Washington Island: Refuge at Death’s Door

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.