Thrusting into Lake Michigan like the thumb on Wisconsin’s mitten, the resort region of Door County is like a mellow Midwestern version of Cape Cod, a summer getaway spot full of dunes and rambling beaches, panoramic sea cliffs, tiny fishing villages (now tiny resort towns), and charming B&Bs. But what if you need to get away from Door County? Seven miles away, across a swirling channel, perches Washington Island, a welcoming haven throughout centuries of stormtossed history.
First it was the Potawatomi Indians, who camped out here when the warlike Winnebagos drove them from the peninsula. Unfortunately, when the Potawatomis paddled 300 war canoes back over to attack their enemies, they drowned in the treacherous strait, forever after known as the Door of Death. In 1617, the island provided refuge for Huron Indians hiding out from the armed rampage of Iroquois Indians from New York. The French called the strait Port des Morts; in 1679, it apparently claimed the fur-laden ship of famed French explorer Robert LaSalle. In 1816, the yetunsettled island got its modern name from the crew of an American ship, the Washington, who were stranded here for days after getting separated from their fleet.
Eventually, Death’s Door became safer to navigate, after lighthouses were built around the strait—you’ll see two on Pilot and Plum islands as you steam across on the car ferry from Door County. While most visitors today come to Washington Island each June to August for beaches, nature walks, and fishing, in earlier generations it offered safe haven to all sorts of refugees—a pre–Civil War settlement of runaway Negro slaves, Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, and a sizable population of Scandinavian fishermen, hoping for a new start in the Great Lakes. An overwhelming number were Icelanders, who first came here in 1870 (it’s America’s second-oldest Icelandic community). On Main Road, look for an assemblage of traditional Norwegian carved log buildings called Den Norske Grenda; there’s a wonderful handcrafted Norwegian Stave Church across from the Trinity Lutheran Church on Town Line Road; and the Norse Horse Park raises several heritage breeds of Scandinavian horses, sheep, and poultry.
Then what if you need to get away from Washington Island? On the island’s east end, in Jackson Harbor, a pedestrian-only ferry will take you on a 15-minute journey to tiny Rock Island. Though it’s now a state park, for many years Rock Island was the private retreat of C. H. Thorardsen, an Icelandic immigrant who made a fortune in electrical manufacturing in Chicago, and his wife, a daughter of Washington Island’s Icelandic community. Their summer home here is now open to the public, a traditional Scandinavian stone boathouse decorated with Icelandic-style runic carvings. Rock Island’s other attraction is the oldest lighthouse in northern Lake Michigan, now restored to its 1910 appearance, and aptly named after—who else?—the Potawatomi Indians, those first refugees to brave Death’s Door.