Gills Rock is an unincorporated community located on Highway 42 at the northern tip of the Door Peninsula in Door County, Wisconsin.
Gills Rock is formally within the town of Liberty Grove, and was formerly known as Hedgehog Harbor. It is often now considered a part of Ellison Bay, which is a nearby town where the Ellison Bay post office serves Gills Rock and other nearby communities.
Gills Rock has a strong tradition of commercial fishing in the Great Lakes which continues today. Ferries to Washington Island depart regularly from Gills Rock and the nearby Northport Pier.
The waters in the area are popular with scuba divers who explore the many shipwrecks that litter the lake bed around the Porte des Mortes, or “Door of the Dead“.
“Death’s Door” is a narrow strait linking Lake Michigan and Green bay between the northern tip of the peninsula, and a group of islands known as the Potawatomi Islands, which includes Washington Island.
The strait and surrounding area is thought by many to have more shipwrecks than any other section of fresh water in the world. This is thought to be a result of the relative lack of maneuverability of older sailing ships attempting to navigate the narrow passage, combined with the notoriously unpredictable winds and weather on the Great Lakes. Commercial shipping regularly used the strait until the Sturgeon Bay ship canal was completed in 1878.
Also attributed to the name are battles between the Winnebago (Ho Chunk) and Potawatomi tribes, as the tribes competed for territory in the area during the early to mid 1600’s. Many historians point to one or more battles in which several hundred warriors are thought to have been caught in a storm as they navigated the strait during an attack, resulting in their deaths and adding to the strait’s reputation.
Gills Rock was originally known as Hedgehog Harbor, the name given to it by Washington Island fisherman and boat builder Amos Lovejoy.
In 1855 Lovejoy decided to winter his sloop on the shores of a cove he liked to fish. Over the winter, a family of hedgehogs (also known as porcupines) moved on board. When Lovejoy launched his sloop again in the spring, he didn’t notice the many holes the hedgehogs had chewed into the wooden hull. The boat began to take on water, and Lovejoy was forced to abandon the sloop in the bay.
The cove was renamed Gills Rock in 1870 in honor of Elias Gill, a prominent area lumberman.
Gills Rock remains a popular photo opportunity for visitors, with the many fish houses and commercial fishing boats that line the waterfront even today.
The Weborg House
The historic Victorian-style Weborg house was built in the early 1900’s by Willie and Olga Weborg, who also owned a dock in the nearby harbor. Their house was open to travelers who arrived by schooners from Chicago and landed at the dock.
In 1987 Willie and Olga’s descendent Dave Weborg with his Danish wife Else opened the property as a Scandinavian bed and breakfast, and added on a newer Scandinavian country wing. The Troll Cottage was originally a carriage house. The replica Lighthouse was built in 1998.