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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Beyond Milwaukee: Death's Door Strait


Door County's Death's Door Strait is said to be the site of more shipwrecks than any body of fresh water in the world, and rivals ocean sites for navigational mishaps.

Autumn always has been the most dangerous time of the year on the strait, originally dubbed Porte des Mortes by French navigators. Many of the most famous shipwrecks occurred from September through November on the stretch of water between the Door County peninsula and Washington Island.

The Fleetwing, the pride of famed Manitowoc shipbuilder Henry Burger, went down in a gale in September, 1888. When the schooner was built in 1867, the Manitowoc newspaper wrote, "There is no stronger vessel than this. Nothing that would add to its strength has been omitted." Obviously, the vessel still wasn't strong enough to survive the strait.

In October 1892, three schooners went down near Pilot Island in a big storm. The A.P. Nichols, the Forest and the J.E. Gilmore all succumbed to the winds and wild waves.

Then, in the "Big Blow of 1913," a steamer called The Louisiana was driven aground at Washington Island and eventually was destroyed by the winds and a fire.

Winds reported to be over 70 miles per hour howled through the strait during the Big Blow, which lasted for a couple days. All told on the Great Lakes, 20 vessels were destroyed, 70 others damaged and 248 sailors drowned during the storm.

These wrecks are some of the more recent documented in or near Death's Door. Many occurred before the French even named the strait, which by most records goes back to the 1720s.

Some say the French actually played a little politics in naming the strait. They didn't want the English to find their fur trade routes to Wisconsin and surrounding areas, so tried to scare them from sailing through the area.

Yet others attribute the name, in part, to an alleged incident in which dozens of Native American warriors died in a sudden storm. At least one account involving Native Americans has one tribe building a ring of campfires on thin ice offshore, to woo their enemies through the strait overnight. The attackers perished on the way.

Whatever led to the legend of Porte des Mortes, it prompted the digging of a canal near Sturgeon Bay in 1881, so vessels could avoid the strait while navigating from Lake Michigan to Green Bay. You likely drive over that canal every time you go to Door County.

Today, the ferry to Washington Island primarily is the main vessel that sails the strait, along with fishing boats. Most Great Lakes ships actually move north of Washington Island.

But, the legend of Death's Door continues. In 1969, National Geographic led a story about Door County with the following colorful language:

DARKNESS CAME QUICKLY as wind and rain gusted out of the sky to wreck the drowsy stillness of three o'clock on a warm summer afternoon. From atop a high limestone cliff, I watched the waters of the strait below bunch up into swells and then become driving beams of frothy fury. A skiff torn loose from it's mooring slammed into the base of the cliff and backed off as kindling. Churning, whirling , bloated with arrogance, this rip of water between a peninsula and the islands off its tip mirrored all the gray grimness of the name given it by French explorers many years ago. Porte des Morts, they called it - literally "Door of the Dead", but colloquially translated "Death's Door". On its floor rest the bones of hundreds of ships.

The "Door of the Dead" washes against the tip of Wisconsin's Door Peninsula (the name comes from that of the strait), a 70-mile-long shoot of land extending from the eastern reaches of the state and bounded by Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay on the west.

That article is only one of dozens of sources for information on Death's Door Strait. One of my favorites is a 1974 book, "Death's Door: The Pursuit of a Legend."

And, now with this wonderful resource of the internet, you have an outstanding web site at www.wisconsinshipwrecks.org. This site, a joint project of the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, includes shipwrecks well beyond Death's Door.

For each, including those in the strait, it gives information about the building and lifetime of the sunken ship. It also includes a tale of the final day of the vessel. This writer highly recommends the site if you are interested in such things.

This writer also has had a long relationship with Death's Door Strait. My father retired to a small home on Highway 42, along the way to the ferry dock. Right down a side road is Death's Door Strait Park.

My father is now deceased, but my sister lives in the home. I have walked many times to the park and have seen the strait in many moods. Sometimes it is serene, to the point where you wonder how it ever got its name.

But, sometimes, often around this time of the year, the strait becomes angry. The winds howl and the waves climb to frightening heights.

On those days, you can see how Death's Door Strait has become a legend in Great Lakes shipping lore.

Gregg Hoffmann writes monthly Beyond Milwaukee columns about interesting events, out-of-the-way places, historic sites and quirky characters in "out-state" Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest.

Talkbacks

OMCreader | Oct. 8, 2006 at 2:25 a.m. (report)

Ben Larson said: I am very interested in this area of the state, I grew up going to Gills Rock and have traveled this strait many times. I was wondering if anyone could give a list of publications about this area (the author names one book, but says there are many more...what are they? I can't find any!!) Hope you can help!! Thanks Ben Larson

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