Located in Door County, Wisconsin the narrow passage known as Death's Door is situated between the tip of the Wisconsin peninsula and Plum Island in the waters of Lake Michigan. Shrouded in mystery, it was one of the only ways to get from the trading post in Green Bay, WI to the rest of the Great Lakes. Originally known as "Porte des Morts", how did this passage acquire such an ominous name?

WKFR logo
Get our free mobile app

Rival Tribes

One such legend says the strait's grim reputation is due to a battle between Native American rival tribes, the Potawatomi and the Winnebago. A group of Potawatomi warriors had set out to attack the Winnebago on the mainland. Meanwhile, a group from the Winnebago tribe had been sent out to attack the Potawatomi who resided on the islands. The waters were calm when the two tribes set sail, but the weather quickly turned. Their canoes capsized, warriors were trapped on the rocky shores of Ellison Bay, and many Winnebago warriors were never seen again. According to Door County, "In all, hundreds of warriors died, giving the thin stretch of water its name."

French Explorers

Another historical account says the French explorers of the 1700s dubbed the narrow strait "Porte des Morts" upon hearing the native's accounts of sailing the treacherous passage themselves. Others believe the French gave the strait an ominous name to discourage British fur traders from using it, as it was the only way to get to present-day Green Bay.

How Deadly Is It?

It is not surprising that the strait has such a grim reputation. The official Door County website says,

none will deny that it is home to scores of shipwrecks, perhaps the most of any freshwater in the world....The passage claimed 24 sailing vessels between 1837 and 1914 and nearly 40 in the nearby waters in the same period. The destruction was so apparent that it contributed to the decision to build the canal through Sturgeon Bay in 1881. Not only could a ship cut 100 miles off their journey, but they could avoid the swirling waters and dark memories.

Present Day

Today Death's Door is known for it's swirling currents, rocky shores, and rough, choppy waters where waves can exceed those of Lake Michigan by up to two feet. There is a ferry line which has allowed locals and visitors to safely traverse Death's Door for the past 75 years but despite having a great track record, I think I'll just stay safely on shore!

Old Michigan Shipwrecks, Early 1900s

More From WKFR