Baileys Harbor Range Lights Seeing The Light

Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin



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Historical Information

The Door Peninsula is a long, thin finger of land which juts north into Lake Michigan. French voyageurs experiencing violent seas in the passage between the peninsula and Washington Island named the passage Porte des Mort" which translates as "Door of the Dead." When deciding on a name for a new county to include the entire peninsula in 1851, the Wisconsin Legislature decided to drop the latter part of the name, and settled on Door County.

Click to view enlarged imageIn the fall of 1848, Captain Justice Bailey encountered a fierce October storm while traversing the Eastern Shore of the peninsula, and carrying a full complement of passengers, decided to seek shelter from the worsening storm. Pulling into a sheltered bay, and dropping anchor to ride out the storm, the Captain took the opportunity to explore some of the shore. Finding limestone, pine, maple and beech trees, Bailey reported his discovery to Mr. Alison Sweet, his shipping master.

In 1849, working parties established logging and mining camps in the area, and 2,500 cords of lumber were shipped from the harbor. The following year, a group of log cabins were built in a cluster on the shore, and a road was cut from the harbor to the Green Bay shoreline. Thus the first village in the Door Peninsula grew on the shores of what had come to be known as "Bailey's harbor."

Click to view enlarged imageIn these early days, Bailey's Harbor was the only real harbor of refuge north of Milwaukee. By the early 1850's the harbor became increasingly busy with a combination of vessels seeking refuge from the fury of Lake Michigan and those entering the harbor to load outbound shipments of lumber. In 1853 a lighthouse was established on the Northeast side of the harbor.

In 1867 the Inspector for the 11th Lighthouse District reported that the approach to the harbor was extremely difficult due to the numerous shoals at the harbor's entrance, and proposed that range lights be constructed on the west shore in order to make safe entrance easier. On July 20th of the following year, Congress appropriated $6,000 for the construction of a pair of lights, and a Lighthouse Board construction crew arrived to begin construction in the summer of 1869.

Click to view enlarged imageWork first began on the thirty six-foot by twenty-four foot combination keeper's dwelling and rear range light. With a total of seven rooms, the one and a half story structure featured a full width front porch and a shed-roofed kitchen attached to the rear. A square tower was installed at the front end of the gable. Since by their very nature, range lights were designed to be viewed from within a relatively narrow field of vision, there was no need to crown the tower with a standard lantern room. Instead, the tower was equipped with a large window on the side facing the lake allowing the fixed white Fifth Order Fresnel contained within to cast its beam directly toward the lake.

With work on the rear range light complete, the crew then began construction of the front range light, located some nine hundred feet towards the shore. While from all practical purposes the structure could have been a simple square tower, however the Lighthouse Board elected to adorn the building with an eight foot by eight foot square footprint at ground level, transitioning to an octagonal cross section at a point twelve feet above the ground. Once again, a window was placed on the side facing the lake from which the fixed red Fifth Order Fresnel lens could be seen from the lake. In order to allow the keeper to observe the lamp from within the rear range light, and to keep an eye on the rear range light when working within the front range light, a small window was also installed at the rear of the tower. At a total height of twenty-one feet, the light the lens sat at a focal plane of twenty-three feet, as a result of it's position on the shore 

Fabian Trudell, the first keeper of the Bailey's Harbor range lights, proudly exhibited them for the first time at the opening of the 1870 navigation season.

Sitting at a focal plane of thirty-nine feet, the rear range light was seventeen feet higher than the twenty two-foot focal plane of the front range light. Thus, by design, vessels seeing the lights from the lake could steer to a point at which the white light of the rear range was directly above the red light of the front range, maintaining this heading, safe passage was guaranteed to vessels all the way into the harbor.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1897, the Front Range light's optic was replaced with a 5th order locomotive headlight equipped with a parabolic mirror to increase the light's output. In 1923, both lights were converted to acetylene fueled systems. With this conversion, the lights no longer required the constant attention that could only be afforded by a dedicated keeper, and responsibility for the maintenance of the Bailey's Harbor range lights was transferred to the Cana Island keepers, and all but the tower window was locked-down and boarded-up.

In 1930, both lights were electrified, and the Immanuel Lutheran Church of Baileys Harbor was granted permission to use the rear range keepers dwelling as a parsonage. In 1934, permission was granted to the Door County Park Commission to use the lighthouse grounds, and thus the grounds were incorporated into the Ridges Sanctuary in 1937. In November 1969, both range lights were decommissioned when a Coast Guard crew removed the illuminating equipment and constructed a metal tower with a single directional light to the south of the front range light.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

At the North end of Baileys' Harbor, turn at the Sandpiper Restaurant on the corner of Hwy 57. Follow Ridges Road approximately 1/2 a mile to the beach parking lot.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
Door County Maritime Museum, website
Wisconsin Handbook
, 1997, Thomas Huhti.
Keepers of the Lights, Steven Karges, 2000
Lighthouses and Range Lights of Door County, Peter Bosman, 2000
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Personal observation at Bailey's Harbor, 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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