The water was well past the car’s tires and lapped against its turquoise doors. The breeze barely ruffled the red-haired passenger who sat contentedly in the rear seat and appeared not at all concerned. All the while, the pilot and co-pilot waved enthusiastically as they chugged passed us.
The semi-submerged, classic Amphicar was a novel sight to see on the Sturgeon Bay waters, but, at the same moment, quite apropos. The cheery couple and their four-legged companion were simply embracing the aquatic allure of Sturgeon Bay.
Sturgeon Bay is the county seat of Door County, Wis., whose history is linked inexorably to the waters surrounding it. And the pulsating artery that runs through the heart of the community is the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal.
The city of roughly 10,000 sits on the southern-end of a peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, separating it from the waters of Green Bay. Sitting placidly at the mid-point of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, the city embraces its maritime history.
Its gritty roots travel deep into shipbuilding, an industry that dates back to the 19th century. In the 1880s, the canal was completed linking Sturgeon Bay to both Green Bay and Lake Michigan, providing a safe passage for ships that had previously been forced to travel through the dangerous Ports des Morts (Death’s Door) Strait. The new passage quickly attracted thousands of ships and Sturgeon Bay became a center of maritime traffic and shipbuilding.
Sturgeon Bay is the door to Door County. It’s an old industrial town and is easily bypassed by visitors seeking the more touristy villages of upper Door County. It’s a mistake; the community has its own magical appeal, especially along the waters of the canal.
There is a long and rich shipbuilding tradition, and there’s no better place to learn about that history than the Door County Maritime Museum sitting on downtown’s waterfront.
The museum, founded in 1969, recently added the Jim Kress Maritime Lighthouse Tower Observation Deck, an 11-story tower that’s the tallest structure in Door County.
The lighthouse-inspired tower will eventually be filled with state-of-the-art exhibits. For now, it provides an impressive view of the surrounding landscape, the city and the shipyards that still deliver the industrial and economic backbone to the county.
Visitors to the museum will learn of the graceful schooners that were constructed and plied the waters here in the 19th century, how American Indians traveled by dugout canoe and of the huge Great Lakes Freighters that are repaired and currently under construction at the nearby Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding facilities.
There also are scores of miniature ships on display, replicating both great and small ships built in Sturgeon Bay and two large Fresnel lenses, one of which came from a Green Bay lighthouse. The museum also maintains the fully-restored 100-year-old MV John Purvis, a 149-foot tugboat, which is open for tours.
One of the museum’s most recent exhibits is “Built For Battle: Sturgeon Bay Ships in World War II,” which highlights warships constructed in the city and the experiences of their crews during the critical years of the 1940s.
At the peak of World War II, nearly 7,000 workers, a great many of them women, built over 250 vessels during the conflict at four shipbuilders, launching a new ship every five days.
Now, the town has one major shipyard — the aforementioned Fincantieri Shipbuilding. Standing atop of the museum’s tower, you can view the incredible immensity of the boatyard with its giant blue gantry crane.
On the day we were there, their newest creation, The Mark W. Barker, a 639-foot-long freighter, was receiving finishing touches prior to launching. While adjacent, the nearly 800-foot rust-streaked, 69-year-old Cason J. Callaway dwarfed its surroundings as it received much needed maintenance.
Parallel to the museum, the stately Michigan Street Bridge stands in all of its steel-truss splendor. It is the oldest and most picturesque of three bridges crossing the canal. As we looked on, with warning bells chiming, the bridge’s lift rolled backward on its track and the twin spans opened up, thrusting its roadway into the sky as a couple of pleasure boats awaited their chance to proceed.
For lighthouse junkies, the bay and canal are a bonanza. Sitting out on Lake Michigan near the canal’s mouth is the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse, an 1882 fog-signal building that glows fire-engine red as the sunrise hits it.
Behind it, is the fully operational U.S. Coast Guard station on the shores of Lake Michigan. With its spindly 1899 lighthouse tower thrusting 98 feet upward, the light commands the surrounding waters for up to 20 miles.
Located at the opposite end of the inlet, on the Green Bay side, is Sherwood Point Lighthouse. The last manned station on the Great Lakes, it wasn’t automated until 1983.
Sitting across the bay from Sherwood Point lies the nine acres of George K. Pinney County Park. At one time, it was the largest limestone quarry in Door County. Today, with its startling white cliffs juxtaposed against the blue waters of the bay, it’s a great place to enjoy the waters of Green Bay while watching the sunset.
The steep slopes and limestone cliffs of Potawatomi State Park occupy the headlands on the west side of Sturgeon Bay. The 1,225-acre park provides miles of trails and is open year round.
One of the best ways of venturing out into waters of Sturgeon Bay is by boat. There are various tours available or you can put on your own captain’s cap and rent a boat.
Even with its sweat-stained, blue-collar demeanor, Sturgeon Bay welcomes the countless tourists who seek Door County’s many delights. With its historic Third Avenue shopping district bustling with delightful dining venues, unique pubs and comfy coffee shops, and the many B&B’s dotting Sturgeon Bay, there is much to offer.
In the end, however, the biggest imprint is the city’s maritime past, present and future. Whether it’s huge freighters easing their way through the narrow canal or small fishing craft seeking the depths’ bounty, Sturgeon Bays’ legacy is all about boats and water. And they embrace it.
So should you.