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Rock Island: Door County, Wisconsin's Ghost Town
I worked at Rock Island, Illinois but I was unaware of this Rock Island until I ran across it in a book Ghost Towns of Wisconsin, by William E. Stark. For the large part when we think of ghost towns we think of the boomtowns of the gold rush in the western states. Those are the ones that are promoted the most, but there are ghost towns throughout the country.
Wisconsin’s Door County as described by Stark is a”...rugged seventy-mile long peninsula which juts into the cold waters of Lake Michigan.” Rock Island is a half-mile from the north shore of Washington Island, which in turn is a forty-minute ferry ride from the tip of the Door County peninsula.
Like most things, geography has much to do with the history of this island, which is now a state park. Stark’s book describes it as “..an important stepping stone between Mackinac, Green Bay and the areas south and west.”
Rock Island Origins
Archeological findings show that Indians lived on Rock Island as early as 600 B.C. In the mid-1600’s Indians from the Huron tribe or Ontario came to the island and settledthere. Aboutfifty years later the Potawatomi dominated the island and built a palisade village, that is, a village surrounded by stakes driven into the ground for defense.
Explorers and missionaries from Europe used it as a stop along the Grand Traverse route, which was between Upper Michigan and Wisconsin. The first permanent European settlement in the Door Peninsula was small fishing village on the eastern shore of the island. These settlers later moved to nearby Washington Island and abandoned the original village. There are still some grave markers of some of the original settlers and Lilac bushes planted by the original settlers still bloom near what remains of the old homes.
From the 1830’s until the 1860’s a hundred people of so lived here, but before these white fishing villagers there was population on Rock Island. Frenchman Jean Nicolet went to Canada in 1618 and became an Indian interpreter under Samuel de Champlain. He was commissioned by the French government to explore the west in 1634 when he was thirty-six years old. It is unknown whether he actually visited Rock Island but he was certainly near it.
In August of that year he, along with several Indians, left Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay in a canoe. They passed and possibly stopped at Rock Island on the way to Green Bay they landed about ten miles north of the present city of Green Bay.
There are both archeological and documentary indications that French explorer Cavalier de La Salle’s men spent the winter of 1678 there while their ship, which was the first on the Great Lakes, was lost. In recent years wood plank from the original Potawatomi palisade and some buttons from a French officer’s army greatcoat and British clay pipes have been found in recent years.
As the fur trade became less important in Wisconsin in the 19th Century the French were no longer there and after the War of 1812 the British left as well. There was still an Indian village on the island in the first part of the nineteenth century but not many whites visited or lived on the island. In 1830 the territory had a population of about 40,000 Indians and about 3,000 whites.
Ships, lighthouse and commerce on the Great Lakes
By 1832 thirty different owners and captains of vessels on the northern Great Lakes petitioned the United States Congress for a lighthouse on the Isle of Pou or Pottawattamine Island (names for what is now known as Rock Island) at the entrance of Green Bay in Lake Michigan.
A government crew came to the island four years later and built a forty-foot light tower. A house for the keeper was built as well. It was the first lighthouse in Wisconsin. It was 1836 and Wisconsin became Wisconsin Territory.
When the first census was taken the only white residents of Rock Island were Louis Labute and his wife. With the completion of the lighthouse some summer residents settled there permanently. They were mostly fisherman and some trappers. Other than Green Bay it was the first settlement in northeastern Wisconsin.
Tensions and resolution
According to stark in his book, the whites and Indians were getting along OK if not close. Then a near outbreak of hostilities occurred over a children’s squabble.
Some Indian boys were teasing the son of a widowed nurse about having to peel potatoes. The boy became annoyed at the Indian boys outside his window and threw a potato at them. As the potato flew through the glass window glass splinters caught the seven-year-old son of a chief in the eyes.
A leader of the colony took the mother of the boy who threw the potato to visit the Indian chief. He explained to the chief what had happened. The nurse mother helped the Indian boy to relieve pain. The Indian boy did lose sight in that one eye, but a serious confrontation was avoided. Relations between the Whites and the Indians actually improved after the incident
Decline of Rock Island
The island was declining in mid-century. The main parts of Door County were beginning to be more populated. There was a lack of good harbors and isolation tended to make life on the island less attractive and gradually the settlers went to Washington Island or the mainland.
In 1863 a log schoolhouse was built but it was a bit late as there were only seven families left on the Island withthat had school age children. The leader of the community, John Boon, died and the last of the resident fishermen left the island in 1890. For the next decade only the lighthouse keeper was a permanent resident.Chester Thordarson
An inventor and manufacturer Thordarson and his wife came to visit the Icelandic colony of Washington Island, as his father had been an immigrant from Iceland. They were very impressed with the Green Bay islands and bought all of Rock Island except for the lighthouse reservation. It was 1910 and they bought about 80 acres for a little over $5000.
He had an old frame house rebuilt in the fishing village, which was now deserted. He also had a stone water tower built. A boathouse and great hall cost a quarter or a million dollars and resembles an ancient Viking hall. Twenty masons took three years to build it.
Several stone cottages and a lodge built of logs were also built. Thordarson entertained a number of celebrities on the island.
The University of Wisconsin, in 1929, awarded him an honorary degree in architecture.Rock Island State Park
The island is now a state park. Tourists can sightsee, hike on trails, swim or visit the lighthouse and boathouse.
- For the more rugged there is camping available but the park is primitive. There are no facilities on the campground such as showers, flush toilets or stores. No vehicles are allowed so campers must carry their gear about 1/3 mile to the campground from the boathouse landing. Flush toilets are available at the state park offices at Jackson Harbor.
- Bring your own water, food, ice and anything else you need. Campfire wood can be bought from the park.
- Campsites should be reserved either on-line or by phone. The state park office number is 920-847-2235.
- Allow time. It is a two-hour drive from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
- Unless you have your own boat the only way to get there is on the Washington Island Ferry Line.