A Slice of Island Life

Purinton Sheds Light on Rock Island History

Born in Iceland in 1867, Chester Hjörtur Thordarson immigrated to the United States as a young child and grew to become a successful, self-taught inventor, renowned for his work with transformers in the development of the modern energy transmission grid. He held nearly 100 patents, won a gold medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis for the first million-volt transformer, and his Chicago-based Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company evolved into a multimillion-dollar business with thousands of employees.

In 1910, Thordarson purchased property on Rock Island. In the coming years, the wealthy industrialist would continue to add to his 775-acre estate, constructing a dock, 14 buildings, a wall, a hilltop gate and a lookout tower. He continued to work on inventions in his island workshop; he focused on improvements, such as adding water and electricity; he built an extensive rare-book collection; and he added a greenhouse so he could pursue his interest in botany. In fact, he earned an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1929.

An ardent bibliophile, Thordarson also maintained an extensive book collection. After his death in 1945, the University of Wisconsin purchased his 11,000-title scientific library for a rare book room at Memorial Library.

Despite all that, Thordarson remained an elusive quarry for those who sought to learn more about his life and intentions in the years after his death. Resources were limited — until now.

Richard Purinton, Washington Island Ferry Line president and longtime island resident, recently released “Thordarson and Rock Island,” the first English-language book about the prolific inventor and his remote island estate. The book presents Thordarson’s career, family, friends and business associates through unedited letters, documents and interviews; it also incorporates maps, drawings and more than 100 historical images.

“It is my objective to show how Thordarson’s life and Rock Island intersected,” writes Purinton, who said he became frustrated with the “pure poetic poppycock” circulating about the extraordinary inventor and his retreat. “I am convinced his unedited letters provide an excellent insight — perhaps the only insight — into Thordarson’s mind.”

The book is an excellent read for those who are planning a summertime visit to Rock Island, since the remaining structures on Thordarson’s estate are open to the public. As you walk in the man’s footsteps, he and the world in which he lived will come into sharp relief.

“If one surveys the panorama from the deck of Thordarson’s boldly sited Rock Island boathouse,” Purinton notes, “(it’s) impossible not to see the strong personality of its builder in the surrounding landscape.”

The soft-cover, 436-page book is available through Door County bookstores as well as directly from Purinton’s website, http://www.richardpurinton.com/productsthordarson-and-rock-island.

— H.S.

Rock Island: A Real Gem

One of Lake Michigan’s great treasures lies off the northeast shore of Washington Island: A 912-acre gem called Rock Island, home to Rock Island State Park, the erstwhile Chester H. Thordarson estate and the 1836 Potawatomi Lighthouse, Wisconsin’s oldest and the third-oldest in the Great Lakes. With just two landowners, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard (which maintains a solar-powered navigational light next to the lighthouse), the island is a mesmerizing, even haunted, wilderness.

Rock Island State Park is a primitive park. There are no roads, stores and or even basic amenities like running water and flush toilets. Visitors usually come for a day of hiking, picnicking, swimming and beach-walking, although some do arrive fully equipped with camping gear so they can take advantage of the 35 campground sites, two group sites and five remote backpacking sites.

Boaters may bring their private vessels and tie up to the main dock; a fee is charged for overnight stays. Be aware that the dock is vulnerable to sudden storms and wind shifts, so keep an eye on the weather.

As you approach Rock Island on the Karfi passenger ferry, by kayak, or on your own boat, you’ll immediately notice Thordarson’s waterfront boathouse and Viking Hall, built in the early 20th century. In the decade after purchasing his island property, the famous inventor and industrialist restored an early settler’s house on the island’s east side and landscaped and built on roughly 30 southwest acres. He left the rest of the island undisturbed.

Today, visitors may tour the boathouse and hall, which are constructed of local dolomite and are listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The hall contains an exhibition of native artifacts dating to 1678, which were found at what was then Rock Island Village. You’ll also see historical displays, Thordarson’s original Icelandic carved oak furniture and even one of his famous inventions.

An overnight stay is worth it, whether you come by private boat or on the Karfi, because beyond the boat dock and the Thordarson estate’s remaining buildings, the island boasts 5,000 feet of beach and 10 miles of hiking trails. These trails provide access to a stone water tower that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, ancient cliff carvings, the sites of Native American settlements, the ruins of a pioneer fishing village (which was the first European settlement in Door County), three old cemeteries and the Potawatomi light. Take a lighthouse tour, and be sure to take the stairway down the island’s dolomite cliffs to the water.

Rock Island is a place where you can experience true Great Lakes wilderness just a stone’s throw from the festivals, wine tastings, fish boils and gift shops of Door County. It’s also where you can come face to face with the ghosts of those who once called this primeval island home. As you walk the trails, listen to waves crash along the beaches, and gaze at a vast night sky, you’ll feel them. Their spirits are there still.
— H.S.

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A Slice of Island Life

by Heather Steinberger
Nestled off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, Washington Island is a cruising boater’s paradise, rich in history, natural wonders and myriad family-friendly activities.

Jimmy Buffet tunes on the stereo. Frosty beverages and a few alfresco hors d’oeuvres on the cockpit table. A late-afternoon sun casting its deepening golden light across one particular harbor. All was as it should be on this 22-square-mile island surrounded by shimmering, cobalt-blue waters.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this could be the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico or the South Pacific. Yet this little slice of cruising paradise was much closer to home. This was island life, Door County style. 

The island at Death’s Door

Washington Island lies 6 miles off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula at the confluence of Lake Michigan and Green Bay, just across the legendary Death’s Door passage. Not only is it the site of the second-oldest Icelandic settlement in America, the island is home to year-round islanders whose families have been here for generations; they are working hard to build a sustainable community and thriving tourism destination without sacrificing their unique history and culture.

According to Conan Bryant Eaton’s 1966 “The Naming: A Part of the History of Washington Island,” the island’s earliest recorded name was Wassekiganeso, an Ojibwe name that means “his breast is shining.” Eaton noted that this referred to the sun reflecting off the island’s dolomite cliffs.

Ojibwe lived on many of the islands in the long string that stretches from the Door Peninsula to Upper Michigan’s Garden Peninsula, but the Potawatomi nation inhabited Washington Island when French explorer Jean Nicolet arrived in 1635. The French soon named the tricky passage between the island and the mainland Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door, due to unpredictable currents, always-changing weather conditions and white-knuckled navigation among submerged reefs, unexpected shallows and rugged coastlines. 

The region was notorious among mariners. The lake floor here is littered with shipwrecks, and at least one ghost ship still haunts its waters. In 1679, La Salle’s Griffon sailed through a crack in the lake to become the Great Lakes’ first Flying Dutchman.

Pioneer Henry Miner founded the Town of Washington in 1850, incorporating the three islands of Washington, Rock and Detroit. Early settlers made their living as fishermen and lumbermen, also quarrying stone, farming potatoes and producing maple syrup for export.

Today, the island’s roughly 700 permanent residents rely on tourism, the arts, carpentry, Christmas trees and organic farming to make a living. You can taste Washington Island wheat in Capital Brewery’s Island Wheat Ale, Death’s Door Vodka, and gin from Death’s Door Spirits, which also incorporates the island’s juniper berries.

Like the rest of the Door Peninsula, Washington Island lies along the backbone of the Niagara Escarpment, which arcs its way north to the Garden Peninsula before curving east toward Niagara Falls. This gives the island its steep limestone bluffs to the west and sandy beaches to the east and south, while the rest remains a 19th century rural landscape of woods, wetlands, meadows and fields.

A haven for cruisers

Cruising northward along the Wisconsin coastline, you’ll pass Jacksonport, Baileys Harbor and Rowleys Bay. If winds and seas are calm, as they were for us, take the time to cruise past little Plum and Pilot islands to view their historic 19th century lighthouse complexes before following the ferries into Detroit Harbor. The narrow entrance lies between Lobdell Point and Detroit Island. 

Detroit Harbor is well known for its shallows, so keep your eye on channel markers, your charts and your depth sounder. The narrow channel is unforgiving, so be vigilant, and watch the ferries. These are busy shipping lanes.

If you choose to visit Washington Island with your own boat, you have four options: Shipyard Island Marina, Krueger’s Kap’s Marina and the Island Outpost in Detroit Harbor; and the Town Dock at Jackson Harbor. We chose to stay at Kap’s for our most recent visit, which required a sharp turn to port once we entered the harbor. Then we had to execute a precise pirouette to back our 41-footer into her slip.

Fortunately, that entry is much easier now, according to Bill Krueger, marina owner and island resident for nearly 40 years. (An interesting side note: His wife’s grandfather was lighthouse keeper on Pilot Island). The marina recently completed dredging work, so visiting boaters will find a comfortable 7 feet of water beneath them. The gas and diesel pumps also have been moved to a new area, allowing easier fuel-dock access for large powerboats and sailboats. 

Kap’s Marina can accommodate boats up to 65 feet. It features 75 transient slips, fuel and pump-out facilities, newer restrooms and showers, laundry, recreation area with grills, ship’s store, convenience store, gift shop and The Ship’s Wheel restaurant, which offers home-cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. The marina also can provide repair work, as well as a rental car and bicycles for exploring the island. This is a much-appreciated service, as Washington Island’s main shopping and dining district is several miles inland.

Beyond Kap’s is the island’s main ferry dock, followed by the Island Outpost dock. This facility also accommodates transients, but its services are limited. It does, however, provide easy access to moped and bike rentals or, if you seek a guided tour, the Cherry Train or Viking Tour Train.

Another great choice for overnight dockage in Detroit Harbor is Shipyard Island Marina, located roughly 4.5 miles along the winding channel from the Washington Island Ferry Line dock, across the road from the Red Barn Children’s Park. Like Kap’s Marina, this also is a full-service facility with gas and diesel fuel, pump-out services, restrooms and showers, laundry, recreation area, ship’s store, convenience store and repair services. The Sailor’s Pub Restaurant is on site, and a courtesy car provides transportation into town.

If you’d rather leave your boat in port or make a road trip to Door County, however, Washington Island’s ferry services are outstanding alternatives. It’s just a half-hour crossing from Northport on the mainland to Detroit Harbor with the Washington Island Ferry Line, which allows you to bring your vehicle with you. The company, which operates multiple vessels, offers year-round service to the island.

If you’re planning to take a train tour or rent a bicycle, moped or kayak once on the island and don’t need your car, another option is to take the 65-foot Island Clipper passenger ferry from Gills Rock to Detroit Harbor. The Island Clipper operates from May to October.

For those of you looking to experience cottage living, there are cottages available to rent on the island. Summer Place, located in West Harbor, is perfect for outdoor sports enthusiasts or just a great spot to get away and experience the beauty, tranquility and breathtaking sunsets. 

Great things come in small packages

As sublime as our dockside reverie was, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see more of the island. So we took advantage of Kap’s Marina’s rental-car service and headed for the 1904 Washington Hotel, Restaurant & Culinary School. There, we tried its signature drink, “The Washington” — a sparkling mix of white wine and tart cherry juice — and savored a six-course gourmet dinner. 

We also visited Nelsen’s Hall, an 1899 island mainstay, where we joined the famous “Bitters Club.” According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Nelsen’s Hall is the world’s single largest purveyor of Angostura bitters, and it was able to serve throughout Prohibition thanks to the owner’s pharmacist’s license. 

I’ll admit, this was not the tastiest beverage. But it was worth it to sit in such a venerable establishment, sample the famous wares and receive a Bitters Club membership card.

The island’s highlights don’t end there. You can swim, sunbathe and go snorkeling at one of the public beaches; Schoolhouse Beach is a much-loved favorite, as only four other beaches in the world are of the same type. Part of the Niagara Escarpment and the island’s original shipping port, this protected harbor features a swimming area with dive raft, picnic tables and grills.

Next, rent a bike and tour the island’s 100 miles of quiet paved lanes, splash your kayak at the Town Dock at Jackson Harbor or Welcome Center at Detroit Harbor, enjoy a picnic at Percy Johnson County Park or Sand Dunes Park, look for herons at Little Lake, go horseback riding at Field Wood Farm, play a round or two at the Deer Run Golf Course (with the 18-hole Adventure Island mini-golf course for the wee ones), climb the lookout tower at Mountain Park, or take the kids for an educational and inspiring hike along the 0.7-mile Heritage Nature Trail, which starts at the Welcome Center.

There are cultural attractions as well. The Jacobsen Museum, located on the south shore of Little Lake, incorporates a restored log cabin and collection of natural and historical artifacts. Then there’s the Washington Island Art & Nature Center, located in an old schoolhouse; open from June to October, it features the work of local artists and a variety of family-friendly, hands-on nature exhibits.

Each summer, the center sponsors the renowned Washington Island Music Festival. Scheduled for August 4-15 this year, this series of concerts will be led by artistic director Stephen Colburn, principle oboist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Colburn will perform five concerts in the Trueblood Performing Arts Center with professional, world-class musicians who will live on the island for two weeks.

This summer, the center also will host an August 14 “Under the Big Top” performance at the school commons, as well as a children’s music camp on August 11-15. The camp is open to children ages 6 to 12.

While you’re on Washington Island, also consider a visit to 1865 Bethel Seaman’s Chapel, the 1916 Historic Island Dairy, the Norwegian Stavkirke, and the Washington Island Farm Museum, which boasts nine buildings, a summertime farmers market and Pioneer Days on each Wednesday in July. Don’t miss the Double K-W Ostrich Farm, complete with ostriches, ostrich eggs, sheep and turkey, and other animals. 

You’ll find historic Jackson Harbor on the island’s northeast shore, and here you can visit the impressive Jackson Harbor Maritime Museum and view the working commercial fishing fleet. Not far away from the harbor on Jackson Harbor Road, you’ll also find Sievers School of Fiber Arts, which is recognized nationally for its weeklong and weekend classes, offered May through October. In addition to its courses, the school also offers original fiber artwork, knitting and weaving yarns, fiber art books and supplies for purchase.

If you have the time, consider taking your own cruiser, a kayak or the Karfi passenger ferry to Rock Island, which is just a 15-minute boat ride off the Washington Island coast (see sidebar).


Festivals, food and a little magic

When you plan your trip, be sure to peruse the local chamber of commerce’s online calendar, because Washington Island is home to myriad summer events. These include a special canoe and kayak event in June; the Fly-In Fish Boil and Art in the Park in July; the Scandinavian Dance Festival, Washington Island Music Festival, Death’s Door Barbecue, Island Fair and Under The Big Top Flea Market in August; the Art & Nature Show in September; and the Fall Fun Fest in early October.

There also are art and culinary classes, art salons, running events, Island Players performances, Fourth of July fireworks and so much more. Right at Red Barn Park, you can enjoy Family Storytime at 7 p.m. on Thursdays and live entertainment on Fridays, when local and visiting artists perform original music and theatrical events. 

Visiting cruisers often get tired of their own provisions and cooking, so make sure to try out the island’s many eating establishments, including the Albatross Drive-In, Bread & Water Bakery Cafe, The Danish Mill, Deer Run Pub & Grill, Fiddler’s Green, Findlay’s Holiday Inn Restaurant, Island Pizza, KK Fiske & The Granary, Karly’s Bar & Cellar Restaurant, the Red Cup Coffee House, the Sunset Resort and Time Out.

And when you do need to refresh those provisions, make sure to pop into the 90-year-old Mann’s Store. Mann’s Mercantile can provide hardware and other needed supplies.

Whether you’re on the island for a night or a week, you’ll quickly feel that there’s a special magic here. This laid-back, friendly Scandinavian community warmly embraces visitors, and they’ll make you feel part of a distinct 150-year-old tradition. 

There may be islands all over the world, but there’s only one Washington Island.