Under the new American constitution written in 1787, President George Washington signed the paperwork incorporating the lands surrounding the Great Lakes into the Northwest Territory the same year. By 1800, the population of the newly formed territory was 50,000. Covering 440,500 square miles, the Northwest Territory would remain intact until 1803 when Ohio was granted statehood. Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan followed in quick succession. Originally part of the Northwest Territory, Wisconsin became a territory in its own right in 1836, and a state in 1848.
The Great Lakes region was ripe with opportunity. Fertile land for pennies on the dollar captured the imagination of the settlers and immigrants arriving via the Erie Canal. Lush forests provided timber for the construction of homes and barns; fish and game were plentiful. And so the new settlers arrived from all corners of the globe. On the eve of the Civil War, an estimated 9 million people inhabited Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
In the aftermath of the War of Rebellion, Wisconsin’s hinterland had been tamed. Staking claim to parcels of land, the settlers and pioneers established villages from Janesville to Bayfield, Milwaukee to River Falls. By 1835, the northeastern-most tip of the state welcomed its first white settler, Increase Claflin. Soon, villages were established up and down the shores of peninsula. And before long, the Door County was a patchwork of homesteads scattered throughout its countryside.
With the influx of people to the region and the increasing demand for goods, shipping across the Great Lakes’ waters increased. Unfortunately, the number of shipwrecks on 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.
By 1899, 12 lighthouses illuminated Door County’s 300-mile shoreline and islands. 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 Green Bay, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was constructed for $12,000, a very large amount of money at the time. 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.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse immediately gained status as an important navigational aid for ships passing through the Strawberry Channel, a narrow passage populated by four islands. Congested with ships delivering people and cargo to and from the villages along the peninsula’s coastline, the lighthouse provided safe passage through rough seas and dangerous waters by way of its Fresnel lens. By 1868, American lighthouses were universally equipped with the revolutionary Fresnel lens.
Although lighthouses could be solitary and lonely, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was far from isolated. Only three miles from the villages of Fish Creek in one direction and Ephraim in the other, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was a destination for friends, family and visitors from as far away as Chicago. Managed and maintained by three lighthouse keepers and their families for a period of 58 years, it was commonplace for the house to host parties and special events.
The first keeper, Henry Stanley, his wife 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. Following the couple’s retirement in 1918, Peter Coughlin was appointed the final keeper. All together, nine children called the lighthouse “home.” When the lamp was automated with acetylene gas in 1926, the keepers’ residential tenure at Eagle Bluff ended. Sadly, the lighthouse grew dark, save for the lamp which continued to burn.
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.
Today, Eagle Bluff’s light is visible every night of the year. Summer boaters identify their position in the water by an assigned code of one second on, six seconds off. Winter snowmobilers find safety on the ice under the light’s steady flash. Visitors to Eagle Bluff Lighthouse are always surprised to learn that its lamp has remained constant for the past 145 years, the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse has protected the waters of the Strawberry Channel…and hopefully, the light will continue to serve as a beacon for many years to come.