Washington Island Fisheries

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residence, net house, and fish house with many barrels out front
Sivertson Residence, Net House, and Fish House, circa 1950s.

National Visual Inventory Cards 50-107


Some of the earliest buildings on Washington Island were built by Sam and Andrew Sivertson, of Norwegian descent, who began fishing at Isle Royale in the early 1890s. Aside from potential Native American use or activities on Washington Island, the Sivertson's were the first commercial fishermen to operate at this location.

In 1902, Washington Island also became the site of one of the first resorts at Isle Royale, established by Captain Walter Singer. Singer purchased a steamer to bring customers to his Washington Harbor resort, the Island House, and built additional vacation cabins and recreational buildings on his property. There are five structures that remain from Singer's resort. Although in close proximity to the Sivertson Fishery, the two were operated separately, and the fishery survived much longer than the resort development. When Singer's Resort finally closed for business commercial fishing activities increased on Washington Island. Many fishermen received permission from Singer to repurpose his former resort buildings for use as fishery buildings. Many of the buildings in the image gallery below are in fact resort buildings that these fishermen repurposed.

As at other fish camps, water was used for fishing-related activities and domestic purposes with one noticeable difference. Possibly as a result of the number of families; the fishermen of Washington Island had a separate dock for each purpose.

Although fishermen, summer residents, and tourists also occupied Rock Harbor, Washington Island was described as a settlement, a collective where people were not alone. There were more resorts, and as many as 20 fishing families lived there in the early 1900s. (Singer's Resort) even had a bowling alley and a dance hall.

Some of the Scandinavian fishing families developed more extensive camps than others, but their activities were the same: residences, fishing, occasional hunting, gathering plants for food and construction, and celebrations, particularly the Fourth of July. The location, the closest part of Isle Royale to the mainland, was central to fishing and housing. The numerous small coves and bays, and the amount of shoreline accommodated many fish houses and the related activities. Rabbits, moose, and berries were the primary food plants. An "extra super" raspberry patch was known on a nearby hill. Given the open space at the time, the number of families, and the hotel and resorts, the area was ideal for Saturday night social gatherings and Fourth of July celebrations.

Some families had relatives elsewhere on the Island, but the strongest connection was with Booth Island where the fish were picked up. The fishermen's wives had a water route between the two islands, which they rowed for social purposes.

The Sivertson Fishery is the last to remain in use on the island under a Special Use Permit. Surviving structures at the Sivertson Fishery are typical of a commercial Isle Royale fishery, and in addition to the necessary service buildings - fish houses, net houses, a residence, and docks - there is also a large collection of fishing equipment remaining on site that includes nets, net buoys, fish boxes, boxes of floats, and "sticks," as well as gas barrels and boats.

In addition to the Sivertson's Fishery, the site is also associated with Einar Ekmark, a Scandinavian fisherman who lived in the Art Sivertson Cottage until his death in 1986. Ekmark left his homeland of Sweden in 1929 when he was 24 and immigrated to Minnesota. In 1943, he came to Isle Royale with his brother Karl and began fishing.

(Toupal, et. al, 2002)

Isle Royale National Park

Last updated: February 8, 2021