Wisconsin has a long history of lighthouses. The duties of their keepers have changed dramatically over the decades but the people who keep the lights on—and the memories of the importance of the lights—have not.
Cana Island is near Bailey’s Harbor on Door County’s eastern, Lake Michigan side. It’s wading distance from shore. It’s been there since 1869.
The light was electrified in 1934, according to Dwight Zeller, Cana’s site manager. Zeller says he’s not technically a lighthouse keeper.
“The job and role of keeping is the trade of maintaining a good light. In today’s world, the function of keeping a good light is done by the Coast Guard,” explains Zeller.
It also means that Zeller’s work is much easier than that of his predecessors. There were only seven keepers between 1869 and World War II when the Cana light was transferred to what is now the Coast Guard.
“I live in the 21st century and I work in the 19th,” says Zeller.
Zeller says that the 19th century work was grueling.
Lighthouse keepers climbed the 97 steps on the original cast iron staircase every two hours. They carried buckets of hot lard to fuel the light.
“Each stair that we climbed, each handhold on that railing, each spot on the floor where some people duck, that’s the same route that each of those keepers climbed when they were on duty here,” says Zeller.
Early keepers were paid 600 dollars a year. Sometimes their wives worked as assistants for a whopping 400 dollars.
Still, it was important work that still helps keep shippers and recreational boaters safe…even by means of modern technology. The Cana light is maintained by the Coast Guard, the property is now a Door County park, and the house itself is maintained by the Door County Maritime Museum.