Faces of the Past: Chester Thordarson

One of the most fascinating characters in Door County’s history has to be Chester Thordarson, particularly where Rock Island is concerned.

Born in Iceland in 1867, Thordarson immigrated with his family to Milwaukee when he was nearly six years old. Chester and his family moved throughout the Midwest and by the time he was 20, he had lived in Chicago for two years and reached a 7th grade level education. By working various jobs, he gleaned all sorts of knowledge about electricity, motors and dynamos. A voracious appetite for reading fueled his imaginative mind and helped him create over 100 inventions in his lifetime, most of which were patented.

Chester Thordarson owned almost the entirety of Rock Island in 1912. Photo courtesy the Washington Island Archives.

In 1910, after achieving tremendous success in his own Chicago-based electric company, Chester purchased 800 acres of Rock Island. His wife Juliana, also an Icelandic immigrant, had family on Washington Island which is how they came to know about the furthest northern point of Door County. By this time, Rock Island was no longer viable as a fishing community and its population had dwindled.

Over the next 21 years, Thordarson made many improvements and changes to the island. He renovated the Jacobsen house, added 14 buildings, built a lookout tower and constructed an impressive boathouse. The Thordarson Boathouse, considered his greatest building achievement, was an architectural testament to his genius, as well as an important gathering place for his family and all of his guests. It also housed his extraordinary rare book collection, over 11,000 volumes in all.

Thordarson passed away in 1945 after building and enjoying his Rock Island retreat for over three decades. The island was converted into a state park in 1964. Visitors are still welcome to experience Thordarson’s vision, just as if he were still there to greet them himself.

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