In the early 1800s, new territories were being formed from the lands surrounding the Great Lakes. Originally part of the Northwest Territory, Wisconsin became an independent territory in 1836; statehood followed in 1848. The division of the territories into specific states and the lure of rich fertile land captured the imagination of the settlers and immigrants arriving via the Erie Canal, completed in 1825.
In 1800, the population of the region was 50,000. Sixty years later, an estimated 9 million people inhabited a vast region that included five Midwestern states. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the new settlers discovered the riches of Wisconsin’s hinterland, establishing villages up and down the shores of Door County. Before long, the peninsula was a patchwork of homesteads scattered throughout the peninsula.
With the influx of people to the region and the increasing demand for goods, shipping across the waters of the Great Lakes increased. Unfortunately, the number of shipwrecks in the five lakes increased, as well. Submerged shoals, unmarked routes, dangerous straits and narrow entrances to harbors and rivers caused countless ships to disappear beneath the swirling waters. In response to the pleas for navigational aids in the region, the United States government constructed lighthouses throughout the Great Lakes. Eventually 344 major lighted aids would dot their shores.
Door County’s 300-mile shoreline eventually boasted 13 lighthouses. Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, constructed in the midst of the growing demand for navigational aids, was operational on October 15, 1868. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Green Bay, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse gained status as an important navigational aid for ships passing through the Strawberry Channel, a narrow passage populated with four islands. Congested with ships setting sail for the villages along the peninsula’s coastline, the lighthouse provided safe passage through rough seas and dangerous waters.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was constructed for the sum of $12,000. In addition to Cream City brick shipped from Milwaukee, materials and supplies arrived by water from Chicago and Detroit. The delivery of the goods was made at Lighthouse Bay, later renamed Tennyson Bay. The lantern room was equipped with a Fresnel lenses; the original lenses was a third-and-a-half order and the second-lens (currently on view) is a fifth-order. The bluff served the lighthouse well, providing protection from high waves and storm damage. The lamp was approximately 76 feet above the waterline and its beam was visible for up to 16 miles.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was maintained by three lighthouse keepers during a period of 58 years. The first keeper, Henry Stanley, served from 1868 – 1883, when he was transferred to the new Sherwood Point Lighthouse in southern Door. The second keeper lived and worked at Eagle Bluff for 35 years. William Duclon and his wife Julia raised seven sons in the lighthouse, some of whom served as lifesavers. The couple retired to a cottage in Fish Creek in 1918, Peter Coughlin was appointed the final keeper. With the automation of the light in 1926, the keepers’ residential tenure at Eagle Bluff ended.
The source of the light was a wicked oil lamp which was initially fueled by lard oil. By the 1880s kerosene was the universal fuel. Automated first with acetylene gas and later batteries, the light was upgraded to solar energy in 1985. Today, boaters under the light mark their position by the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse’s code of one second on, six seconds off. Visitors to Eagle Bluff Lighthouse are always surprised to learn that its lamp has remained constant for the past 142 years.
During the course of its history, the lighthouse on the bluff was first owned and operated by the United States government. With the establishment of Peninsula State Park, maintenance of Eagle Bluff Lighthouse later passed to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In 1960, after years of neglect, the Door County Historical Society was granted permission to restore the lighthouse and provide access for visitors. Following an arduous four-year restoration program and hundreds of hours of research, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse opened to the public in 1964. Furnished with authentic period pieces and donations from the Duclon family, the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum provides a unique experience for visitors and guests.