There’s just something about the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse that stirs soul. While it is not the biggest or most architecturally sophisticated Door County lighthouse, there’s something about its ruggedness and its courageous position, far out into the waters of Lake Michigan, that connects with me.
I’m not alone in being so enamored with this lighthouse. Despite being relatively small, this is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Door County and is easily recognizable from its frequent use in Door County literature and on people’s Instagram feeds.
Here is what I am going to tell you about this blog post:
- Quick Facts
- How to visit the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse
- The history of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse
- Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re interested in the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse, you might want to know about Door County’s ten other lighthouses. Check out our ultimate guide on all of Door County’s Lighthouses to find out about them!
- Built in 1881
- Privately owned
- Still operated by the Coast Guard as a navigational aid
- One of the most popular lighthouses for Instagram feeds
- Easily visible, but not open for tour
- Light is 35 feet above the water
Visiting the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse
The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse is out-of-the-way, but it is a trip worth making. The interior of the lighthouse is not available for public tour. However, great views of the lighthouse are available on both the north and south side of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal.
South Side of the Canal
I think that the best views of the lighthouse can be found on the south side of the Ship Canal from the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Nature Preserve which is owned and operated by the Door County land trust. Click here for a map to the nature preserve.
The nature preserve has a small parking area. Once in the parking area, take the path down to the beach and then walk north along the beach toward the south breakwater pier. You can get great views of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead lighthouse by walking on this pier.
When I visit the lighthouse from this side of the canal, I like to bring a swimsuit if conditions are good for a swim at the beach.
North Side of the Canal
The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse can also be viewed from the north pier of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal. To get here, take County Road TT east from the city of Sturgeon Bay until it makes a sharp left turn at the Coast Guard station.
A gravel parking lot is located at this turn. Click here for a map to this parking lot. A walkway continues straight ahead, with a yellow line down the middle. Make sure to stay on the left side of the yellow line, as veering to the right puts you on Coast Guard property. This will also take you past the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse.
The Need for a Lighthouse Identified
The construction of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal was a significant engineering feat of the late 19th century. The canal was a shortcut between Green Bay and Lake Michigan that allowed ships to avoid the perilous Porte des Morts passage. The project began in 1864 and was completed in 1882 when it was deep enough to allow the passage of large ships. The canal was a success, and it was identified that ships would need guidance to find the ship canal.
The importance of the canal and the need for a lighthouse was demonstrated when shallow draft boats were able to use the canal in 1880. The success of this project led to the construction of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse, which began in October of 1881. The construction of the lighthouse was necessary so that ships desiring to enter the canal from Lake Michigan could identify the entrance to the canal.
Construction of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse
The construction of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse began in October of 1881. The main structure of the lighthouse was completed in November of that year. However, the entire lighthouse was not completed until the lantern room was installed in March of 1882. The construction of lighthouses required skilled workers and precise engineering to ensure that the structures were stable and able to withstand harsh weather conditions.
The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse was constructed on the north pier of the ship canal, which had been built by the Corps of Engineers in the late 1870s. The lighthouse was fitted with a sixth-order Fresnel lens and displayed a fixed red light. The Fresnel lens was a crucial component of the lighthouse, as it allowed the light to be seen from a distance and helped guide ships through the canal.
In June 1886, a keeper’s dwelling was built on land nearby, providing a place for the lighthouse keeper and their family to live. This was a common practice for lighthouses, as keepers needed to be on hand at all times to ensure the proper functioning of the light.
In 1884, a fog signal and a building for it were built just west of the lighthouse. Unfortunately, this building was destroyed in a fire in 1892 and is no longer present. However, in 1903, the pierhead lighthouse was reconstructed, and the current combination fog signal building and lighthouse tower was built. The reconstructed lighthouse tower was fitted with a fifth-order Fresnel light.
Life as a Keeper at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse
Being a keeper at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse was not an easy job, as it required many duties and responsibilities. The maintenance of this lighthouse was part of a larger operation that included the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal light, foghorns, and smaller lights along the canal. This meant that at times, up to five keepers were employed to maintain these lights and ensure their proper functioning.
The head keeper at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse had particularly hefty administrative duties, overseeing the work of the other keepers and managing the day-to-day operations of the lighthouse. Keepers faced many difficulties in maintaining the light at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse, including exposure to harsh elements.
One of the greatest difficulties for keepers was exposure to the harsh elements of Lake Michigan. To maintain the light, keepers had to walk along a narrow walkway that was exposed to the wind, rain, and snow. This could be particularly challenging during the winter months when Lake Michigan’s weather could be especially harsh.
In addition to these challenges, keepers had to be vigilant in ensuring the proper functioning of the light and other equipment, including the foghorns and smaller lights along the canal. Any malfunction could have serious consequences for ships navigating the canal, and it was the keepers’ responsibility to ensure that everything was in working order.
Despite the challenges, being a keeper at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse was a rewarding job. Keepers played a crucial role in ensuring the safety of ships and their crews, and their dedication and hard work were greatly appreciated by those who relied on the light for guidance.
The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse has an interesting history, not only as an important navigational aid for mariners, but also as a prized possession among private collectors. In 2010, the Coast Guard declared the lighthouse surplus and made it available for acquisition by eligible entities.
However, no organizations expressed interest, so the lighthouse was put up for auction. Gordon Krist, a private collector from Kentucky, won the auction and purchased the lighthouse for $48,500.
Although it is now privately owned, the Coast Guard continues to operate the lighthouse as an active navigational aid to this day. In fact, as of 2023, the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse is still listed in the “Light List. Volume VII. Great Lakes” of the U.S. Coast Guard, demonstrating its continued importance as a guiding light for mariners on Lake Michigan.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, the lighthouse is visible from the shore and accessible by boat. However, access to the lighthouse itself is restricted as it is privately owned.
The lighthouse was originally fitted with a sixth-order Fresnel lens, and in 1903, it was replaced with a fifth-order Fresnel light.
The lighthouse was built to guide ships through the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, which was constructed in the late 1870s as a shortcut between Green Bay and Lake Michigan to avoid the perilous Porte des Morts passage.
- The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse was constructed in October 1881 to guide ships through the canal.
- The lighthouse was completed in March 1882 and was fitted with a sixth-order Fresnel lens, which displayed a fixed red light.
- A fog signal and keeper’s dwelling were added in 1884, and the lighthouse was reconstructed in 1903 with a fifth-order Fresnel light.
- Keepers faced difficulties maintaining the light due to harsh weather conditions and administrative duties.
- In 2010, the Coast Guard declared the lighthouse surplus, and it was sold at auction to private collector Gordon Krist for $48,500.
- The Coast Guard still operates the lighthouse as a navigational aid, and it is listed in the “Light List. Volume VII. Great Lakes” as of 2023.