Washington Island

Island History & Culture

history

One of the earliest immigrant settlements in Wisconsin. The town dates back to 1865. Icelandic and other Scandinavian immigrants made this island their home. Before these times the Island was populated by American Indians. Long known for abundant fish in the waters surrounding the island, it is also well known for some of the most treacherous water conditions on Lake Michigan. Hundreds of wooden shipwrecks are located here and your passage to the island takes you thru port des mortes or Deaths Door.

Early Washington Island History

Early explorers, such as Jean Nicolet in 1635, came to this area of Northeastern Wisconsin followed by traders and missionaries. Prior to 1850 these islands provided a perfect home for the Potawatomi Indians since there was ideal protection against all enemies. Washington Island and the neighboring Islands are separated from mainland Door County by Death’s Door Passage which name springs from the popular legend:

“When the vicious Winnebagos came to the Door County peninsula they found it occupied by the generous Potawatomi, who offered to share the land. The Winnebagos refused, and attacked the less-numerous Potawatomi at every chance. The abused minority withdrew to the nearby islands, but even here faced the threat of invasion by the Winnebago. The islanders planned a surprise counter-attack across the water and sent three spies ahead to kindle a beacon to guide their canoes to a safe landing.

The spies were caught. Under torture one finally told their secret plans. The Winnebagos lit a fire one dark and windy night on a steep bluff which offered only danger. Meanwhile, they dispatched a canoe detachment by a roundabout route to attack the islanders’ camp.

As the misdirected Potawatomi urged their canoes toward the fire, a great increase in wind and waves cut off all choice of turning back. Their frail craft were broken against the rocky bluff. Some braves drowned, the rest were soon tomahawked by the waiting enemy.

For their part, the Winnebagos in canoes all were swamped by the seas, and all drowned in the passage. Their tribesman watched at land’s end a full day, until finally the wrecked canoes washed up on the shore. They took this loss as an omen that they must never again try to cross the ‘Door of Death,’ as it was afterward called.”

The early French explorers translated Door of Death into Porte des Morte, which became our Death’s Door of today. Prior to today’s modern navigation aids hundreds of ships floundered here. In the fall of 1872 alone, over 100 large vessels were stranded or damaged through the “Door”. In 1880, about 30 boats were driven ashore at Plum Island (located between Washington Island and mainland Door County). Today, with modern boats, weather forecasting, accurate charts and the United States Coast Guard stationed on Washington Island, Death’s Door does not prove such a threat to tourists, fisherman, and boating enthusiasts.

On June 20, 1850, the Town of Washington was founded at Henry Miner’s house on Rock Island. The new town included the three islands of Washington, Rock and Detroit. One of the first acts of the town board was to establish a log schoolhouse on the beach at the south end of Washington Harbor.

In 1865, the community built its first church, Bethel Seaman’s Chapel, still standing. Henry Miner moved from Rock to Washington Island in 1867. He built a small house large enough to accommodate a family of three, his cooper shop, and the Island post office.

In 1870, W.F. Wickman, a Dane, persuaded four bachelors from Iceland to move to Washington Island. They came and established the second oldest Icelandic settlement in America.

Early settlers were primarily fishermen. Early Island exports included fish, lumber, stone, potatoes and maple syrup. The Scandinavian flavor of the Island community is reflected in the more popular names in the telephone directory – Johnson, Jorgenson, Anderson, Bjarnarson, Gunnlaugsson – and by the recent completion of a Norwegian Stavkirke (Stave Church).

Circa 1910: Washington Island… Its … Advantages

Washington Island is of rock formation and in places its sides are rugged and precipitous. Especially is this so between West and Washington Harbors where the high rocky bluffs, rising precipitously out of the water, filled with nooks and caves and covered with evergreen trees, make up a scene picturesque if not grand. Around Detroit Harbor and Jackson Harbor the beach is more sloping. The island originally was covered with forest trees, predominantly evergreen and these are still found where they have not been cleared for the purposes of the citizen and farmer. The climate is mild and equable, owing to the near proximity of the lake. In the spring the season is much retarded from that of inland places and fruit and vegetation is comparatively safe from the late frosts which make havoc in most sections. This combined with the soil which seems peculiarily adapted to fruit, is rapidly making this section one of the best for orchard regions. Apples grow luxuriantly without care. Many acres of cherry trees are now being cultivated for commercial purposes. Small fruits abound and do well.

The soil here gives a peculiar flavor to peas and other vegetables, and they are much sought by the canneries for this reason. Much of the farm land is devoted to raising such crops under contract at very profitable prices. Potatoes are extensively raised. The island has a population for about 1200, with several hundreds additional during the summer season. The accompanying cards of many of the businessmen show that general business is well represented. The island is rapidly progressing and there are opportunities; for instance there is a room for a banker, factories, newspaper, creamer, cannery, etc. For those who wish investment in a commercial fruit proposition, there is not better opportunity offered anywhere. This will bear the strictest investigation. Summer resort people are coming of themselves. There are many desirable places around the beach that can yet be bought for summer residences. This is a good investment as prices are constantly rising. The citizens are intelligent and law abiding. They are becoming aroused to their opportunities, and the future for Washington Island is perfectly assured. Any business man whose card is in this directory will be pleased to answer inquiries.

(Reprinted from a 1910 Souvenir- Business Directory and posted on this website with permission from L. Gordon from the “Washington Island INSIGHTS, visitor guide book 1988”)

Washington Island Historical Archive Committe (1989)

Town of Washington
Washington Island,
Wisconsin 54246

Washington Island, Wisconsin

Washington Island is located about seven miles off the tip of Door County peninsula. Geologists say that millions of years ago the island was part of the mainland. It is one of a group of 20 islands that separate Wisconsin and upper Michigan. Many of these islands have interesting histories, but are now isolated. Washington Island alone has an interesting past and a promising future.

The water separating the Island from Wisconsin mainland has been given the ominous name of Deaths Door, or as the French call it, Port des Mortes. In spite of the name, these waters are perfectly safe for modern navigation. Early settlers often crossed in row boats and in the summer of 1953, a Milwaukee man swam across the Door. The name dates back to the time when a war party of 300 Indians tried to cross in canoes on a stormy night. They all lost their lives and thus began the legend that the waters were infested with an evil spirit.

The first inhabitants of the Island were Indians. Records show that Indians lived here as late as 1860. The warlike Winnebagos and later the Potawatomis were among the first. When the Iroquois Indians of New York secured guns from Dutch traders in 1617, they waged successful war against the neighboring tribes. History tells that those who escaped fled to Washington Island.

In 1679, LaSalles famous Griffon left the harbor of the Island loaded with furs; it was never heard of again and it seems probable that it was lost in the Door.

The Island did not receive its name until 1816. The Federal Government sent three ships of sailors to Green Bay to prevent the English from inciting the Indians against the American colonists. One of these vessels, the “Washington”, became separated from the others on the second night out and put into the nearest harbor. It waited there several days for the other boats. During those days, the men rambled over the Island, and in honor of their vessel gave the name “Washington” to both the island and the harbor that had sheltered them.

Before the Civil War, there was a negro settlement of nine families at what is now called West Harbor. It is thought that these negroes were runaway slaves who found refuge here.

In the 1860’s there was an Irish village on the West side of Washington Harbor. On the East Side of the same harbor are still the remains of what was once called Dutch Village.

The town of Washingon was organized June 20, 1850. Amos Sanders was the first Town Chairman and H. D. Minor was the first Town Clerk.

The first Icelanders who came to Washington Island in 1870 were fishermen. They wrote to their friends in Iceland and encouraged them to come too. The names of those first settlers are the same as those of their descendants who still inhabit the Island:  Gislasson, Gudmundsen, Gunnlaugsson, Einerson, and Johnson.

Fishing was the leading industry of these early settlers. At Jackson Harbor, a fleet of boats would leave at day break and return in the early afternoon with their catch of whitefish, herring, or chubs. The trout that also attracted earliest fishermen are now being sought by sports fisheremen.

Agriculture also was an important industry. There were many herds of cattle and the cheese factory was known for its excellent Island cheese. Potatoes were an important crop and the potatoe harvest in September was one of the busiest times of the year. There are now only a few part-time cattle farms left.

Many of the Island men were Great Lakes sailors. Almost all the grown men could reminise about their year or more as a Great Lakes sailor. Some have continued their work and are now Captains and Chief Engineers on ore freighters that travel the Lakes.

Because of its cool summers, beautiful scenery and good fishing, the Island has always attracted tourists which is now the main industry. Many attractive cottages have been built along the beaches where summer friends have their summer homes. There are attractive hotels and cottages for those who can spend only a short time here.

Getting to the Island is an interesting experience even for those who have crossed the Door hundreds of times. There is a fleet of five ferries that cross from Detroit Harbor Dock on Washington Island to Northport Dock at the end of Highway 42 from one trip a day in the winter to twenty five trips at the height of the summertime tourist season. The 35 minute boat ride is usually calm and pleasant, but if the wind is strong, it can be as rough as an ocean voyage and occasionally the passengers become seasick. Since the distance is short, this never lasts long.

A Ghost Story

The Phantom Ship Griffin

Green Bay Harbor. The phantom ship Griffin lurks in the fog off this pleasant lakeside community. The ship belonged to Robert Cavelier de La Salle, the famous French explorer. At the time it was the largest vessel to sail the Great Lakes, and Indians believed the 60-foot-long ship was an affront to the Great Spirit. Metiomek, an Iroquois prophet, placed a curse on the Griffin. On August 7, 1679, La Salle docked the ship on Washington Island in Green Bay harbor and embarked on a canoe trip down the St. Joseph River to search for a water link to the Mississippi River. His ship returned to Niagara on September 18 and was never seen again, except as a ghostly outline in the fog. Legend says the Griffin “sailed through a crack in the ice,” fulfilling the Indian curse. (The town of Green Bay is in northeast Wisconsin, at the junction of I-43 and U.S. Hwy 41. The ghost ship sailed from Detroit Harbor on Washington Island, off Door Peninsula on the northeastern tip of Wisconsin.)

(Source: The National Directory of Haunted Places by Dennis William Hauck)

The following s’ory doesn’t name the Griffin, but the description sure seems to match. – Jim

The Vanishing Ship

Considering the vast number of ship wrecks in the Door Passageway, it would be amazing if there weren’t some unusual tales involving that treacherous area of water between Washington Island and the northern tip of the Peninsula.

It was an overcast night in late July. An old moon hung low in the sky, lending a yellow glow to the wispy clouds surrounding it. The Kelly, a small cruiser, was coming through the Door from the east headed for Gill’s Rock to tie up for the night when her crew saw a sight they’ll never forget.

The two couples constituting that crew had spent the day in Rowley’s Bay exploring the Mink River and Newport State Park and had left in the late afternoon, planning to reach Gill’s Rock before dark. However, the protected waters of Rowley’s Bay had given no indication of just how rough the open water of Lake Michigan had become during the afternoon.

When they left the protection of Rowley’s Bay, they were faced with rolling three and four foot waves and a gale force wind that took their breaths away and strained the small boat’s motor. The trip to Gill’s Rock would take much longer than the morning trip over. The sun dropped below the tree line of Newport State Park, and dusk settled over the small boat.

After rounding Spider Island, they ran north along shore. The Peninsula offered some protection until they passed Gravel Island and crossed Europe Bay, but when they headed out around the North Port dock into open water, the small cruiser was buffeted by a strong northwest wind that whipped the waves into white caps. The cross currents in the Door waters made steering even more difficult. It was all the motor could do to push the craft through the rough waters.

Dusk had fallen making the Peninsula a dark, hulking shape to their left. A lone gull flew overhead, its wings flapping wildly as it too struggled to make headway in the strong winds.

The outline of Pilot Island and beyond that Detroit Island could be seen when they crested a wave. “Look, there’s a light!” yelled one of the women over the howl of the wind.

“It’s a ship. I can see lights on the ends and along the sides. It’s huge,” called her husband. They all peered through the night trying to catch a good look at the boat vaguely outlined in the gloom.

“Is it the ferry headed for Washington Island?” questioned one of the women. “How late is it? Would they still be running?”

As they crested the next wave, the ship passed just beneath the moon. Three masts, full sails billowing, were silhouetted against the yellow half circle of the moon. The boat itself, a wooden sailing ship of the type used in the Great Lakes in the 1800’s, was lit by the golden glow of the moon overhead. It cut through the rough water of the Door headed south, toward Gill’s Rock.

The small cruiser dipped into the trough of a wave. When it crested the top of the next wave, the ship had vanished. The small boat crossed where the tall-masted sailing ship had ridden in the waves just moments before, but it was gone as though it had never been.

(Source: The Ghosts Of Door County by Geri Rider, pages 31-34. Published 1992.)

Chester Thordarson

Chester H. Thordarson, May 12, 1867, lived his first few years in the north of Iceland. Emigrating from the port of Reykjavik in 1873, Hjortur, nearly 6, traveled with his parents, Gudrun Grimsdottter and Thordur Aranson, and sister Gudrun, 22, brother Grimnr, 19, sister Ingeborg, 13 and brother Arni, 4, arrived in Milwaukee, their U. S. port of entry. Hhortur’s father contracted typhoid fever and died a few months later.

A move to a Windsor, WI, farm, Dane County, with his mother and siblings brought his first opportunity for normal schooling. Thordarson later reported that he went to school there for a couple of sessions during summer. That was enough to get him a second grade education and a new name. His primary teacher, Ella Wheeler (Wilcox), later a successful poet and writer, encouraged Hjortur to adopt the first name, Chester. A three-year stay in Windsor, followed by another three years on a farm in Shawano County, WI found the Thordarson family and several other Icelandic neighbors heading for the rich lands of Pembina County, North Dakota. Without enough money to send everyone by train, the women, girls, and young boys went by rail, the nearest rail road station being forty miles from their destination. The men and older boys, with Chester nearly 13, the youngest person on the two month trek, followed by wagon trail with household goods, farm implements, and livestock to the Red River Valley. The Thordarson family resided on a farm near Gardar, ND.

Icelanders, among the most literate people in the world, take along books wherever they go. Chester could and did read books in Icelandic until his next opportunity for formal schooling. This time came when he joined his married sister, Gudrun, in Chicago. At eighteen, Chester enrolled in the fourth grade among children of ten. He didn’t mind because “all I wanted was the chance to learn,” he later said. At twenty he left school, having completed seventh-grade work.   Winding armatures on his first Chicago job brought Chester $4 a week. Books always a priority, took $1 of his $4 weekly wage. These purchases were the start of a book collection which was to become one of the most complete and valuable personal book collections in the world.  After two years winding armatures, Chester’s next job took him to St. Louis for two years where he helped install electric motors in street cars. Next, after a long rail trip to see the western US and Mexico, Thordarson took a job in Chicago with one of the two Chicago electric companies (which later merged together to form the Chicago Edison Company). By 27 years old, in 1894, Thordarson said he knew a little about electricity, motors, and dynamos, he read many science and general books, and had saved $75. In that year he married Juliana Fridriksdottir and started his own business. Juliana, also Icelandic born, had earlier emigrated from Eyrarbakki in south Iceland. Some of Juliana’s relatives lived in the Iclandic community of Washington Island.

Thordarson’s first opportunity of distinction came through his association with universities. The order came from Purdue University which requested building a half-million volt transformer to be exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis Fair, to be used for experimental purposes at Purdue thereafter. No one had ever built a transformer with the capacity for so high a voltage and Thordarson was given only 28 days for building. For this feat, Thordarson was awarded a gold medal. Eleven years later, Thordarson built a million volt transformer, and again received a gold medal for the accomplishment. One and a half years were spent designing then building this larger one.
Chester Thordarson’s Chicago business, the Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company, located at 500 West Huron Street, from small beginnings grew over time to a multi-million dollar factory, covering several blocks, and employing some 2000 workers. By 1904, Chester Thordarson would be widely known by the electrical community.

In 1910 Chester bought a large portion of Rock Island from Washington Island resident, Rasmus Hanson, whose great grand-daughter still lives on the island. Over the next few years Thordarson added the rest of the available 778.53 acres to his estate.

Thordarson made many changes to Rock Island. In 1914 Thordarson restored the Jacobsen house on the east side (near the present water tower) and built a dock. In the spring of 1924, Thordarson’s crew cleared 30 acres on the west side of Rock Island. Thordarson made plans in 1926, and during 1927 to 1931 constructed the boathouse and other stone buildings structures. Also at this time the water tower on the east side was built. Thordarson constructed a total of 14 buildings, a wall, hilltop gate and lookout tower on Rock Island. Icelandic artist Halldor Einarson worked, 1928-31, in Chester’s library in Chicago carving the oak furniture and on Rock Island carving the runic and block letters above the huge fireplace in Viking Hall. Using the Prose Edda (1220) as a reference for Nordic myths, Einarson carved on each of the 24 straight chairs one scene from one myth. Therefore, each straight chair illustrates a different myth. Names of principle characters were written in runic beneath each scene. The Great Desk, couch, swivel chair, tables, and other pieces were also carved, but not with mythical scenes.

Chester and his family enjoyed and worked on improving his Rock Island retreat in all seasons. He worked to have water and electricity in the buildings. He had an interest in botany, and landscaping. In a green house attached to Thordarson’s Rock Island residence, currently the SHelter Building, he grew plants and did research with plants. He brought flowers and seeds from Iceland and other countries. For his management of this estate as a preserve for natural landscape, native animals and wild flowers, the University of Wisconsin conferred upon he the degree of Honorary Master of Arts, in 1929.

In the 1940’s Chester and his family spent longer periods of time on Rock Island. He continued to add to his most valuable rare book collection. He seemed full of vigor and continued to work in his Rock Island workshop. In 1942 he told his cousin about his latest invention, a gas turbine. He assembled a model of it in his Rock island workshop, and was preparing to do some tests on it. In his lifetime, Chester had over 100 inventions, most of them patented. These ranged from electrical transformers for radios, parts of cars, to other non-electrical ideas.

Thordarson became ill in 1944. Julia took care of Chester until his illness got more serious, when he was taken to a Chicago hospital, where he died of heart failure, on January 6, 1945.

Chester’s will provided the opportunity for the University of Wisconsin-Madison to purchase most of the Thordarson rare book collection. In December 1946, university regents voted to buy the scientific library of 11,000 volumes for $300,000. The University added the rare book room to their Memorial Library to house the collection.

Thordarson’s two son’s and their families continued to enjoy Rock Island, until the early 1960’s. In 1965 the State of Wisconsin purchased Rock Island, the land and buildings, from Chester’s heirs for $170,000. The Thordarson family sold the carved furniture by piece to private people. Most pieces in the Great Hall today (1996) have been donated back to the Park to keep the pieces together.

(Dated 1996, author unknown)