Door County Maritime Museum - Wisconsin Maritime Museum

A Brief History of the Door County Maritime Museum

Throughout history, Door County’s waterways have played a significant role in local and interstate commerce and culture. In the days before automobiles and paved roads, people and goods traveled most directly by water. Due to the number of shipwrecks, lighthouses were soon built to protect Great Lakes shipping.

A Gills Rock citizens’ group founded the Door County Maritime Museum in 1969 and received many important artifacts chronicling the maritime history of Door County and the Great Lakes. The doors opened seasonally at the Cana Island Lighthouse on July 1, 1971. The Gills Rock museum site opened on a limited schedule during the summer of 1975, and then year-round in 1976. Through dedicated volunteer leadership, a small seasonal museum opened just one year later in Sturgeon Bay.

In 1993, the museum hired its first full-time employee to facilitate a capital campaign and to develop public programming, and in 1997, our 22,000-square-foot, year-round facility opened in Sturgeon Bay. Then, through the 2006 Long Range Plan, the museum established a commitment to creating exhibits with interactive components. During July 2008, the museum launched the tug John Purves as a floating exhibit on Sturgeon Bay’s waterfront.

The museum, in partnership with Door County, conducted a Historic Structures Report in 2009 as the first step toward preserving the Cana Island Lighthouse, a celebrated Door County icon. The museum/county partnership constructed a parking lot in 2013 to provide safe access to the historic site.

Today, we salute the lighthouses, shipwrecks, shipbuilders, and fishermen who have left an indelible impression on our local history. Each location, in its own way, demonstrates our commitment to celebrate and preserve Door County’s rich maritime heritage.

At the Sturgeon Bay facility, the galleries highlight Sturgeon Bay shipbuilding, Door County lighthouses, local maritime industries, and ship launching. Key features include the pilothouse of an ore carrier, large-scale models of locally built ships, and a docent-led tour of the 149-foot Great Lakes tug John Purves, built in 1919.

The Gills Rock site emphasizes commercial fishing history. It boasts a retired fishing tug named Hope, a replica of a fishing-net shed and exhibits on outboard motors, diving on Great Lakes shipwrecks, an interactive Lyle gun, and “Pirates of the Great Lakes.”

The Cana Island Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Highlights are its two-story keeper’s house, interpretive rooms, video documenting the lighthouse’s history, and perhaps most of all, visitors’ ability to climb the 89-foot tower with its third-order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse’s restoration and preservation are currently in progress.

Additional Tower Project Information