The area now called Door County has been inhabited for at least 11,000 years and ancient village artifacts discovered at Nicolet Bay Beach
has been dated c. 400 BC; occupied by various tribes up to AD 1300.
The Door County peninsula is actually an island, connected only by bridges at State Highway 42/57 and two bridges in downtown Sturgeon Bay that cross the canal built in the late 19th century – the newest being the state highway bridge and the eastern bridge in Sturgeon Bay. The original bridge in Sturgeon Bay is the historical one, around when train tracks were laid and used in Door County, which has since disappeared. There are not train tracks or trains anywhere in Door County; although the old train depot is still in Sturgeon Bay by the shipyard and for sale.
Sturgeon Bay is the county seat and the most populated township in the county and is divided by the canal as aforementioned.
The five Door County islands are part of a chain of islands on Lake Michigan that is called Grand Traverse Islands, formerly called Pottawatomie Islands, named after a local tribe that once was the people who originally lived here. The entire region once belonged to the Northwest Territory mapped during the Lewis & Clarkperiod of exploration and cartographic ventures during the early period of our nation’s growth. That large territory was divided into four states, Michigan getting all of it except Washington, Plum, Detroit, Pilot, and Rock islands.
For a short period in geological history, the large island now separated by land by the Sturgeon Bay Canal, was connected to the mainland by silt that filled that area. It was dredged out in the late 1800s, which made the peninsula an island once again. It is the largest island in the region and didn’t have a name like the aforementioned islands, even after Wisconsin became a state in 1849. Later all five islands and the large island became Door County. The county name was named for the waterway passage between Washington Island and the Peninsula’s northern tip – Death’s Door
– so named because of the treacherous waters that have claimed many sunken ships and vessels as long as the lake was traversed by maritime traffic.
There are many islands off Lake Michigan, part of a chain of great lakes in North America between and extending into the border of Canada; but only a few have ever been inhabited or have buildings on an island.
“Death’s Door” was named by the French who were the first to explore and live here as trappers and traders, whose name origin was either by the Pottawatomie or the French, it is not known for sure. First time the name shows in recorded documents was in the year 1817. Today ferry boats carry passengers, vehicles, and heavy equipment back and forth across Death’s Door daily.
The first lighthouse on the Great Lakes was built on Rock Island in 1836 and its first lighthouse keeper was David Corbin. The island portion of the “peninsula” is called Northern Doorand the mainland after crossing the canal is called Southern Door.
Door County Towns & Villages
Township of Washington (1870) – Washington Island is the only populated island other than Northern Door before you cross the Highway 42/57 bridge to the mainland. After French explorers had arrived and the trappers and traders, the first settlers to become permanently established were those who arrived from Iceland and make up a large part of the largest Icelandic descendents of North America. The first mailman on Washington Island, Henry Miner, had to walk across ice to get to Green Bay in order to get the mail in the winter and spent 6 days one way in order to perform his task. When the ice was thick enough he could use a horse and sled, sometimes carrying a passenger.
Sturgeon Bay (1851) – Early residents called the township Otumba, the tribal name of the Winnebago. Later it was renamed after the huge fish found in the local lake waters that reached a length of 9 feet in those days. The first settler was a hermit by the name of Peter Rowley who moved farther north when other settlers arrived. Increase and Mary Claflin settled north to where the Peninsula State Park is located today, shortly after arriving in the region.
Egg Harbor (1855) – This town’s name is from a myth concerning an egg-tossing fight between schooner crews after a race that determined who would land at the harbor first. Another tale is that it was named by an early pioneer who found a nest of bird eggs along the shore in the 1830s. The township is divided into the Village of Egg Harbor and the township township area and was settled by Jacob and Levi Thorp. Carlsville got its name from the first four men who settled there and all had the first name of Carl.
Gibraltor Township (1853) – It includes Ephraim (1853), settled by Norwegians who came to build a Morovian community. They built the first school and church north of Sturgeon Bay. The settlement founder is attributed to Andreas Iverson, a Morovian minister who derived the Ephraim name from the Old Testament which translates to “doubly fruitful”. Norwegian Ole Larson settled on Eagle Island, now known as Horseshoe Island, just off the shore a few years prior to Ephraim’s founding. Fish Creek was settled by Asa Thorp as a dock and lumber business for passing schooners and became an active fishing village. Chamber Island – There were settlers there for a short time, homes built from the oak trees on the island, and a few houses and religious retreat are all that remain on this island, viewed from the shores of Peninsula Park.
Brussells Township (1858) – Settled by Belgians who arrived in 1853. This township included the Town of Brussels, Namur (named for Belgian province), Union (1865); Gardner in 1864 – named after Freeland Gardner, the first Door County shipbuilder who employed the local Belgians; Rosier, Carnet and Colberg. The French-Walloon dialect is still spoken in Belgium descendent communities.
Maplewood Township (1858) – Settled by Germans, British, and Canadians. Maplewood and Forestville are in this township.
Claybanks (1860) – Named for the high banks along Lake Michigan shoreline, where brick factories operated for many years.
Liberty Grove Township (1859) – Jasper Morefield, upset with the leadership of Ephraim, decided to found his own township, so he applied for the township north of Ephraim. This township includes Sister Bay (1912) where Andrew and August Seaquist moved to from Ephraim in 1865 and built a sawmill on the shore; it is named for the two ‘sister’ islands off shore. Ellison Bay (1863) was named for a Danish immigrant, Johan Ellison, who bought one mile of shoreline and advertised in Europe and Scandinavia to attract settlers to the area. Gills Rock (1860) – named for Elias Gill and for generations was primarily a fishing village and still an active commercial fishing community.
Nasawaupee (1860) – Settlers of this area wanted a post office, so a Green Bay postmaster chose the name of a Mnemonic chief, whose name means “dawn” or literal translation of “time just before sunrise”.
Sevastopol Township (1869) – Originally named Laurieville, the name was changed to Sebastopol; however someone recorded the spelling incorrectly to how it remain spelled today. Valmy and Institute are part of this township – Institute named for an early religious institute that existed there in the 1800s.
Baileys Harbor (1861) – Named for a sea captain who weathered a bad storm on Lake Michigan, and survived, in 1853. Baileys Harbor was once part of Gibraltor Township until it was rezoned in 1861. Lumber was its main business until the area forest was leveled. In that part of American history, the practice of cutting and planting afterward was not practiced or known. Today there are many trees and tourists enjoy visits to Cana Island Lighthouse that was built near the town in 1869.
Jacksonport (1869) — Andrew Jackson from Madison, Wisconsin, settled in the area to establish a logging business that was not successful. Although a small area west of town is called West Jacksonport, it is not recorded as a village and unincorporated.
Garrett Bay, Juddville, Newport, and North Bay — These settlements were begun, but abandoned at a later date. Today it is a residential area for large lots and multi-acreage homesteads.
The primary native tribe that lived in what is now Door County was the Pottawatomie, for which one of the peninsula’s parks is named. The federal government relocated the local natives under the Indian Removal Actof 1830.
While a large-scale immigration of Belgian Walloons occurred in the 19thcentury, the census of 2000 shows there are 39% German descendents living in Door County and only 10.3% Belgian descendents.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Camp was established at Peninsula State Park. In the summer of 1945, Fish Creek was the site of a German POW Camp, under the control and authority of Fort Sherman, Illinois. The prisoners were put to work in construction projects, logging, and cherry picking in Peninsula State Park and the local area.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was constructed in Peninsula State Park in 1868 by the order of President Andrew Johnson at a cost of $12,000. It was restored by the Door County Historical Society in 1964, and has been open to the public ever since.
Door County’s economy depends heavily upon tourism, as well as its orchards, farms, and limited manufacturing. The fishing industry is still productive, both commercial and recreational, with several fishing charter businesses in operation. The tourist season, for the most part, is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, there are also winter activities that attract winter tourists for those businesses that close for the season.
The population in Door County during the summer tourist season has reached as high as 250,000.
A popular attraction for tourists is the fish boils that are offered by several restaurants throughout the county. Potatoes, onions and whitefish are cooked in a large cast-iron kettle over a wood fire. The fish and vegetables are served with melted butter and follows with the traditional cherry pie. Cherry orchards are a big business in Door County, as well as the opportunity for people to pick their own cherries.
For those with small aircraft, Door County has two airfields – one in Sturgeon Bay and the other at the Ephraim-Fish Creek Airport.
The history of Door County is as interesting as its scenery is beautiful.