History & Culture

Go into the woods today and when you think you are in wilderness never seen before by man, you'll fall into a prospector's abandoned test pit or you will stumble over the brush-grown ties of an old logging railroad. Struggle all day to breast the swamps and rocky hills and you may end up in a thicket concealing a rusty four-hundred pound stove that some forgotten trapper carried into camp piece-by- piece fifty or seventy years before you.

John Bartlow Martin,
Call It North Country

Devils Island
Devils Island

Though today a walk along most trails on the Apostle Islands will give the hiker a feeling of wilderness, it's well to remember that not so long ago, people called these islands home. Men and women lived and worked on these islands, babies were born, children played and went to school.

Over the years, people have attempted to wrest a living from the island environment by farming, logging, quarrying building stone, and by fishing in the waters of Lake Superior. Island inhabitants have included early Native Americans, pioneer farmers, commercial fishermen, lighthouse keepers and their families.

If you know what to look for, you can still see evidence of their homes and workplaces in the island landscape.

Sometimes the traces of past lives are easy to spot. The light stations, with their towers and houses and outbuildings, are well known, and visited by many. Other sites, less often visited, offer equally obvious evidence of human presence. Follow the loop trail on Basswood Island from the group campsite southward: as you approach the island's southern tip, you will suddenly find yourself at an overlook high above the remains of the Bass Island Brownstone Quarry. Stone walls like fortress ramparts loom above the quarry pit; here and there chunks of rusted iron equipment lie on the forest floor.

The traces of prior lives are not always as dramatic as a lighthouse nor so massive as the walls of the brownstone quarries. It takes a keen eye to spot a low masonry foundation in the woods near group campsite "A" on Sand Island, and even if one finds it, there seems nothing remarkable about the spot. Yet these are the remains of the one-room schoolhouse where the children of Sand Island's farmers and fishermen once learned their ABC's.

The waves of Lake Superior hide other stories from ready view; the waters around the island have been the scene of many shipwrecks. Sailors on doomed vessels looked toward the island shores with hope and desperation; some made it to safety, some did not. The Wisconsin State Underwater Archeology office provides detailed information and vivid accounts of several of these shipwrecks at their Lake Superior Shipwrecks web page.

Shaw Point on Sand Island
Shaw Point on Sand Island
A detailed history of the movement to create a national park in the Apostle Islands, by Harold "Bud" Jordahl. (A very large 19mb pdf)

Trollers Home, South Twin Island
Trollers Home, South Twin Island

People and Places, a Human History of the Apostle Islands
Historic Resource Study of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (A large 8.7mb pdf)

Oak Island spring stream
Devils clearing
Let the Sun Shine In: Keeping Up Our Cultural Landscapes

If you’re a home owner, you know the joys and sorrows of keeping up a yard: mowing, pruning, weeding flower beds, removing dead trees before they fall on something expensive, thinning out crowded trees, and cutting brush. Now imagine that your yard is on a far off Lake Superior island.

Article appears in the 2013 Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Newspaper - Around the Archipelago

Last updated: January 7, 2016

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