Between the Bays: Exploring the Cana Island Lighthouse

Nestled on 8.7 tranquil acres between Moonlight Bay and North Bay in Baileys Harbor is one of the most recognizable and celebrated sights in Door County: the Cana Island Lighthouse. 

Connected to the mainland by a water-covered, natural-rock causeway, the 89-foot structure – once merely composed of clay Cream City bricks – is now also encased in a reinforced steel shell and harbors rich memories. It has proudly shown its light on an invigorating local history that has continued to fascinate lighthouse aficionados for decades. 

The Test of Time 

Built in 1869, the cherished cylindrical tower was once the tallest structure in Door County. It rests alongside a rugged shoreline and rocky reefs, and the vast waters surrounding it are home to a collection of sunken vessels and wood-hulled schooners that once graced the surface. The lighthouse, along with its historical ambience, welcomes visitors of all ages and keeps the significance of the island alive through keeper stories and its iconic charm. 

The captivating background of both the island and the lighthouse began with its construction, paralleling a past navigational need from ships passing by the shores. Its existence over time has proven to be indispensable, and it has embedded itself well within the classic maritime narrative. 

Likewise, the island has experienced its share of ravage, including a record storm on October 15, 1880, known as the Alpena Gale. Lake Michigan’s wrath destroyed seven ships within the vicinity of the island and caused waves to break into the lighthouse. 

Nearly 50 years later, in October 1928, the M.J. Bartelme, a freighter known to carry ore, coal and grain, met the same fate despite the aid attempt of the Cana Island light. It ran aground in dense fog and sustained damage to its hull, collapsing its engine room, cabins and stack. Today the wreck rests in 15 feet of water just off the southeast point of the island. Numerous artifacts, including a portion of the ship, are on display on shore.

Photo by Len Villano.

The island was once home to lighthouse keepers, their assistants and at one time, the McCarthy family, whose members leased the island in 1945 as a summer residence for nearly 25 years.

Keepers’ logs, starting with the first keeper, William Jackson (1869-1872) until the last, Louis and Rosie Janda (1977-1995), reveal many harrowing accounts of life on the island. These recollections record simple joys, document struggles and record major life events such as seeing Halley’s Comet – a once-in-a-lifetime moment to witness in Door County’s beautiful, star-speckled sky. 

The Door County Maritime Museum owns the lighthouse, which joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Although it’s now powered by electricity rather than lard oil as it once was, it continues to be an active navigation resource under the jurisdiction of the United States Coast Guard. 

Exploring the Lighthouse 

As one of the 11 historical lighthouses in Door County, Cana Island attracts thousands of visitors throughout its May-October season. Enthusiasts, families and adventurers can climb the tower’s impressive, 97-step spiral staircase to the watch deck for a breathtaking view of the Door peninsula and Lake Michigan. On land, they can explore the oil-storage house and exhibits within the former keeper’s quarters. 

Beyond a sweeping height, the Cana Island Lighthouse is known for a very specific feature: its original third-order Fresnel lens.

“The island location is unique,” said Sam Perlman, deputy director and development manager of the Door County Maritime Museum. “The intact Fresnel lens [is a] significant attraction.” The lens, located in the light room atop the tower house, was produced in France and dubbed the “invention that saved a million ships.” 

Consisting of circular prisms that gather light from a lamp, a powerful ray of light is produced from refracted and bent beams. For this reason, Fresnel lenses have become an operational staple for lighthouses and spotlights around the world. The light at Cana Island has the ability to project up to 18 miles into Lake Michigan, offering a trusted guide for nearby ships. 

Previously, the system required a dedicated maintenance regime as keepers needed to wake every few hours to refuel the light with oil or kerosene. By 1945, thanks to modern advances, Cana Island was updated with an engine-driven, two-kilowatt generator and batteries to power a 100-watt, 32-volt bulb. During the 1960s, a power line was also installed on the island. 

Despite operational changes, the tower’s beacon continues to attract curious visitors – even those who now see it from a different perspective. 

Guests are transported to Cana Island via wagon and tractor. Photo by Tim Sweet.

“Going to Cana Island Lighthouse was a great experience for my husband – a retired freighter captain – and me,” said Peggy O’Connell, whose husband, Raymond Sheldon, passed by the light for nearly 45 years during his time on the Great Lakes. “When we visited, it was the first time he had seen it by land,” O’Connell said. 

Although today’s technology has improved the ability to navigate the lake tenfold, lighthouses still play a key role.

“In his early years of sailing, he remembers using the light as a navigational tool,” O’Connell of her husband. “When we visit lighthouses, he has real-life experience understanding their importance, and he appreciates the work of the keepers.” 

Preserving a Legacy 

“The buildings and grounds have been maintained by the Door County Maritime Museum for over 40 years,” Perlman said. “They are in the final stages of a four-phase restoration.”

The restoration plan was developed to protect and preserve Cana Island and included an array of projects that have been ongoing. 

Phase 1 included adding new restroom facilities in 2010, along with a maintenance building. No vehicles are allowed on the island, but a dedicated parking lot was constructed on the mainland before the crossing. Exterior features of the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters were also fixed, including the copper roof; the tower was repainted; masonry repairs were made; and the windows and doors were restored. 

In 2017, Phase 2 of the project wrapped up. It entailed restoring the oil house, privy and barn, among other key areas. This brought an update into the summer of 2020, when new construction introduced the welcome and interpretive center, with exhibit space, an admissions desk and a museum gift shop complete with books, apparel and collectibles. 

Cana Island Lighthouse sunrise by kayak. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Phase 4 is currently underway and seeks to restore the interior of the keeper’s quarters and lighthouse tower. The last occupants vacated in 1995, and the museum hopes to safeguard the property’s legacy and all of its artifacts, such as photograph collections, vintage furniture and tools of the trade. 

Together, the phases connect seamlessly and prompt the island to inspire both locals and visitors. Beyond the physical structures is Cana Island’s unwavering heritage. In 2019, the Door County Maritime Museum celebrated the lighthouse’s sesquicentennial anniversary by bringing together 20 descendants of the island’s past keepers. The event coincided with National Lighthouse Day and reaffirmed the importance and intrigue of the island and its lighthouse. 

“Many crew members still use the sight of these beacons as a way point and a sign that they are on the right course,” O’Connell said. “Giving visitors the opportunity to visit, climb and experience Cana Island keeps history alive.”

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