Rock Island

Rock Island

OK, the plan was to start in southern Door County and work up to the northern point, but I just can’t wait. I’m starting at the top with Rock Island and will work my way down instead. I know, I know you should save the best for last, but hey – it’s my blog and I want to apologize for a lapse in posts. Real (paying) work has put a crimp in my free time for blogging. I say that with lots of mixed emotions.

From Washington Island, it’s only about six miles to Rock Island – by ferry of course. Most of its 912 acres are owned and managed by the Wisconsin DNR as Rock Island State Park. Rock Island is Wisconsin’s most isolated park – very wooded and largely undisturbed. There are about 40 pretty rustic campsites. With no cars or bikes allowed, there are about 6-1/2 miles of well-maintained walking trails all the way around the island, as well as another 6 miles that zig-zag across it.

A little history.
In 1910, much of the island became the summer estate of Chester Thordarson, a wealthy inventor who made his fortune as a pioneer in the field of high-voltage electrical equipment. Born in Iceland in 1868, the Icelandic community on Washington Island must have felt a little like home, so he purchased 775 acres on nearby Rock Island for $5,375.

In the 1920’s he built the Viking Hall and Boathouse. With its massive presence and beautiful red roof it makes quite an impression as you approach from the water. He built many other fabulous structures from local limestone, but the mansion that he planned for his wife on the east side of the island was never built. He was a nature lover and left the greater share of the island untouched. Wisconsin acquired the island in 1964 from his estate to become Rock Island State Park. I have pictures of some of the buildings and a little history, as well as a tale or two.

Onto the ferry!
Because my trip was so late in the season, the first ferry to Rock Island – Karfi Ferry – was not till 10am and there would only be three ferries returning to Washington Island at 12:15, 2:15 and – since I didn’t bring my camping gear – 4:15. I’m not that fast of a walker these days and I knew I would be taking lots of pictures, so I knew that 6-1/2 miles was not going to get walked by me today. Just how much of this island I would be checking out remained to be seen.

The day started out cloudy, cold and VERY windy. As I boarded the open-air ferry for Rock Island with my four layers, I was thinking about heading for my trunk for a fifth, but put on my gloves instead. The ride over was freezing and very choppy and I had doubts about my decision to make the trip at all. Once on the other side, things changed considerably – and it turned out to be a fabulous day.

The pictures above (notice the blue skies?) were taken after our return. Quite an improvement from when we left. Although still pretty windy, at least the sun was shining. The area around the ferry landing was really quite beautiful.

Since Rock Island is relatively close, you can see the boathouse from Washington Island. I had heard a lot about the boathouse, but I’ve seen a lot of boathouses. What could be so great about this one? Check out the picture at the top for a glimpse, but I’ll go with my normal m.o. and save the best for last.

First sights were a cool urn-full of flowers on a wall of rock and the Ranger’s Residence, which sits quite beautifully up high for a bird’s-eye view. And looking back – there’s that boathouse again!

Next up is the water reservoir. Chatting with a maintenance man at the boathouse, apparently this building with it’s reservoir replaced the water tower that still stands on the east side of the island. I guess Chester and his wife wanted to build their house on the eastern side of the island, but then thought better of that once they realized it was much closer to Washington Island from the western side. I didn’t make it that far, so I have no pictures of the water tower, but this building was really cool.

Just past that is all that remains of a Japanese Garden that Thordarson had built. Apparently quite lavish at the time, he had it bulldozed after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

The walk to the lighthouse started out a little steep, but leveled out nicely.

The Pottawatomie Light is a lovely sight. The original lighthouse – lit in 1836 – is the oldest light station in Wisconsin and on Lake Michigan. The existing structure replaced the original in 1850 after some crumbling began. In 2004, the “Friends of Rock Island” restored it, painting walls with cheerful colors and adding furnishings that were typical in 1910. Even though the lighthouse opened many years earlier, 1910 was when there was finally a well on property, which meant no more trips to the lake for water. The “Friends” recruit volunteer docents to live there for a week at a time in summer and keep it open for tourists. Since I’m a little pokey, the larger group of folks went through just before me. When I arrived, I had my tour guide all to myself. It amazes me the dedication of the lighthouse keepers – and their families – working so hard to keep ships safe in the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan.

“Rock Island Passage, bounded by Rock Island on the south and St. Martin Island on the north, is the widest passage connecting Green Bay and Lake Michigan. In 1832, thirty Detroit merchants, masters, and owners of vessels petitioned Congress for a light to mark the southern side of Rock Island Passage claiming, “There is no point on the Northern Lakes, where in the opinion of your Memorialists, a light house is more imperiously required than this.”” – READ MORE

Manning this lighthouse also meant keeping track of the number of ships that traveled through the passage between Rock and St. Martin Islands. Although sometimes a little further to travel, this passage was wider and way more appealing than the route that passed between the tip of the mainland and a group of islands, which includes Washington Island. Known as “Death’s Door” (also known as the Door of Death), that passage gave Door County its name.

Just to the right of the lighthouse, there was a trail that lead to the beach. I took the rock and log stairs and the trail to the steps, but waves were crashing below, so I opted to skip the actual steps that went down to the lake. The view from above was very pretty and good enough for me! Just a note: the trail continues past this view to another scenic overlook and a cemetery, which would have been great. I went back to the lighthouse and back out to the trail thinking that was the way to those stops, but it wasn’t, so that will leave something else to see when hubby comes next time.

Since toodling to the lighthouse, with a tour and stops along the way took me TWO hours, I decided to head back down the way I came for a while and catch one of the shortcut trails. I found access to a beautiful sandy beach, which was a very nice stop past a rutabaga field of all things!

I had thought about spending the entire six hours exploring, but I was feeling it at about hour three and decided to finish up at the boathouse and catch the 2:15 ferry back. I have to leave some stuff to see when my husband comes with me next time, right?

The closer I got to this infamous boathouse, the more impressed I was. Since Chester Thordarson was born in Iceland, he built this fabulous Viking Hall Boathouse to stand as a monument to a rich history of Icelandic folklore. I’m not gonna say another thing, just show you the pictures! Hover over the photos for a caption, if available.

And that about does it for this day. We have been coming to Door County for years and have never gone to Washington Island, let alone Rock Island. I am so glad that I started this blog. I have good reason to explore the places I’ve never been before. And I hope you find a good reason to visit as well!

Next up: Washington Island

Happy trails,

Barbara Olson

Barbara Olson

More of the Door: Finale

More of the Door: Finale

More of the Door: Part One


  • Laurie

    The buildings are beautiful! Looks like a great place to spend a day!

    October 4, 2015 at 5:11 pm
    • Barbara Olson
      Barbara Olson

      Hardly any people and beautiful things to look at. That’s what I was looking for and that’s just what I got!

      October 4, 2015 at 6:58 pm

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