a week with us. After a couple days of rain, they arranged for all of us to go on a tour to see three of the eleven lighthouses situated in Door County. I used to scoff at guided tours thinking they were for the folks who were afraid to explore and venture off on their own; to drive down dead-end roads and get lost on the curvy, unmarked rustic roads. What I’ve learned over the past few years is that a good tour generates ideas for further exploration.
Door County Trolley (doorcountytrolley.com), located in Egg Harbor, offers sixteen themed tours ranging from a daily 1.5-hour scenic tour to Sunday morning Bloody Mary and Brunch Tour. They all sound like a lot of fun. We chose the 4.5-hour lighthouse tour.
We arrived at the trolley station about twenty minutes before our 10 AM departure. This was enough time to cruise through the gift shop and purchase bloody marys and mimosas for the road. Yes, it’s ok to have a drink on this trolley. The day started off just right!
When we boarded the trolley, Brian, our driver and guide for the day greeted us with enthusiasm. As we headed for our first stop, Brian had everyone introduce themselves and share where they were from. There were some folks celebrating birthdays and anniversaries while others were making their first trip ever to Door County. At any rate, Brian was a delightful fella with the perfect personality for a tour guide.
The Eagle Bluff Light Station located in Peninsula State Park was the first lighthouse on our tour. After disembarking the trolley, Bradley, the Lighthouse Manager, briefed us on this well-preserved light on the Bay of Green Bay. This lighthouse situated on a bluff 76 feet above the water was established in 1868 just after the end of the Civil War. Lighthouse keepers staffed this light until 1926 when the light was automated. Bradley shared some interesting stories about the keepers and their families. One family had seven boys, they all slept in one small bedroom on the second floor of the keeper’s quarters. Not sure how they managed, they were all big boys!
As Brian drove us through Peninsula State Park on the way to our next destination, he pointed out the recently constructed Eagle Bluff Tower. It’s quite a site to see, I marked this down for a visit during our stay in Door County.
As we drove along, Brian asked us if we knew how the village of Fish Creek got its name. After a few lame guesses, Brian told us the story. There was a stream that flowed into the Bay of Green Bay. There were a lot of fish in the stream. Therefore, it was named Fish Creek! Pretty creative don’t you think?!
It was about 11:30 AM when the trolley tour arrived at the Baileys Harbor Range Lights. Linda, the docent at the museum, met our trolley and gave a short history of the range lights.
Linda explained that the two lights are 1000 feet apart. One had a red light, and the other was white. Ship captains would align the lights to guide the vessel into safe harbor. When first constructed, the lighthouse keeper would have to check the lights every hour after dark to clean the glass and make sure the light fueled by lard was still on. Can you image walking back and forth in the dark, carrying a bucket of lard for the light, and trying not to stumble on the path? They earned their $600 per year salary. In those days it was a good paying job and if his wife was appointed assistant keeper, she was paid $400 per year. These were federal government jobs. Linda told us the last lighthouse keeper job didn’t end until 2020! Most lighthouses were converted to automatic lights by the 1930s.
After Linda’s talk, we toured the house and were able to take photos from the 30-foot-high light at the top of the quarters. Then we walked the 1000 feet to the lower light. The Baileys Harbor Range Lights are located on the grounds of the Ridges Sanctuary, a 1600-acre nature preserve. We’ve driven by Ridges a few times in past visits but vowed to spend more time hiking the many trails and checking out the visitor center.
While we were enjoying the Range Lights, Brian was making our lunch. Well, actually he picked up the made to order sandwiches at Baileys 57 at the BP station in Baileys Harbor! We would eat our lunch at our last stop on the tour at the Cana Island Light Station, one of the most popular sites in Door County. There are two ways to access the island and see the lighthouse. The first is to wait in line for a tractor-drawn wagon to transport visitors across the shallow, rocky causeway. The past few years the water level of Lake Michigan has been very high necessitating a method to keep visitors’ feet from getting wet. There were years when the lake level was low enough that it was an easy, dry walk from the mainland to the island.
The second way to cross is to roll up your pant legs and wade though the water that is about knee deep. Those attempting this method to cross should be aware that the rocks are slippery and sharp. Water repellent footwear is recommended. I don’t think a few of the people walking across heeded this warning!
There were a lot of visitors lined up to board the wagon. We patiently waited in line chatting with others on our tour. After about a half hour it was our turn to experience the bouncy ride across the causeway.
After disembarking, we found a picnic table to devour our lunch, it was nearly 1:30 PM! With our bellies full, we walked around the nine-acre island to admire both the beauty and serenity of the setting. The original lighthouse is encased in steel painted white. The attached keepers’ home is also original and made of a cream-colored brick. The hexagon shaped building is where the fuel for the light was kept, first lard, then kerosene. Much later the light was converted to electric.
Too soon, it was time for us to board the wagon for our return ride across the causeway. While waiting, I shot this short video of the tractor and wagon making their way to the island.
When our turn came, I was fascinated by the volunteer driver. To me this would be the idea gig, I know how to drive a tractor from my days growing up on a farm and I like interacting with people. I was one of the last passengers off the wagon and struck up a conversation with Steve. I asked him how he got this job. He said he showed up and volunteered. He said they are often short of volunteers to open the lighthouse for tours and drivers.
A return trip to Cana Island is also on our to do list. We’d like to spend more time walking around and enjoying the atmosphere of the light station.
The ride back to the trolley station was great fun. Brian had the radio playing at low volume, but a song came on and soon a spontaneous sing-along broke out on the trolley. People were singing and laughing even after a five-hour tour.
As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t big on tours, but a good subject and an excellent guide can make for an enjoyable and relaxing day.
Tune in next week for another big anniversary celebratory post.
Until next week, happy travels!