On a cold winter morning at the very end of December in the year 1863, a man named Robert Noble pushed a small wooden boat he had borrowed from an 11-year-old boy into the waters off the shore of Washington Island. Little did he or the boy know that that trip — what was expected to be a relatively easy jaunt from Washington Island to the Door County peninsula — would forever alter Noble’s life and provide us with a legend almost too horrific to tell.
Robert Noble’s winter voyage has sent a chill down our collective spine for more than 150 years. Artists have captured it in song and sketch, and generations of parents and grandparents have repeated it to wide-eyed children ‘round late-night campfires. It’s a tale that tells us something about the land we belong to and who we are. Or who we might have been asked to be in harder, more interesting times.
So, put another log on the fire, tuck your feet under a warm blanket and pour yourself a glass of scotch or a cup of hot tea. Then thank your lucky stars that you are who you are and the fates didn’t name you Robert Noble and deposit you at the threshold to Death’s Door on December 30, 1863.
A winter visit to Washington Island
All epic tales worth their salt have an element of romance, and this one is no exception. Robert Noble visited Washington Island during the Christmas holidays to see a sweetheart and, if things went well, to woo a wife. Accounts vary on the success of this objective. Some claim he found the woman he desired already engaged to another man. Others say the visit was a happy one. What is known for sure is that he left the island — be it with a heavy or hopeful heart — on Wednesday, December 30, in a boat he borrowed from Albert Kalmbach, the younger brother of the woman he had come to see. In a letter Kalmbach wrote decades later, he recalls, “It was a calm morning but cold and clear. He started across the Door in my little skiff. My father objected to letting the skiff go, but I interceded to let him have it.”
Noble was, by all accounts, a handsome and strong man, six feet tall and 220 pounds. He was 25 years old when he pushed himself from Washington Island’s south shore into the icy waters of Lake Michigan to return to the mainland approximately four-and-a-half miles away. The safety of Detroit Harbor receded with each pull he made on the oars. Had his journey traversed other waters, he most likely would have arrived safely. Alas, he was crossing Death’s Door.
Historian H. R. Holand wrote in Old Peninsula Days, “It is not long, this door of death, nor wide. It is merely a passage between the tip end of the Door County peninsula and the islands beyond. But in this strait are often met strong currents and fierce winds running counter to each other…Never is it entirely safe. Shifting currents undermine the ice unceasingly. Where the ice may be two feet thick in the morning, the waves may wash in the evening.”
Noble initially made good progress through the chunks of ice that jostled and bumped against his flat-bottomed boat. But as he approached Plum Island, about halfway to his destination, the ice fused, creating an impenetrable barrier. With much difficulty, he pulled ashore on Plum Island, hoping that the wind would shift and the passage he needed to get to the mainland would open once again. Snow was beginning to fall and the temperature to drop. On one of the darkest days of the year, daylight was diminishing quickly. None of this would have mattered had he seen a friendly beacon of light from a warm cottage. Unfortunately, Plum Island was, and remains today, uninhabited. Robert Noble was alone.
The best he could do was find an abandoned fishing hut. Although the hut had no roof, door or windows, its walls provided some shelter from the wind, and he managed to build a small fire. He worked to keep it going as the snowfall increased but by morning, his fire was out. With ice now encapsulating the island, he resigned himself to waiting out the storm and went in search of better shelter. The only other option was a derelict lighthouse, of which only the cellar and a chimney remained.
We know from weather data that temperatures all across Wisconsin on this last day of December 1863, were 20 to 30 degrees below zero (see sidebar). It was in this climate that Noble struggled to start a fire in the chimney. Using his very last match, he succeeded. The fire caught and generated the first warmth and only hope he’d felt all day. This hope died quickly, however, when the fire melted a block of snow stuck in the chimney. In Holand’s words, “…there was a rush and tumble and his fire was buried under a heap of snow. It was a most depressing blow.”
Ever resourceful, Noble attempted to use his revolver to start scraps of his coat on fire but was unsuccessful. He spent the night without food, heat or light, constantly moving to keep himself from freezing.
Then dawned the first day of the new year. Holand recounts, “January 1, 1864! Old settlers have not yet, after a lapse of almost a hundred years, forgotten the intense cold of that day. Tales are told of water freezing by the side of the heated stoves, of the impossibility of keeping warm in snug beds, of cattle freezing to death in their stalls. It is remembered as the coldest day in the history of Door County.”
With no food and two nights without sleep, Noble knew his only option for survival was to leave Plum Island. He managed to launch his boat into the icy slurry and row a quarter of a mile back toward Washington Island. Once again, though, he was stopped by solid ice. And once again, he showed his resourcefulness. Tearing planks from the skiff seats, he strapped them to his feet as primitive snowshoes and took hold of a cedar pole he had scavenged from the island. With his weight distributed, he was able to take a few steps, but then he plunged into the icy water. The pole he carried kept him from total submersion. Not able to kick the boards off his feet, he held onto the pole and reached into the water with his pocketknife and cut them loose.
He managed to make his way back to his skiff where he stamped and kicked to return circulation to his ice-covered limbs. He then tore more boards from the boat and attempted to lie on them, pulling himself toward his goal. This time he fell completely underwater. A newspaper account of the story, written in 1903, quoted Noble saying, “I was a good swimmer and able to remain under water for quite a while when forced to and this no doubt saved my life. I managed to get back to the surface again through the hole I had fallen, although it proved a terrible job to do this.”
He then abandoned the boards and instead of trying to stay on top of the ice, he swam through it, hacking away in the thinner areas to create his own passage. Holand says that Noble was “an animated iceberg, half swimming, half crawling, by help of his elbows.”
What takes only moments to recount took hours in real time. Eventually, Noble pulled himself back through Detroit Harbor to Washington Island and the door of a fisherman’s cottage. Noble said, “I did not stop at the Kalmbach house but went direct to that of D.H. Rice, which was then occupied by his son-in-law, Cyren Keahher. I got there about dark and rapped on the door. It was opened by the man of the house, who appeared to be scared at the sight that met him.”
Noble enjoined Keahher to get tubs of cold water in which he could soak his frostbitten limbs as soon as the ice-encrusted clothing was cut away. That accomplished, Noble slept for the first time in days.
In many ways, it was then his lasting trouble began. While Noble slept, a well-meaning neighbor stopped in and convinced Keahher to submerge Noble’s limbs in kerosene, a new mineral oil that had just been delivered to the island. He theorized that the kerosene would pull the frost out of Noble’s body. With a freezing point well below that of water, however, kerosene had the opposite effect and Noble woke to find his limbs swollen and black and beyond healing.
Noble was taken from Detroit Harbor, on the south side of Washington Island, to Washington Harbor on the north where he was looked after for months by kind neighbors, including the Washington Harbor storekeeper Bert Ranney. During these months, Noble’s fingers fell off one by one and flesh peeled from his legs. Albert Kalmbach recounted in his letter that a man named Davis “severed the cords on his legs and fingers with a pen-knife.”
With no physician on the island and most able-bodied men off fighting the Civil War, there were few to help him. Eventually, in June of 1864, word came that a Dr. Farr from the southern part of Wisconsin would be visiting Sturgeon Bay to negotiate the purchase of a sawmill.
Noble was taken by the steamer Ozaukee to the Cedar Street House (a guest house on what is now Third Avenue in Sturgeon Bay) owned by D.H. Rice, the same gentleman who owned the fishing cottage on Washington Island. Noble stated, “Dr. Farr readily agreed to perform the job, but he said he did not have the proper instruments. He managed to pick up a few things at Green Bay, but when it came to a saw the only thing to be had was such as the butchers use. I was put under chloroform and in due time both feet were removed about midway between the knees and ankles. The fingers needed but little attention, as the ends had long since dropped off of their own accord.”
Noble recovered from this surgery and was fitted with artificial limbs. In time, he resumed his well-drilling business and then operated the first commercial, mechanically propelled ferry in Door County — the Ark — built in 1874. In 1883, Noble built a larger, 74-foot ferry — the Robert Noble — to carry people and goods between Sawyer and Sturgeon Bay (the east and west side of what is now called Sturgeon Bay). He was put out of the ferry business in 1888 by construction of the Sturgeon Bay toll bridge the year before.
Reports of Noble’s later years vary. One account says he married a woman named Elizabeth Armbrust in 1883 and built a home on the west side of the bay. According to his obituary published in the Door County Advocate in November of 1918, he died at “the poor house at Wausau.” It goes on to state, “Mr. Noble was one of the early residents of the county and was well known for a perilous trip across Deaths Door which he made in the early days…He is survived by one son and a brother, George Noble. The burial was held here, yesterday.” The site of his grave is not known.
Wallace Stegner once wrote, “No place is a place until the things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments…” If this is so, Door County and Death’s Door are what they are, in part, because of the grit, fortitude, courage and tenacity of a man named Robert Noble.
Robert Noble’s Weather Agony
When Robert Noble pulled his small skiff out of the Kalmbach place the morning of December 30, 1863, the skies were probably clear, and the temperature probably around 5°F. By 2:00 to 3:00 pm, temperatures had moderated to around 20°F, but by then skies had most likely clouded up. In addition, moisture from the impending storm was probably building, causing the air to feel much colder.
When he got stuck in the newly made ice, abreast of Plum Island, temperatures were already on their way back down. By 9:00 that night, as he sought primitive shelter on Plum Island and snow was falling, temperatures were somewhere around 10°F.
By 7:00 am on December 31, with snow continuing to fall and temperatures still averaging 10°F, Noble’s small fire in his primitive shelter went out. Around 2:00 to 3:00 pm, after having his second fire snubbed-out by the snow, temperatures were still holding around 10°F. The snowfall had reached its peak.
The snow must have ended around 9:00 that night, because temperatures really started to drop. By midnight, they were averaging -5°F and continuing to fall. By 7:00 am New Year’s morning, temperatures were around -30°F.
Noble’s struggle to return to shelter on Washington Island on New Year’s Day was done under the worst conditions possible: midday temperatures of -25°F and winds to 35 mph. That’s a wind chill of -62°F. Exposed skin gets frostbit in five minutes!
When he reached Washington Island at dusk, the temperature was -28°F. Winds were probably WNW at 25mph.
The New Year’s Blizzard of 1864 covered an area of 3,000 miles, stretching from the Great Plains to New York. Snowfall around Wisconsin ranged from 18” in Beloit, 7.3” in Milwaukee, and 6” in Manitowoc and Madison. Even higher amounts were reported out East.
In the aftermath of the storm, the entire state was draped in below-zero temperatures for three days: January 1, 2, and 3.
John Delwiche, of Washington Island, compiled the above weather timeline with the help of records from the National Weather Service in Green Bay, the Midwest Regional Climate Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Harper’s Weekly newspaper.
Sources: Old Peninsula Days, Hjalmar Rued Holand, Ephraim, Wisconsin: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1934; Daane, Joy. “Door County’s ‘Man of Iron.’” Milwaukee Sentinel, January 21, 1981; Door County Advocate issue dates: February 28, 1903; November 1918; Noble, Robert. Letter. Washington Island Archives, March 12, 1864; Kalmbach, Albert. Letter. Washington Island Archives, January 25, 1935; Special thanks to the Washington Island Archives, the Door County Historical Museum, John Delwiche, Michael Raye and Kyle White.