university of wisconsin sea grant wisconsin historical society
Explore Shipwrecks Explorer's Tools Diver's Area Ask The Experts


These have been formidable hazards for all ships, but especially for sailing vessels, which were exceptionally susceptible to the hazards of the Door. The dangers of the passage were somewhat reduced with the construction of a light on Plum Island in 1848, a lighthouse on Pilot Island in 1850, and a new Plum Island lighthouse in 1896 . Despite these navigational aids, however, some 24 sailing vessels, including schooners, barks, and brigs, were lost in Death's Door from 1837 to 1914. Adjacent islands, shoals, and bays claimed 40 others between the 1830s and the 1940s. Hundreds of other vessels of all types stranded, foundered, or wrecked in Death's Door but were pulled off by salvage efforts and refloated. 

The 1896 Pilot Island lighthouse


The passage's menace was great enough that a canal was cut through at Sturgeon Bay in 1881 to allow vessels to pass through to Green Bay without hazarding the Door. Nevertheless, many sailing vessels continued to use the Door rather than pay canal tolls and tug fees. The local maritime mishaps of the twentieth century have been mostly occasional strandings, with a few fires and collisions, most of which took place outside of Death's Door proper.

Despite the great many ships destroyed by Death's Door, the hazardous passage fortunately failed to live up to its name during the nineteenth century. Some sailors had very close encounters with death during this period, but none actually lost their lives to the passage's swirling currents and rocky shores. In large part, this is due to the heroic life-saving efforts of local inhabitants, passing ships, and the U.S. Light House and Life Saving Services. Read about some of these episodes that left the wreckage of three ships near Pilot Island and the nearby Fleetwing in Garrett Bay.


Copyright © 2003 University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute
If you have trouble accessing this page or wish to request a
reasonable accommodation because of a disability, contact us.