Owners Vow to Rebuild Rowleys Bay Resort

For all those who thought their memories went up in smoke with the fire at the Rowleys Bay Resort in Ellison Bay, think again.

“We will rebuild,” said Jewel Peterson Ouradnik, owner of the resort that’s been in her family since the original inn was built in 1979, at that time known as the Wagon Trail Resort, and also home to Grandma’s Swedish Bakery. 

“There’s just too much tradition and too many guests already supporting us like crazy,” Ouradnik said. “They’re saying, ‘please plan to come back and be part of our traditions again. Just come back. We want to continue our memories.’”

Situated on a secluded shore just a short kayak paddle from the Mink River, Newport State Park, and over 1,774 acres of land preserved by the Nature Conservancy, the resort at the end of County Road ZZ is believed to be the third largest in Door County (behind The Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor and Stone Harbor Resort in Sturgeon Bay).

The original building in the heart of the complex was burned to the ground on Tuesday, Sept. 5, during a fire that started in the basement. The fire also bit a large chunk out of the western building, hollowing out that side of the resort. 

Firefighters battle the blaze at Rowleys Bay Resort. Photo by Tad Dukehart.

Ouradnik’s optimism is buoyed by the eastern addition that appears, if not completely intact, then definitely salvageable. The reason for that, according to Chris Hecht, Sister Bay-Liberty Grove fire chief, is a cinder-block firewall. Constructed when the addition was built in 1993, the wall stretched from the basement all the way through and above the roof, stopping the fire from entering the eastern addition. Also to the west of the main building, there was a “one-hour fire stop” of double-layered drywall, Hecht said, that acted to slow the flames, though not entirely stop them.

“The east may be salvageable, but not the rest,” he said.

At this time, the cause of the fire is unknown.

Fire Begins in the Basement

Ouradnik was on site when she and employees noticed flames coming from the basement windows. They pulled the fire alarms and called 911, but the fire was already too intense for their fire extinguishers to douse.

Emergency responders were dispatched at 12:53 pm, said Door County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Brad Shortreed, in command on the law enforcement side of the scene on the day of the fire, helping to route firefighters to the scene while keeping onlookers out. 

Hecht said when he got to the site, heavy fire was already blowing out of multiple basement and first-floor windows. The early collapse of the roof and floor made it unsafe to enter the building, and all suppression was done from the exterior.

The weather created challenging firefighting conditions, with a heat index in the 80s and steady winds blowing. 

“The size of the building worked against us, the wind worked against us, the multiple additions to the building, the heat for the men worked against us,” Hecht said.

On the plus side were those fire walls, and the resort’s 700 feet of Rowleys Bay shore frontage. 

“We were pumping right out of the bay, so we had an unlimited supply of water,” Hecht said. “I would assume we used a couple hundred thousand gallons.”

After an hour or more, Hecht said they finally gained the upper hand on what he said “is probably the largest structure fire we’ve been involved with in a single incident.”

Firefighters finally left around 9 pm after eight hours on the scene, with the Sheriff’s Office standing vigil through the night and Hecht making periodic visits to assure no hot spots arose.

As Wednesday morning dawned, the skies opened up, delivering torrential rains to northern Door County and dousing the danger of additional hotspots.

All departments in Door County, plus some in Kewaunee and Brown counties, responded with mutual aid to battle the fire, Sept. 5, at Rowleys Bay Resort in Ellison Bay, in what is believed to be the single largest structure fire to have occurred in northern Door County. Photo by D.A. Fitzgerald.

Mutual Aid and No Injuries

Hecht had asked for an upgraded response even before he arrived on scene, based upon initial reports of heavy smoke and fire coming from the basement, with windows already failing. 

Firefighters  from every department in Door County would respond, from southern Door County to Washington Island. Departments from Kewaunee and Brown counties also responded, with the Green Bay Fire Department ladder truck arriving on scene around 4:30 pm.

Wisconsin Public Service arrived quickly, too, to isolate the buildings from power and overhead lines.

The Door County Sheriff’s Office assured all employees and guests were accounted for – Ouradnik said she had eight guest rooms occupied, and roughly 20 employees, some who also lived in rooms at the lodge.

Hecht said law enforcement’s efforts allowed the firefighters to focus on fire suppression and at the end of the day, not a single injury resulted.

He tried to thank everyone, knowing he would likely forget some, from the dispatchers coordinating the numerous response teams, to the Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Services personnel, to the mutual aid departments.

“Managing a fire like this would not have been possible without all of them,” he said. 

A Family Legacy

On the day of the fire, a few residents from neighboring homes stood on the road with bandanas over their mouths to shield their lungs from the smoke that burned thick and black at times. Mary Spiering of Waukesha, who was vacationing at Wagon Trail Campground less than a half mile from the resort and had ridden her bike to the scene, said she and her husband always ate at Grandma’s Swedish Bakery during their annual Door County visit.

“It’s just such a tradition,” she said. “So iconic.”

That kind of support gives Ouradnik hope, even as her family’s legacy lay largely in ruins at her feet.

Her parents, Alice and Leonard Peterson, had moved their family to the site in 1970 when Jewel was only eight years old. Alice died in 1988, and Leonard – who died in 2013 – retired in 2003, handing the operation over to Jewel and her husband, Bob.

To lose the original, 1979 building is “heartbreaking,” Ouradnik said. Her father’s handiwork was everywhere, down to the main ceiling beams, and her mother’s recipes had formed the foundation of what would become Grandma’s Swedish Bakery.

“I grew up here,” she said. “My kids grew up here. They are just as sad.”

But there’s work to be done through the sadness. They’ve set up a temporary communications site at one of their buildings. Their original office burned to the ground, but their software backed up each night to an outside source. They have all their guest and booking information. Everyone who is owed deposits or money will receive it, Ouradnik said.

“Not a problem at all,” she said. “It just will take time.”  

The community response has been amazing, she said. At the present time, she could think of no outstanding needs. 

As for the future?

“We’re going to be open in spring,” she said.

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