Rock Island: The Untrammeled Frontier

As the passenger ferry “Karfi” pulls up to the break-wall at Rock Island, I’m cold, drenched and reminded just how much this place feels like the outer edge of all known civilization. Barring the sound of Karfi’s engine and the monumental stone boathouse on the shore, I could be Jean Nicolet stumbling onto this untrammeled frontier of pristine forest and unspoiled rocky beach in 1634.

I’m wrong, of course; this isn’t the edge of civilization. And it wasn’t for the area’s earliest European explorer, Jean Nicolet, either. Pottawatomie, Chippewa, Ottawa and numerous other tribes had hunted and fished here for centuries before hemispheres collided and history’s path took a few sharp turns. It’s only because I’m so cold and so drenched from the bumpy, open-air boat ride over that I’ve momentarily indulged the belief that I’m the first of my kind to set foot here. The two-hour, two-ferry trip has revealed a stark contrast to the comparatively populated and bustling mainland of the Door Peninsula.

Rock Island’s Pottawatomie Lighthouse, taken by George Eastman in the early 20th Century. Photo courtesy of Door County Maritime Museum and the Lighthouse Preservation Society.

On Rock Island there are no cars full of tourists, no bicycles, no stores, no restaurants – not even a lone vending machine for the foolishly unprepared. Nor are there residents, save the camp host and naturalist, Paul King, who lives in a tent from May to October and sees to it that this anomalous patch of raw wilderness stays just the way it is. Since this is my tenth trip to the island, though, I know there’s a lot more here than meets the eye, and that its history has at least few chapters.

Measuring 912 acres and located a half-mile north of Washington Island, Rock Island is the northernmost boundary of Door County. It lies in the middle of an archipelago that extends down from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, separating Lake Michigan and Green Bay. As such, the island was passed through and inhabited by both Native Americans and fur traders during the two hundred or so years between the time of Nicolet’s first arrival and the establishment of a small fishing village on the island’s southeast corner.

The upstart of the fishing village coincided with the construction of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on the opposite side of the island, completed in 1836. Four years earlier, a group of thirty “Merchants and Masters and owners of vessels on the Northern lakes” had petitioned the federal government for the lighthouse. The group had sought greater navigational ease around the island’s many shoals and notoriously rough waters on what had become an early shipping highway, connecting the east with Green Bay, Chicago and ultimately the Mississippi and the rest of the Midwest. The petition was approved and the beacon was built atop a hundred-foot cliff, making it the first lighthouse on Lake Michigan.

Looking out from Thordarson’s boathouse. Photo by Dan Eggert.

The lighthouse would be torn down and replaced a short 22 years later due to faulty construction, but the second· lighthouse still stands at an impressive height of 137 feet above the water. The lighthouse has not been used for navigational purposes since 1988 when a modern steel light-tower was erected a short distance from the 1858 structure, but its presence nonetheless offers a rare window to the past. (2004, incidentally, marks the completion of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse’s extensive renovation project made possible by the “Friends of Rock Island.” Visitors to the island can now see the lighthouse as it looked in 1858 and can tour its interior and observation tower.)

A few of the lighthouse’s builders opted to settle on the island and built the fishing village, where ruins can still be seen. Joined by settlers from areas to the north, Chicago, and elsewhere, the vivacious and hard-working villagers – described by William F. Stark, author of Ghost Towns of Wisconsin, as “an interesting lot indeed!” – fished whitefish and trout and developed a small community that lasted until the 1870s. Anecdotes about these islanders are surprisingly well-documented and are compiled in a book entitled Rock Island, written by Conan Eaton Bryant, one of Washington Island’s best known historians.

Thordarson and his Icelandic crew. Photo courtesy of Friends of Rock Island.

Several factors contributed to the fishing village’s decline: increasing populations and an economic boom on the mainland lured islanders away; the island lacked deep and well-protected harbors for growing steamer traffic; and, most notably, the fishing yields declined disastrously. Rock Island passed into a phase of obscurity or, as Bryant writes, “A third of a century had encompassed Rock Island’s flowering into intensive use and her fading by 1870 into relative unimportance. Her purpose had apparently been served, her contribution made in the roles of stepping-stone into Wisconsin and of prototype or pioneer-community-in-microcosm for all of Door County … “

And so it was, until 1910, when an Icelandic immigrant named Chester Thordarson bought roughly 800 acres of the island and ushered it into its next phase. Thordarson, by all accounts, was intelligent and ambitious – two traits that are obvious in both his career and the legacy he left on Rock Island. Although from under-privileged beginnings, Thordarson amassed a fortune as an inventor. His most famous invention, the long-distance transformer, brought him a degree of fame, although he collected well over 100 patents relating to machinery and electricity over the course of his life. Says Eaton, “Concerning Thordarson’s uncommon mental powers there seems to be no doubt.”

During the years after his initial land purchase, Thordarson acquired the rest of the island’s acreage (excluding the footprint of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse). He constructed a cluster of buildings on the southwest side of the island, including a greenhouse and a few other stone and log structures, and built a stone water tower near the old fishing village. But his ambition is most clearly evident in the boathouse – a large and distinctly un-American looking edifice that greets Karfi’s passengers as the foremost icon of the island. A 1969 issue of National Geographic explains, “Rock Island reminded Thordarson of his native land. To match its wild grandeur, he had constructed on the beach a massive stone combination boathouse-great hall with noble arched windows and a fireplace large enough to play ping pong in. Here he kept his extensive collection of Icelandic literature; below, cliff swallows nested on the cavernous walls of the boathouse.” This boathouse-great hall became (and has remained) the epicenter of the island and a gathering place for Thordarson’s diverse and numerous visitors.

Stone carving on Rock Island.

With Thordarson’s death in 1945 and the island’s conversion into a state park in 1964, the clock seems to have stopped on Rock Island. Only the lighthouse, the ruins of a once-thriving fishing community, and Thordarson’s buildings set the scene apart from that which Jean Nicolet might have encountered several hundred year’s ago. And, with some luck, the clock will stay remain stopped so wouldbe 21st Century explorers, drenched or not, can experience the edge of civilization for a long time to come.