Commercial Fishing on Isle Royale, 1800-1967
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Fishing continued after the American Fur Company closed its operations, with independent fishermen using the old fish houses. William Ives, when making his survey of the archipelago, found fishermen and Indian women occupying fish houses in the Hay Bay area and at Checker Point. In addition, Indians from the Pigeon River region fished the Grace Point area, and sold fish to the miners. In 1852, three or four barrels of siskowit were shipped to Marquette, in addition to several barrels of fish oil. During the 1860's the old American Fur Company fish house and the Amygdaloid and Isle Royale mining company building on Fish Island were both occupied by fishermen. By 1866 a fishery was established on Wright Island for commercial production of fish oil. Here siskowit were caught, boiled down in iron vats, and the oil extracted. Once or twice during the season a schooner would put in to pick up the fish oil. In 1866 Alfred Merritt, aboard the schooner Pierpoint, put in at Washington Harbor with 1500 kegs for the fishermen. On the schooner's return a few weeks later, all the kegs were filled with fish.

By the 1880's there was a boom in fishing on Isle Royale. Several things contributed to this. A major factor was the building of railroads to the western Lake Superior area and the growth of such cities as Ashland and Duluth. A further factor was the development of refrigerator cars and techniques for freezing fish, so that fresh fish could be sold in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, and in the East.

During this time, the technology of fishing changed. Steam vessels supplemented the schooners. These were known as fishing tugs. Some fished with large gangs of gill nets, and were designated gill net steamers; others were chiefly employed in carrying fish to market. These vessels were about 75 feet in length, and propelled by screw propellers; the gill net steamers had net rollers on their bows, and sizeable holds in which to store the fish. In addition, several types of specialized fishing boats were developed. The most famous of these was the Mackinaw boat, about 25 to 35 feet in length, with sharp ends, the bow much fuller than the stern, a shallow keel and, center board. Of this type one writer said:

"She is either schooner rig or with a lug sail forward, is fairly fast, the greatest surf boat known, and with an experienced boat man will ride out any storm, or if necessary beach with greater safety than any other boat. She is comparatively dry, and her sharp stern prevents the shipment of water aft when running with the sea. They have been longer and more extensively used on the upper lakes than any other boat, and with less loss of life or accident.

Though gill nets were commonly used, pound nets were also in use. The pound net was introduced on Lake Superior in the 1870's, around L'Anse, and some pound net crews operated off Isle Royale.

Scientific study of the fisheries also began about this time. The office of United States Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries was established about 1871. In that year James Milner made a study of the fisheries of the Great Lakes in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution; this study is still a major source of information on the economics of the fishing industry, the equipment and the life of the fishermen. In 1887 a lengthy analysis of the fisheries of the Great Lakes appeared. There was at this time much interest in artificial propagation of whitefish, and the report carried a series of accounts of these experiments. Dredging experiments, carried on in collaboration with the Army Engineers, gave information on the food of the fish. There was local concern about the decline of the whitefish, and fishermen in Duluth petitioned the Commission to develop fish conservation policies.

Fishermen operating on Isle Royale in the 1880's operated out of Duluth, Houghton, and Bayfield. They had boats and gill nets, and would camp on the island during the fishing season.

During the 1880's from twenty to sixty crews came annually from the mainland, arriving about June and leaving in November. They fished mostly in the Washington Harbor, Siskiwit Bay and Rock Harbor areas. Most fished with gill nets, though there were a few pound nets set in Siskiwit Bay. Steamers from Duluth made regular trips to the island to pick up fish, most of which were sold fresh, and to carry supplies to the fishermen.

During the early period the fishermen had been mostly Cornishmen, Englishmen, and Frenchmen. By the turn of the century these nationalities began to drift to other occupations, and their places were taken by Scandinavians. Norwegians, Swedes, and Swede-Finns (Finns who lived in Finland but spoke Swedish) came to Isle Royale, either as seasonal fishermen or as year around residents. Both the physical environment and the occupation were comparable to that of their home lands; and early fishermen wrote letters home, which brought brothers and neighbors to the Lake Superior area.

Changes occurred at the turn of the century with the development of the gasoline boat. Often the sail boats would become becalmed and the crews would have to row the boats back to shore. About 1905 or 1906 the first power boats were used. They were powered by what was called the "hot head" or "hot tube" engine. A rod in the cylinder head would be heated by a blow torch until it became red hot, and then gasoline from a tank with 30 pounds of pressure would be turned on, and would ignite. These were one or two cylinder engines and were reliable so long as the blow torch operated; however, they could not be used in a closed boat because of the gasses that escaped from them. The engines were considered quite reliable, and fishermen around Isle Royale used them for many years, until they began using the spark ignited engine.

Chippewa Harbor—A. C. Lane photo, 1896

Isle Royale Coastline—A. C. Lane photo, 1896

Edisen Fisher—N. P. S. photo, about 1962

Wright Island Fishery—N. P. S. photo, 1950's

Sketch diagram of pound net by Zeb V. McKinney, 1967

Sketch of gill net by Zeb V. Mckinney

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Last Updated: 02-Apr-2007