BAILEYS HARBOR – Safe to say John and Madeline Holstrom are lighthouse buffs. They not only have visited lighthouses across the Midwest and the country, they got married in one, the Wind Point Lighthouse in Racine.
So it’s no surprise the couple from Naperville, Illinois, was excited to visit Cana Island Lighthouse when its light tower and keeper’s house reopened for public viewing Friday for the first time this year. They hadn’t been to the iconic Door County light in four or five years, they said, and this time they climbed the 97 steps of the tight, cast-iron spiral staircase to get to the outdoor lookout deck at the top of the 89 -foot-tall tower overlooking Lake Michigan. The deck was open for the first time in eight years.
“It’s just a beautiful thing, amazing,” Madeline Holstrom said. “It was amazing to be able to go up there again.”
Their excitement seemed to mirror that of many of the people who overflowed the parking lot a short walk or tram ride from the lighthouse and lined up to be the first visitors this year to see the restored interior of the two-story keeper’s house and make the climb inside the tower to take in the view from the top.
The reopening of the house and tower marks the end of a 13-year, four-phase plan and project to preserve and protect the 153-year-old structure often considered the most symbolic of Door County’s 11 lighthouses. The project also added several facilities and made the small island where the lighthouse stands more easily accessible.
Cana Island hasn’t totally been closed to tourists all season — the oil house and privy have been open along with the new visitor and interpretive center that opened in 2020 as part of the restoration.
But being able to reopen the main attractions of a site that had its highest attendance ever last year, with more than 50,000 visitors, of course is a big deal. Especially because, as Door County Maritime Museum executive director Kevin Osgood noted, it was anticipated to remain closed all season to complete the work. The museum operates the site in partnership with the county, which owns it.
Also, it means Cana Island will be completely open for DCMM’s annual Fall Lighthouse Festival, which takes place Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and draws thousands of lighthouse fans from across the country to check out the Peninsula’s lights.
“I think it’s huge, (and) not just to share the complete experience of being on Cana Island,” Osgood said following a media session the morning of the reopening. “For the county, for the museum, when it’s closed, fewer people come here.”
The lighthouse, which still has its third-order Fresnel lens, although now using an automated electric bulb instead of burning oil, was built in 1869 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was owned and operated by the US Coast Guard from 1934 until 1970, when it entered into a lease with the museum to maintain the lighthouse and grounds. The Coast Guard later transferred ownership of the island and light to Door County in 2006. The county’s Parks Department and the museum then entered an agreement for DCMM to continue to operate and manage the site.
A study of the tower, keeper’s house and property in 2009 identified flaws that limited public access and deterioration mainly caused by the extremes of lakeshore moisture and Wisconsin weather over the years. It also identified limited interpretive opportunities for visitors outside of teachers who manned the site.
The keeper’s house now features restored or updated electrical systems, HVAC and structural items. Original wood flooring and window glass was restored and left in place where possible, and layers upon layers of wallpaper were peeled away to reveal the walls.
Most noteworthy in the tower is the removal of the plaster that long covered the original Cream City brick in the stairwell. That was done as much for structural preservation as aesthetics, DCMM deputy director and development manager Sam Perlman said, because the plaster inside and steel cladding on the outside of the tower trapped moisture in between.
Inside, the bricks will remain uncovered and in view for tower climbers for the next couple years, giving them a chance to “breathe,” after which the museum and county will decide whether or not to cover them again.
The total cost of the project was almost $5 million, raised by grants and individual and corporate donations, Osgood said. The cost of the fourth and final phase was $1.1 million.
There still is a little more to do to complete the restoration – furniture shopping, for example. The keeper’s house is bare for now, but the plan for next year is to add period-correct furniture and décor from the 1920s or ’30s that would have been found in a keeper’s house.
But it’s otherwise ready to welcome the public again, as is the light tower that entices tens of thousands of visitors to climb its steps and gaze out over the Peninsula’s lakeshore.
“The iconic Cana Island Lighthouse is such a key part of our legacy in Door County,” said Julie Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Door County. “These visitors continue to return year after year and do so because they feel they’re part of a community. Cultural and historical tourism is a vital part of Door County.”
Cana Island Lighthouse is at 8800 E. Cana Island Road, Baileys Harbor. It is open from 10 am to 5 pm daily from May through October; the last wagon ride from the parking lot across the causeway departs at 4:15 pm and the last tower climb starts at 4:30 pm
Admission is $12 for adults, $10 ages 5 to 17, free for Door County Maritime Museum members and active military members and their immediate family (up to five). Those who choose to walk across the rocky causeway instead of taking the wagon should wear boots or footwear that can get wet. Admissions may close if the lake water levels are too high.
For more information, call the museum at 920-743-5958 or visit dcmm.org or facebook.com/CanaIslandLighthouse.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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