Pilot Island Lighthouse

Standing guard in the waters of Lake Michigan, just off the coast of Door County, Wisconsin, the Pilot Island Lighthouse has been guiding sailors safely through the treacherous waters of Death’s Door for over 160 years. Despite its remote location and current status as off-limits to visitors, the Pilot Island Lighthouse remains an iconic symbol of maritime history in the Great Lakes region. In this blog post, we’ll explore the rich history of the Pilot Island Lighthouse, its significance to the surrounding community, and the ways in which visitors can still catch a glimpse of this legendary structure. So, let’s set sail and discover the captivating story of the Pilot Island Lighthouse.

Here is what we’ll cover in this post:

Collage with a picture of the Pilot Island Lighthouse, a section of a NOAA map showing the Porte de Morts passage, and a sunset in Door County

Quick Facts

  • Built in 1858
  • Automated in 1962
  • Still operational
  • Originally located on Plum Island
  • Not open for tours or visits

Make sure to check out our hub post on this topic to learn more about Door County’s 11 lighthouses.

Visiting the Pilot Island Lighthouse

Visiting the Pilot Island Lighthouse is prohibited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, there are still ways to catch a glimpse of this iconic structure.

One way to see the Pilot Island Lighthouse is from the Northport Ferry dock. With a spotting scope or powerful binoculars, visitors can enjoy views of the lighthouse from a distance. This is a great option for those who prefer to stay on land and avoid the rough waters surrounding the island.

For those who are more adventurous and have experience operating a private boat, viewing the Pilot Island Lighthouse from the water is possible. However, it’s important to note that the waters surrounding Pilot Island can be treacherous, so only experienced and well-outfitted private boaters should attempt this. Safety should always be the top priority.

Charter tours are another option for visitors who want to see the Pilot Island Lighthouse up close. These tours may be available, especially during the Door County Lighthouse festival. This is a great way to experience the beauty of the lighthouse and surrounding waters without the risk of navigating the waters on your own.

Overall, while visiting the Pilot Island Lighthouse is not currently permitted, there are still options for visitors to catch a glimpse of this historic landmark. Whether from the Northport Ferry dock, on a private boat, or through a charter tour, the Pilot Island Lighthouse is worth the effort.

History of the Lighthouse

The Need for a Lighthouse Identified

The need for a lighthouse on Pilot Island, located in the treacherous waters between the Door Peninsula and the Grand Traverse Islands, was identified in the mid-1800s. The stretch of water was known for its treacherous currents and rocky shoals, and had been given the ominous name of Porte des Morts, or “Death’s Door,” long before European settlement.

Nautical Map including the porte des mortes passage between the Door Peninsula and Washington Island
Detail from a nautical map showing the Porte Des Mortes (Death’s Door) passage. Credit: NOAA (public domain.)

As ship traffic on the Great Lakes increased in the mid-1800s, so did the number of shipwrecks in the Porte des Morts passage. Mariners quickly realized that a lighthouse was desperately needed to help guide ships safely through the area. Although a lighthouse had already been erected on nearby Plum Island, it was deemed too far west to be of much use in guiding ships through the dangerous waters.

As a result, the decision was made to build a lighthouse on Pilot Island, which would be strategically located to guide ships safely through the treacherous passage.

Construction of the Pilot Island Lighthouse

Pilot Island Lighthouse - two and a half story brick, end-gabled structure with a lantern room on top.

Construction on the Plum Island Lighthouse began in 1858, with workers facing the challenge of building a lighthouse on a low-lying island with the highest point only 11 feet above the waterline. Despite this challenge, the workers persevered, choosing the highest point of the island to build the lighthouse.

The lighthouse itself was a two-and-a-half-story end-gabled keeper’s dwelling, constructed out of cream city brick. On top of the dwelling, a decagonal lantern room was mounted, which housed a fourth-order Fresnel lens that emitted a flashing white light at a focal plane of 46 feet. This powerful light helped guide ships safely through the dangerous waters of Porte des Morts, preventing countless shipwrecks and saving countless lives.

The keeper of the Plum Island Lighthouse was transferred to the newly constructed Pilot Island Lighthouse, and operations at the lighthouse commenced.

Life as a Keeper on Pilot Island

Life as a keeper on the Pilot Island Lighthouse was notoriously difficult due to its isolation, harsh conditions, and frequent shipwrecks in the hazardous waters of Porte des Morts. The island itself was small and isolated, and the lighthouse keepers stationed there often found themselves cut off from more populated areas like Washington Island or the Door Peninsula. This isolation was compounded by the harsh elements of wind, waves, and fog that battered the island on a regular basis.

In fact, fog was so frequent in the area that the fog signal had to be used often, which could be maddening to the keepers. The constant exposure to the elements and isolation seemed to take a toll on some keepers, with one keeper, John Boyce, tragically taking his own life while stationed at the lighthouse.

In addition to their official duties in preventing shipwrecks, more than once the keepers on the lighthouse found themselves rescuing mariners from shipwrecks. Because of this, the need for a lifesaving station was identified, which was eventually built on Plum Island.

Life as a keeper on Pilot Island could be not only lonely and irritating, but also physically dangerous. Keeper Peder Pedersen died in 1898 while attempting to sail to nearby Detroit Island, and in 1901 keeper Gottfried Hansen nearly fell through the ice several times as he tried to take his dead wife’s remains over the ice on a sleigh to Marinette.

Overall, life as a keeper on the Pilot Island Lighthouse was undoubtedly challenging, but the dedicated men who served there were instrumental in saving countless lives and helping to make the waters of Porte des Morts a little safer for those who sailed through them.

Automation to Today

The Pilot Island Lighthouse served as a critical aid to navigation for nearly a century before it was automated in 1962. This meant that the once-vital role of lighthouse keeper was no longer necessary, as the beacon was now powered by electricity and could be operated remotely. It still operates to this day.

In 2007, jurisdiction over the island and lighthouse was ceded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the area as part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits visits to Pilot Island.

In 2008, Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands was incorporated as a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the Plum Island and Pilot Island lighthouses. The group has worked tirelessly to restore the structures and educate the public about their history and significance.

Other Lighthouses in Door County

Door County is home to eleven amazing lighthouses, making it one of the best places in the world to see lighthouses. Check out our posts on the other eleven lighthouses:

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you tour the Pilot Island Lighthouse?

No. The Pilot Island Lighthouse it not open for tours. However, you can catch glimpses of the Pilot Island Lighthouse with optics from the Northport Ferry Dock or on the water in a private or charter boat.

Can you go on Pilot Island?

No. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates Pilot Island as a wildlife refuge. It is not permitted to go on Pilot Island.

Where is Pilot Island?

Pilot Island is located on the northeast side of the Porte des Morts Passage between the tip of the Door Peninsula and the Grand Traverse Islands in Wisconsin. These islands include Washington Island, Pilot Island, Detroit Island, and more.


  • Visits are prohibited to the Pilot Island Lighthouse.
  • The Pilot Island Lighthouse can be seen with optics from the Northport Ferry dock or on water from private or charter boat.
  • The Pilot Island Lighthouse was built in 1858.
  • The Pilot Island Lighthouse was automated in 1962.
  • Life as a lighthouse keeper was perilous, difficult, and lonely at the Pilot Island Lighthouse.
  • Pilot Island is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • The Friends of Plum and Pilot Island are working to preserve and restore the Pilot Island Lighthouse.
About the author
Mark Stoneman
Hi! My name is Mark! I have been a resident of Door County for almost ten years now, and I'm glad to help you say "Hello" to Door County. I believe that travel helps to change lives, and because of that, I want to help you improve your life through travel.